Long runs are a part of every runner’s training as they enable the body to adapt to greater distances safely and efficiently. But this also means that since it is a repetitive sport, you will be exerting the same muscle groups over and over again. Thereby, increasing your risk of injury and inflammation. One simple way to offset the risks is cold-water immersion or ice baths, a technique that is popular with many elite runners such as including Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe. Regulated ice baths help reduce inflammations and quicken the healing process; they also make you feel refreshed and ready for another day’s run.

The cold touch

The general belief in support of cryotherapy (the use of low temperatures for treatment) is that the cold combats the small tears (microtrauma) in the worn-out muscle fibers, and as a result, reduces the soreness caused through their repetitive use. Taking an ice bath constricts the blood vessels of the immersed region and helps flush out toxins and prevent tissue breakdown. Eventually, as the body warms up, the blood circulation increases and starts on the healing process, minimizing any further tissue damage. Overextended muscles are extremely prone to injury, and the occasional cold therapy can be regenerative in such cases.

It’s essential to remember, however, that ice baths should not be your go-to recovery ritual after each and every run. Physiologists claim that the inflammations caused by muscle wear help your body adapt to a higher fitness level and make you a stronger, fitter runner in the long run. Soaking yourself in ice after every other 2K may bypass such natural adaptation and prevent your muscles from reaching their true fitness potential.

Hurdler Dai Greene (L) and Jack Green take an ice bath after their training session (Image: Sports Illustrated)

The right time 

A compromise, however, can be struck by limiting ice baths for after runs that are particularly intensive, such as a marathon or a long training session, or in cases where a runner takes on a particularly long course after a considerable gap from training.

While training for a race, it makes sense to limit ice baths for the beginning few sessions, when inflammation is likely to be felt the most, or when your training suffers for a few days in a row because of it. As you get used to running longer, allow your muscles undergo the necessary adaptations to cope with advanced levels of training. Just before the race, you can go back to taking ice baths after the most intensive practice runs — it’ll help in the tissue healing process and also make you feel great after a grueling workout.

Taking the plunge

  • Arrange for at least a bag of ice and keep it close by near the bath where you’re planning to soak.
  • Fill in the tub with cold water, enough to submerge your waist and lower body when you sit inside.
  • To adjust to the cold better, sit in the tub and then empty the ice gradually. Be sure to wear a pullover, towel or waterproof jacket to keep your upper body warm.
  • Once you’ve added enough ice (ideal temperatures are between 12 – 16 degrees Celsius, but even less cold temperatures are beneficial for inflammations), wait inside for about 5-10 minutes. You can distract yourself from the cold by reading, talking on the phone or sipping a hot liquid.
  • Towel yourself dry after but do not immediately go in for a warm shower. Letting your body warm naturally for a while helps the healing process continue on its own. You can wear leg warmers or socks to reduce the cold or get under a blanket.

 

Most runners opt for an ice bath only after the most challenging and tiring of runs; and like any other therapy technique, it’s important to gauge how your body reacts to it after the first few baths before you make it a regular feature.

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