For those of you who follow us on Facebook or Twitter, you may have noticed our recent love affair with ice. Specifically, we’re Tweeting about the thrice-weekly ice baths we’ve been taking following our training sessions at Gym Jones. Training there is a whole different ball game, and after our first workout, we wondered whether we’d be recovered in time for our next session. Three days later. Enter our new favorite recovery tool – the ice bath.
The ice bath has long been used by professional athletes, long-distance runners and athletic trainers, but isn’t something your average gym-goer would think to incorporate into his or her recovery practices. For the weekend warrior, softball league participant or three-times-a-week exerciser, a post-workout ice bath probably sounds a little hardcore. And to some degree, it is – there’s nothing fun about sitting in a tub full (and we mean FULL) of ice for 15-30 minutes. But the recovery benefits far outweigh any potential short-term discomfort, and the effect it has on recovery is why we’re sharing our experience with you today.
The logic behind ice baths relates to the muscle damage that results from hard workouts. This damage is actually a good thing for our fitness. You train hard, which creates microscopic trauma to muscle and connective tissue. During your recovery period, those “microtears” repair themselves just a little bit stronger than they were before. (Say it with me, kids… you don’t get fitter while you are training, you get fitter while you are RECOVERING from training.)
But the damage done during a hard training session also produces muscle soreness and inflammation, which can interfere with subsequent training. Ice baths temporarily constrict blood vessels and decreases metabolic activity, which reduces swelling and tissue breakdown. And immersion allows controlled, even constriction around all muscles, effectively blunting microscopic damage that you may not even feel. (You may hit the tub to relieve sore quads, but your calves, hamstrings, and hip/knee/ankle connective tissues will all gain the same benefits.)
The second advantage involves a physiological reaction provoked by the large amount of muscle submerged. After the initial shock of the ice-cold water, the body responds with vasodilation – a rapid circulation which flushes the damage-inflicting waste from your system. Once out of the bath, the area warms up again, and new blood rushes in to help the healing process.
Ice Me, Please
Many benefits of an ice bath are localized to the immersed area. (You’ll get some anti-inflammatory benefits systemically, but the real goal is to target the stressed muscle groups.) If your workout was a shoulder smoker or a general conditioning session, an ice bath won’t hurt, but where this particular recovery tool really comes in handy is when you’ve got specific muscular stress in an area you can actually immerse in the icy water. (If you’ve worked an area you just can’t cover in ice, you might want to consider a contrast shower instead.)
If you’ve got a Jacuzzi tub and can submerge your entire body in the ice bath, you’ve got more “ice me” options than those of us with a normal bathtub. (It’s also a hell of a lot tougher to submerge yourself in, though – that ice-cold water over your chest is quite a shock to the system.) If you’ve just got a normal-sized bathtub, it’s going to be darn hard to completely submerge your upper body. In that case, use the ice bath primarily after what Rob calls, “mother-smucking leg day”, like heavy squats, sprint intervals, or the mountain of wall-ball, slam-ball, Airdyne calories and bear crawls we did last week.
About a week into our new training regimen, we were instructed by Rob MacDonald (known around Gym Jones as “Maximus”) to jump into an ice bath after a particularly “meaningful” session. Despite Melissa’s hesitation, when Rob tells you to do something, you do it, no matter how unpleasant. Which is how, 20 minutes later, we found ourselves lugging five bags of ice (50 lbs. in total) into the bathroom, cranking the tub water to cold, dumping in the ice and hitting the tub.
The first few minutes were so unpleasant, we’re hesitant to describe them here for fear you’ll all stop reading. (Please do not stop reading.) You can’t breathe. You think you might actually die. You think, “This CANNOT be healthy.” It makes your brain scream that something is seriously Not All Right with your body. But soon, your breathing steadies, your legs and torso go all red and numb and it’s really not that bad. No, really.
We traded off in five minute segments the first time, accumulating 15:00 in total. (Since then, we realized it’s easier just to get in and stay in, doing all our time at once.) Getting out of the bath was a challenge since we couldn’t feel our legs, but we quickly dried off, hobbled over to the couch, threw on some warm clothes, made some hot tea and shivered our way back to a normal body temperature.
The next day, we were amazed at how good we felt. The comparison between our first workout there (rough, no ice bath) and this workout (even more rough, plus ice bath) was astonishing. Our legs were mildly sore, but not destroyed. We were able to squat and run the next day with no problem at all, in fact, and went back to the Gym two days later ready to hit it hard again. In just one session, we had become ice bath converts.
The Chilly How-To
Ready to get started? Assuming you’ve got a standard bathtub, here’s our prescription. Grab three to five bags of ice – that’s 30 – 50 lbs. in total – from your local grocery store, convenience store or gas station. (More ice than that is overkill and can actually further damage muscles, and any less isn’t going to be cold enough.)
Next, you’ve got some pre-bath prep to take care of. Grab several towels (one for the bathroom floor, one for you, and possibly another small towel for behind your shoulder blades and/or to rest your elbows on in the tub). We always bring a chair into the bathroom, because it’s hard to stand for a few minutes after you get out. In addition, you may need someone to talk you through it the first time around – the chair, some good music, your favorite magazine or book and a friend willing to watch you suffer all come in handy.
This next tip is really important, especially for the men. For the love of Peter (and your Pauls), keep your underwear on. Ice cubes directly on your special parts will make the experience so much more unpleasant than it already is, and your legs get JUST as cold whether you’re wearing undies or not. We’ve also heard of folks wearing shirts and wool hats while soaking their legs, which may also help stave off shivers. On that note, make sure you’ve got some warm clothes at the ready – wool socks, warm pants and a warm sweater will help you bring your body temperature up faster post-bath. Finally, grab a watch or a timer of some sort, because you’re going to want to stick it out for at least 5:00 at a time.
Now you’re ready for the big show. Fill your tub with cold water – COLD, not luke-warm. Remember, the temperature of your tub will rise steadily with your body heat. Make sure the ice is crushed and not in giant blocks, and dump it all in. Now get in. Right now, don’t think about it, don’t hesitate… just get in, all the way, RIGHT NOW. Don’t give your brain a chance to rebel, because if you balk here, you might not ever get up the nerve to get in.
Now, breathe. Just breathe. We promise, you are not dying. You’ll have to fight your body’s “flight” mechanism for the first 2-3 minutes, which is why having a friend with you is such a good idea. Let them talk you through it, focus on your breathing, and just… sit. It helps to have your toes out of the water – we rest them on a 6” foam roller at the bottom of the tub, but if you’ve got neoprene socks, you can wear those too. It also helps to lean back against the wall, loosen your death-grip on the side of the tub and do your best to just RELAX. Eventually, your breathing will return to normal, everything from your belly-button down goes numb, and it’s actually pretty tolerable.
You’ve gotta stay in for at least 5:00 this first time around – but shoot for a solid 15:00. Dallas will sometimes soak for up to 30:00, but that’s about as long as you should stay in. The benefits don’t continue forever, as muscle and tissues will eventually tense up when exposed to that kind of cold for too long. The first time, we read scientific journals to each other to take our minds off the cold, but at this point we just hang out in the tub with a book or magazine until the timer goes off.
The Post-Bath Wrap-Up
When your time is up, be really careful getting out of the tub – if you’ve done it right, you won’t be able to feel your legs. Immediately get out of your wet clothes, dry off completely, and put on your warm stuff. Do whatever you can to warm up – move around, don’t sit still – but resist the temptation to jump into a hot shower right away. Let your body warm up naturally, and allow that swift rush of blood to continue the recovery process.
Another word of caution – expect to shiver for twice as long as your bath. That means you’ll be shivering – really shivering, teeth chattering and everything – for 30 minutes following a 15 minute bath. (So don’t plan on making any business calls or leaving the house for a little while.) Finally, a cup of warm tea or soup will help this process along, and make you feel more comfortable while you’re warming up.
So there you have it – our guide to the ice bath. Try it after your next front squat 5×5 or track repeats and let us know what you think. Got your own ice bath tip or trick? Share it in comments.