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Ice baths: the cold hard facts

Cryotherapy, a technique where the body is exposed to extremely cold temperatures for several minutes, has become a popular trend for its rejuvenating benefits. But it has been one of the favored ways for athletes to recuperate for quite some time. Not convinced? Read more about the benefits before taking a cold plunge.

 

There are many pieces of advice around ice baths out there, and, unfortunately, much of it is conflicting. What seems to generally be agreed upon (like so many things) is that if you think it will help (mentally), research shows it does. 

 

Moderation is also a factor on the effectiveness of ice baths, with the more exposure to the baths showing the effect has diminishing returns if done too often. 

 

With that said, ice baths should be for after the hardest training or competitive sessions, or when you need to go again soon after; that’s when the ice bath can be a savior. 

   

 

“I personally like to ice bathe post workout – usually after a hard run for about 15 minutes or longer depending on how cold the bath is. Ice baths are nice right after a tough workout or soon after to get your core temp down for recovery. Usually I will try to ice bathe right after the run if I can, and then take a warm epsom salt bath later in the evening if I’m feeling sore.”

- On Zap Endurance Athlete, Tristin Van Ord 

 

Doing it this way makes the ice bath a reward (though plunging in may have you thinking differently), and so something to aim for and earn after giving it your all.

   

 

How to ice bath at home?

 

Surprise surprise, you’ll need a bath or tub for this to work. If you don’t have one, you can also buy a child-size pool which will have the same effect or a large bin (for more focused, hips down bathing).

 

Next is filling your “bath” with the ice. Again, the jury is split on this, with some experts saying you should just use ice in the bath while others say having water and ice at a ratio of around 3:1 is actually better for covering the whole body. 

 

The way we recommend is based on two factors: how much of your body will be submerged in the ice and sheer practicality. How much of yourself you submerge in the bath is based on what you focused on in training. For runners, you may think it’s just the legs and feet that need to be submerged, but often hips and the back also provide areas of soreness after long runs, and so a whole body bath makes sense. 

 

And when it comes to making sense, the second factor of practicality is just that. Most people simply don’t have easy access to enough ice to fill a bath tub to cover an entire body on demand which is where the 3:1 water to ice ratio makes sense for most people.

 

How cold should the water be?

 

Water turns to ice at 0 degrees Celsius / 32 degrees Fahrenheit. For an ice bath, the water should be around 10-15 degrees Celsius (around 50-60 Fahrenheit). This usually takes around 10 minutes to achieve if using a 3:1 water to ice ration, or instantly if it is just ice in the tub. When it’s set, it’s time to jump in and let the healing water do its thing. 

 

According to Matt McClintock (also from the On Zap Endurance team) 10 degrees Celsius / 50 degrees Fahrenheit is the perfect starting point:

 

If you’re having trouble getting in, maybe try starting with the water around 50 degrees. Also, remember the hardest part is the first four seconds. It's about just doing it.

       

 

How long should you ice bath for?

 

This will be the main question you will be asking as soon as you jump in. The magic number to aim for is 15 minutes. Research has shown this has the most effective time to get the most out of the cold treatment. After 15 minutes, the effects are diluted just as the ice soon will be. 

 

Here are a few tips for beginner ice bathers from our doubt-defying heptathlete Chari Hawkins:

 

1. Just get in: Many people get in one toe at a time. It doesn't help as much as you want it to. Understand that you are going to have a couple minutes of discomfort, and then your body will acclimate or "get numb" and you will forget you're in there!

 

2. Temperature: If you’re doing an ice bath at home, make sure that you get it to a good temperature. If it is too cold, it will be near impossible to stay in, and if it is too warm, you will not get the right benefits. Knowing that you are in the right temperature can also have a good effect on your mindset as well.

 

3. "Feet wetsuits": If you plan to be a serial ice bath taker, I would recommend getting ice bath slippers, which are made of wetsuit material and help keep your feet a lot warmer.

 

4. Make it a mental training exercise: Something I do EVERY TIME I get in the ice bath, whether I am alone or not, I try to be the "toughest" person taking an ice bath. Honestly, it has turned me into someone who looks forward to icing.

 

Or as an alternative, you could try a contrast ice bath, as Matt explains in the video below. 

     

 

What to do during the ice bath?

 

You’ve made it in and can stand the cold. Now what? Sure, you’ll be watching the clock to count down the 15 minutes you need in there, but there’s one key thing you should keep on your mind: breathing.

 

Due to the shock and panic you put your body in once you enter the tub, most people naturally begin to take shallow, fast breaths. The opposite is actually what you want to do: deep inhales to allow more oxygen into the lungs to be moved around the body. Remember, the cold is to encourage blood to flow faster inside the muscles, helping bring the repairing elements to those tears from your training or run, so deeper, constant breathing is the aim of the game. As a guide, breath in for 7 seconds, hold for 2, then out for 7 seconds to find a good rhythm in the bath.

 

Another tip many professional sports people do to help them last in the bath is to put hands under arm pits or the backs of the knees: those places where the skin is thinnest often cause the most sensitivity to the body in the ice. Putting your hands there can help you fight through the pain as you count down those 15 minutes (or 900 seconds if that helps).

 

Are ice baths safe?

 

The more time you spend in the bath, the more numb your body will become, which can lead to a loss of immediate strength making it hard to pull yourself out of the bath in some circumstances, especially if this is your first time. That’s why it is recommended you have someone nearby with you the first few times you jump in to DIY ice bathing at home, so there’s someone to help (and distract you) should you need it. 

 

It should also be said that Frostbite and Hypothermia are often worries for people thinking about ice baths, though both are unlikely due to the bath being above freezing point (for Frostbite) and last for 15 minutes or less (Hypothermia generally takes at least 30 minutes). Still, everyone is different so listen to your body and go with what feels right.

    

 

What to do immediately after your ice bath?

 

The buzzer sounds: 15 minutes is done. Don’t rush out (as you may slip), but rather take your time, dry off or have a warm shower to help with the numbness of your ice bath. Some people find it takes around 20 minutes to get back to “normal”, and if you do feel chilled, a warm tea or coffee can help speed up the process. 

 

The perfect post-ice bath combination

       

The Hoodie
A clever, yet comfortable technical Hoodie that's ready for more than just running.
See the details
The Sweat Pants
Blending technical and natural fabrics, the perfect pants for performance and comfort – from the warm-up to your downtime.
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Alternatives to ice baths

 

Some people love ice baths. They see them (as mentioned) as a reward for hard work, and shortcut to heading out there again sooner than later. For others (maybe most) jumping in to freezing and frozen water is always a daunting task. 

 

I always try to find peace in discomfort because I want to learn to be calm under pressure. When I heard of ice bathing, it was the thought of getting in something very uncomfortable, but at the same time something that promotes healing, that had me intrigued.

-On Ambassador, Rajiv Harry

 

If you find it’s not your thing, a few alternatives to ice baths are warm water therapy, Epsom salt bathing and deep tissue massages. Though each of these alternatives approach recovery in a different way, they may help you if ice bathing simply isn’t your thing.

     

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