Ask the Expert: Are Ice Baths Beneficial?

Yes, they sound unpleasant. But are they worth it?

Ice bath

Ice baths at Speedo’s ice swim. Ice bath photo via Facebook

To us, the idea of climbing into a tub of ice-cold water seems among the most unpleasant experiences of all time, especially after a grueling gym session. But with trainers and athletes constantly extolling the virtues of post-workout ice baths, we decided to find out, once and for all, if the chill is worth it. We asked Joe McConkey, a coach who specializes in injury prevention at Boston Running Center, for his expert opinion.

Q: Should we be taking ice baths? Are they really beneficial?

A: Ice baths are beneficial because they expedite the healing process by reducing inflammation and flushing out waste products in the cells and blood. This allows athletes to recover and return to normal training more quickly.

Ice baths can be utilized by any athlete, no matter what level, so long as the stimulus was enough to initiate delayed soreness and fatigue. For some advanced athletes this may be a hard track session, and for beginners it may just be an easy 5-mile run.

However, ice baths can impede natural healing processes that lead to supercompensation (i.e. a stronger, more resistance-free body).  For this reason, it is important to consider the purpose of the stimulus. If a workout was meant to challenge a runner to become more comfortable with a faster pace, i.e. speed intervals, the fatigue that ensues is to be expected, and this natural process of stress, then recovery, then supercompensation should not be interfered with. If, however, one is feeling leg fatigue or heaviness the day before a competition, having fresh legs is a priority over last-minute adaptations to training, and thus an ice bath the night before fits well.

Generally speaking, use enough ice so that you are not comfortable. I instruct my athletes to first submerge into cold tap water. Then when that is comfortable, add ice until your legs feel very cold, but not enough so that you feel you need to jump out of the tub. When the ice melts and you are feeling more comfortable, add more ice, and so on for six to ten minutes.