Ice, ice baby!

I have been running for around 6 years now and I have to admit that I have never been a fan of ice-baths. I suppose that in an attempt to avoid the unpleasantness of immersing myself in cold water, I imagined that they were only for elite athletes or only for injured athletes… of injured elite athletes. Basically I was too chicken!

Last year in March I went on a week long training camp to the Algarve with my coach, Nick Anderson, and a group of the runners he coaches. You can read about the week here. It was a great week of training with so many things that I would incorporate into my training if life and work didn’t get in the way so regularly – at least 8 hours sleep every night, training with a group of totally positive people, spending the day between two runs resting by the pool, hydrating and fuelling well, running off-road for most of the easy runs… the list goes on and on.
And there was something else; after every run we would arrive back at the hotel and all wade straight into the unheated outdoor pool.

Now I’ll admit that there is a world of difference between an unheated swimming pool and a proper ice-bath, but I think all of us on the camp realised the benefits of cooling our legs down immediately post-run. It is a habit that I have tried to resurrect in the last couple of weeks. But being the curious type I decided to try to understand what the benefits are and how plunging into cold water helps us as runners.

The theory

The basic theory is that by immersing oneself in cold water – ideally between 12 and 15ºC – blood vessels are constricted which reduces blood flow, swelling and tissue damage. There is also talk of an additional benefit once one gets out of the water, which is that the re-warmed muscles increase bloodflow post ice-bath and this helps “return the byproducts of cellular breakdown to the lymph system for efficient recycling by the body” (according to Nikki Kimball, a physical therapist in Bozeman, Montana, who was named USATF’s Ultrarunner of the Year in 2004, 2006, and 2007).

This is just the tip of the iceberg (I know, that was terrible… sorry) as far as cooling is concerned. The latest technology, adopted by those at the cutting edge of training methods like Alberto Salazar at Nike’s Oregon Project, is the cryosauna; an upright tube that athletes climb into and which is filled with liquid nitrogen which cools the athlete’s skin with temperatures as low as minus 170 degrees Celsius. Click here for a great interview by Steve Cram interviewing Mo Farah in a cryosauna . Quite an amazing bit of kit and dangerous if mis-used; only recently the US sprinter Justin Gatlin suffered mild frostbite from climbing into a cryosauna with wet socks on. Ouch!

The debate

There is a huge amount of debate in the running world about the potential benefits of ice-baths with many runners pointing out that there is very little, if any, scientific evidence for ice-baths delivering any advantage at all. Indeed a study published in 2007 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concludes with this statement: “The protocol of ice-water immersion used in this study was ineffectual in minimising markers of DOMS in untrained individuals. This study challenges the wide use of this intervention as a recovery strategy by athletes. “ (Effect of cold water immersion on repeated cycling performance and limb blood flow Br. J. Sports. Med. 2011;45:825-829)

However there are other studies that take the contrary view, in particular a study by the French Ministry of Sports which concludes by stating that “Overall, the results indicated that the WBC [specific whole body cryotherapy] was effective in reducing the inflammatory process. These results may be explained by vasoconstriction at muscular level, and both the decrease in cytokines activity pro-inflammatory, and increase in cytokines anti-inflammatory.” (Time-Course of Changes in Inflammatory Response after Whole-Body Cryotherapy Multi Exposures following Severe Exercise. Source, Research Department, National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP), Paris, France.)

To ice, or not to ice?

So where do we go from here? Well, I think that the scientists will continue to debate the issue for a while yet. For me, I take a slightly less scientific view. I believe that cooling my legs helps me recover from strenuous sessions and long runs more effectively. I also think that elite athletes like Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe would not use ice-baths and cryosaunas if they didn’t have a positive effect.

But more than anything I think that it may just be that leaping into a cold bath makes us feel like serious runners who are prepared to endure discomfort for the sake of improving our results and that adds immeasurably to the psychological strength we need to go hard in those sessions or on race day. I am a strong believer in the theory that one reason for the east African dominance in middle and long distance races (though not by any means the only explanation) is the hardship that the runners there know, which makes running feel like an easy option. That may also explain the dominance of other countries in the past, where strong economies now mean that few endure the sort of hardships that were common even in the UK a generation or two ago. Who knows, but for now I’ll be maintaining my ice-bath routine and secretly hoping there is a definitive study that says they do no good!

And I will leave the last word to David Terry, M.D., an ultrarunner who has finished the Western States 100 and the Wasatch Front 100, 10 consecutive times. “Ice baths don’t only suppress inflammation, but help to flush harmful metabolic debris out of your muscles” and with his record of ultra running, if he says it, it must be true!

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About simon

I run marathons. Everything else is a result of that.

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