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I Tried Taking Ice Baths for a Month and Here’s What Happened

I'm pretty sure following my weekly long runs with a cold plunge helped boost my recovery.

at home ice bath methods
Ashley Mateo

There are a lot of things I’d rather do than take an ice bath—10 x 800 meters at altitude, for example, or running the final split of a 20-mile long run at 5K pace. I’m generally not someone who ever willingly puts themselves in cold water, even to recover from one of the aforementioned workouts. But I know that countless pro and amateur athletes swear by post-workout ice baths, and I’ll do anything for an edge in marathon training. So I went for a dip—actually, several. Here's what happened.

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Benefits of Ice Baths

Before I submerged myself in a tub full of ice, I wanted to know what exactly I might get out of this experiment. The biggest perk—and most athletes’ reasoning for a dunk—is that ice baths may reduce soreness after workouts. “Generally, they’re most likely to facilitate recovery after workouts that cause muscle damage and soreness or when an athlete experiences lots of heat strain,” explains Patrick Wilson, Ph.D., an associate professor of exercise science at Old Dominion University who has specialized in running research.

When it came to lowering inflammation post-exercise, ice baths were on par with massages, according to a 2018 meta-analysis of 99 studies published in Frontiers in Physiology. Cold-water therapy also helped people recover faster on strength-training days, as shown in a 2015 study published in the Journal of Physiology. And a scientific review conducted in 2012 by the Cochrane Library found some evidence that cold-water immersion reduced delayed onset muscle soreness compared to rest or no intervention. That sounds pretty worthwhile when you’re logging 15-plus miles multiple Saturdays in a row, followed by Monday speed workouts.

One setback is that the scientific opinion on ice baths remains mixed overall. Cold water was determined to be no more effective at inducing recovery in runners than room-temperature water or rest, according to a small 2020 study published in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. And ice baths after strength training actually impeded muscle growth in a small 2015 study published in The Journal of Physiology. Plus, the physiological benefits of cold water immersion are at least partly placebo related, according to 2014 research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

So how might an ice bath help lower inflammation and reduce soreness, anyway? There are a few possibilities: “Ice baths could help recovery by improving venous blood return to the heart, due to the hydrostatic pressure of the water; by reducing nerve conduction velocity, which would influence pain; by lowering swelling and inflammation and by altering hormonal secretion (cortisol, testosterone, etc.),” says Wilson. That's all to say that a lot could be happening in the body during and after an ice bath to help promote recovery, but it's hard to pinpoint a conclusive mechanism.

However, there is one constant: the power of the mind. “Improvements in pain and perceptions of exertion are probably more consistent than improvements in objective markers of recovery like muscle damage and inflammation,” Wilson explains. In other words, the belief that you’re doing something to aid recovery can be just as powerful as something that actually aids recovery.

Whether you’re recovering better or not, there are other benefits to ice baths, too. Anyone who’s ever submerged themselves in frigid water probably knows it can spike your heart rate and improve blood flow, which can improve your heart rate variability (or the variation in the time interval between heartbeats). “Repeated days of heavy training can reduce heart rate variability, and cold-water immersion could, in theory, help mitigate those reductions and maintain performance in some people,” says Wilson. Cold water immersion could also slightly boost a handful of immune function markers, according to older research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, and decrease tension, fatigue, and negative mood, a study published in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health found.

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How to Time Your Ice Baths

For runners, the best time to take an ice bath is after long runs and speed work—the type of workouts that cause the most muscle damage and soreness, says Wilson. The ideal protocol is 11 to 15 minutes at a temp between 52 and 59 degrees, according to a 2015 review published in the journal Sports Medicine.

With all that in mind—and the Chicago Marathon on my calendar for October—I set out to incorporate ice baths into my training regimen to see how they impacted my recovery. And I tried a couple different at-home ice bath methods (plus one at a recovery studio) to tell you what serves up the benefits the best.

At-Home Test No. 1: DIY Ice Bath

I’m no stranger to hot baths at home—I take one several times a week—but I’d never filled my tub with even lukewarm water. For the sake of journalism, I turned the knob all the way to the right, filled my tub as high as possible with cold water, and dumped in 40 pounds of ice I picked up from the supermarket a few blocks away. With the ice, the water dipped down to 58 degrees according to my repurposed oven thermometer.

Minus picking up the ice, it couldn’t have been simpler. In practice, it left a little to be desired. My tub isn’t huge, so fully immersing myself proved to be a challenge. If my shoulders were submerged, my knees were poking out of the water. If my legs were fully underwater, my upper torso wasn’t even close. Since my legs were the priority, I wasn’t too stressed about it, but it didn’t make me want to linger. I gritted it out for 11 minutes post-20-miler, and felt good enough two days later to clock nine miles at goal marathon pace during speed work—not too bad!

At-Home Test No. 2: Ice Barrel

You know how some athletes just line an industrial size trash can with plastic then fill it with ice? The Ice Barrel is a much higher-end version of that. The $1,200 plastic barrel holds 105 gallons of water and comes with a spigot that makes draining super easy (as long as you’re housing it outdoors). I filled it to about 80 percent, then dumped in 40 pounds of ice to bring the temperature down to 47 degrees according to a meat thermometer. (Full disclosure: I wish there had been a built-in thermometer so I didn’t waste time looking for another way to measure the temp.)

Sitting inside the barrel was a little awkward. If I sat on my butt to submerge my body up to my neck, I felt enclosed in a small, dark space—not a feeling I love, but one that could be helpful for people working on race visualization, maybe? Kneeling and leaning on the edge of the barrel felt more comfortable, although I would have preferred a ledge. To be honest, I felt way more comfortable in my own tub; I'm not sure I'd shell out the cash for this unless I also had a hot tub and wanted to practice contrast therapy.

The company recommends spending two to five minutes in the cold water, which is much less than what current research recommends for recovery benefits. I did a brief plunge after my Saturday 16-miler, and it certainly was invigorating and I felt much more alert post-run that day than I normally do after waking up at 5 a.m. But, while several factors could have been at play, my body definitely felt tired the day after my long run when I went on a hike, and I was downright exhausted on Monday. (I ended up pushing my speed work to Tuesday.)

In-Studio Test: Cold Water Tub

I started going to Denver Sports Recovery, which offers a variety of recovery modalities including cold tubs, while training for the 2020 Los Angeles marathon. A day pass costs $30, but I bought a $99 unlimited monthly pass to make use of the tubs. This is by far my favorite ice bath method. Yes, it costs more than a DIY bath, but the fact that I could go right there after a long run without exerting any additional effort (i.e. picking up ice, filling up a tub or barrel) was worth the price.

The tub is kept right around 51 degrees, and because it’s shaped just like a hot tub, there’s plenty of room to submerge yourself up to the shoulders for a full 15 minutes. It’s also easy enough to sit on the edge and stick your legs in if you’re not concerned about your whole body. I did this after my final 18-mile run, and felt way better than after the previous 16-miler; I was able to follow up that long run with a seven-mile run/hike the next day at over 10,000 feet in elevation. I don’t know if that was due to the ice bath or the fact that I had finally entered the taper period for Chicago, but it was a welcome respite.

The Bottom Line

While the science doesn't 100 percent support the benefits of ice baths, there's still some promising research, which makes it a worthwhile recovery method to try. As for the ice baths I tested, taking a cold plunge in a studio would be my top choice for regular dips because they do all the work for me—I just have to be willing to show up. But if you don’t have access to a recovery facility like I do, an at-home ice bath works well as a substitute. The Ice Barrel might come in handy if you don't have a tub or you want to take a cold dip outside. But keep in mind, you need to shell out a pretty significant amount of money, so you probably only want to go for this option if you’re seriously committed to taking frequent plunges.

I’m also a huge believer in the placebo effect—especially considering the old adage, “running is 90 percent mental.” I’m not sure if I’ll be incorporating ice baths into my training regimen on a regular basis, but I’m now a little less hesitant to take the plunge after a tough workout. If you live for that stinging needles sensation as you dip your limbs into a frigid pool of water, by all means go for an at-home ice bath. Chances are, it’ll pay off—particularly if you believe it will.

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