The Runner’s Guide to Ice Baths

Greg McMillan has been called “One of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World. He’s a National Champion runner and an exercise physiologist. Runners of all abilities, from new runners to age groupers to Olympians use the McMillan Running Calculator and his training and coaching to reach their goals. Visit www.mcmillanrunning.com to access all his training resources.

Eggs are good for you. Eggs are bad for you. Eggs are good for you. If you’re middle-aged like I am, you’re used to conflicting advice on everything from nutrition to stretching to training volume and intensity.

The same goes for ice baths. There are so many conflicting reports that it’s hard to know what to do. On the one hand, coaches and athletes have been using ice baths successfully for years. They find that ice bathing helps tired legs (and minds) feel better which means subsequent training sessions can be of a higher quality. Higher quality training (and the greater confidence that comes from it) typically leads to higher quality racing.

On the other hand, physiologists reveal that the inflammation from training (the feeling of slightly sore and “flat” legs) stimulates important fitness adaptations. If you shunt this inflammation with ice baths, you short circuit this important training process and may have less adaptation.

So, we’re stuck with the conundrum of wanting to feel better in training but also wanting the greatest adaptation from our hard work.

The best solution I’ve heard (and recommend to the athletes I coach) comes from U.S. 50K national champion and McMillan Running coach Emily Harrison. Harrison advises that runners periodize their ice bathing similar to how they structure their training. Here’s how:

“In order to get the most from the adaptation that comes from training stress, limit ice bathing in the initial part of your training plan. Use them only when the body gets really ‘beat up’ and your training quality is starting to suffer, not just after a hard workout but for several days in a row, ” Harrison says.

As your race approaches, however, you should use ice baths more often to freshen up your legs and add a little giddy-up to your stride.

According to Harrison, “As you get within a month of your goal race, you want to start feeling good in all your workouts. This builds confidence, and building confidence at this late stage in the training trumps any reduction in training adaptation, especially since you should have already built up your fitness in the preceding weeks.”

I really like this idea, as it seems to be the best of both worlds. Early in the training, you allow the legs to be a little sore and tired to create the maximal training adaptations. You only take an ice bath if your training quality suffers for several days in a row.

But, as your race nears, you care more about feeling good and having awesome workouts. In this peaking period, you take frequent ice baths (one after most all hard workouts) so your legs always feel fresh and your racing confidence grows.

That’s a win-win in my book and takes advantage of both sides of the ice bath debate.

Ice Bath How-Tos:

— Fill bathtub or large container with water so that your legs and hips will be submerged

— Add enough ice to lower the temperature of the water to 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit

— Bathe for approximately 15 minutes

Wimpy Tip:

If you often bail on the ice bath before numbness sets in, try this trick: First, fill the tub with cold water. Next, instead of adding ice and letting the water get cold, get in and submerge yourself. Then, add the ice. This way, the water gradually gets cold, allowing us wimps to get the full benefit of the ice bath. Of course, since the water is gradually getting cold, you’ll need to stay in the bath a bit longer. Twenty to 25 minutes usually works.

Other Options:

If cold isn’t your thing, note that coaches and athletes also find success with warm water therapies like a hot tub or Epsom salt bath. U.S. cross-country champion Amy Van Alstine says that she prefers the Epsom bath and finds it works best for her. As with most things in running, you are an experiment of one so you may have to try a few things and see what works for you.

Power of the Mind:

Enhance the effects of ice bathing by adjusting your mindset. Research has shown that athletes who believe the ice baths will help them get a great benefit over those who are skeptical. So, if you don’t “believe” in ice baths, either don’t do them or if you do take the plunge, remember that you’ll get better results if you begin to convince yourself of their effectiveness.

Next: Can we develop the ability to suffer the pain that comes along with long distance running? Read more from coach Ian Torrence about how we can prepare ourselves for feeling uncomfortable for long periods of time.

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