In the world of professional athletics, ice bathing is a relatively common and sought-after recovery method. Following a particularly grueling or strenuous workout, many athletes swear by their short stints in icy water. However, outside of the pros, ice bathing isn’t as heavily used, thanks to either a lack of access to cold therapy equipment or simple hesitation.
For any at-home athlete, ice bathing can often be a great tool to utilize, but one particular group of athletes should really consider taking a cold plunge; runners. While all athletes can (and do) have intense training schedules, runners rely heavily on the day-to-day stamina and strength of their muscles, more so than many other athletes. From long-distance runners to sprinters, muscle recovery is perhaps the most crucial post-workout focus for running athletes, as any slight drop in performance can make a significant impact on their times.
If you’re a runner not already aboard the ice bath hype train, you’re probably asking;
“Why do athletes take ice baths anyways? What do ice baths do?”
Beyond the physical relief and recovery an ice bath can provide, you might also find some psychological benefits along the way! So sit down (maybe somewhere warm), and dig into our shortlist of the benefits of ice baths for runners.
Athletes and Ice Baths
Now, a small disclaimer before we get into the rest of this article. Ice baths can make for a fantastic recovery experience, and building up a consistent habit of cold water immersions may benefit you even more than you realize! However, ice baths shouldn’t be the only recovery technique you use.
We still recommend doing active recovery, stretching, massaging, and yoga as other forms of post-workout recovery. The ice bath shouldn’t replace these techniques but rather act as an additional way to rest and recover. If you want to learn more about active recovery techniques or how to fully optimize your athletic recovery, consult a physical trainer or doctor!
Benefits of Ice Baths
If you think about it, ice water as a recovery tool makes a lot of sense. We’re already used to icing our injuries and sore muscles, so why not expand that experience? This is the basic premise behind the cold tub. Imagine wrapping your entire body in an ice pack for a few minutes, and you’re on the right path.
If you’ve never tried it before, it might sound suspicious, but trust us, a dip in a cold bath can make a significant impact on your workouts. We’ll go over the main physical benefits of taking an ice bath, as well as how those benefits are best applied to running!
Helps Tired Muscles
One of the biggest roadblocks to a workout can sometimes be your own muscles. If you consistently work out, you’ll know this problem well. You work out intensely one day, and when you go to the gym in the following days, you feel like you can’t do as much, thanks to your aching and tired muscles.
This is doubly true for runners because the muscles that you’re using on a day-to-day basis (your leg muscles) are almost always in use! Here is where a cold plunge tub comes into play.
After a workout, your muscles feel sore for two reasons. One is due to the micro-tears that form in your muscle fibers during the exercise. These tears are natural and allow you to build larger muscles over time. The second reason, however, is thanks to the metabolic waste that builds up after your workout.
However, when you go into a cold tub, these waste products (mainly lactic acid) begin to clear out more effectively. This, alongside the decreased nerve impulses that cold water can provide, reduces muscles soreness, leaving you more refreshed for the next workout!
Improved Stress Performance
Ice baths aren’t just good for your muscles; they can be good for your brain too. When you enter cold water, your body goes into a state called oxidative stress. During oxidative stress, certain chemicals are produced in the body, causing imbalance and physical stress. However, in a study conducted in 1999, it was found that repeatedly dipping into cold water can train your body to adapt to this oxidative stress.
A similar occurrence happens with the stress hormone cortisol, as exposure to cold water over time helps to decrease cortisol levels. To go past the science jargon, it trains your brain to be better during stressful situations!
As a runner, training your body and mind to be more resilient in the face of stress can give you a big boost when it comes time to race.
To wrap up our exploration of ice bath benefits, let’s look at what happens to a few major bodily systems when you take a cold dip. Firstly, your central nervous system is activated as soon as you hop into the water. On contact, your brain releases the chemical norepinephrine, which is involved in mood control, attention, and vigilance. Norepinephrine also naturally constricts your blood vessels, bringing blood closer to your vital organs and slowing down circulation.
Then, when you get out of the tub later, your vessels warm up and expand once again, which helps increase blood flow and improve circulation all around. By manually “tricking” your nervous and cardiovascular systems, you can flush more lactic acid and metabolic waste from your body while simultaneously improving circulation!
For runners, this can help rejuvenate your leg muscles and speed the recovery of the most heavily affected parts of your body.
Taking the Cold Plunge
We’re not saying it’s a requirement for runners to take cold showers or baths; far from it. In fact, research shows that cold plunges are most effective for physical recovery when they are used after intense workouts, not every workout.
What we are saying is that you might want to give cold baths a try, especially if it can result in an improved performance on the track! Plus, if you think that a cold plunge could be the right choice for you, you’re in the perfect spot!