Dos and Don’ts of Ice Bath For Athletes

Ice baths have long been used by both amateur and professional athletes as a sports therapy tool after a hard workout. The idea behind this technique is that the cold water reduces inflammation and starts the healing process for muscular microtears that occur during strenuous activity. Even if you don’t have a hydrotherapy tub or pool, you can still use bathtub at home after a long run or big game. Here’s what you need to know about the process, including how to do it safely and when to skip it all together.

Ice Bath 101

There are a couple of different methods in ice bath therapy, including standing or sitting in a tub or container filled with ice and water. Most experts recommend that anyone in an ice bath should protect sensitive areas, such as feet, hands, and the groin, to prevent any damage that excessive cold may cause. The ideal temperature for an ice bath is in the range of 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit, and the soaking time should be no more than 15 minutes.

Benefits of Ice Baths

Ice baths, although controversial due to a lack of definitive research on the subject, have several reported benefits. First of all, ice baths are said to reduce inflammation. This makes sense, because soaking in icy water draws blood inward toward internal organs, reducing blood flow to muscles and calming down the muscle pain that comes with inflammation. Secondly, ice baths can speed up the recovery process by allowing a rush of blood to sore muscles after the bath, flushing out the lactic acid that causes delayed onset muscle soreness. Ice baths also have a few lesser known benefits, including the adrenaline release that comes after the bath is over as well as an increase in metabolic rate, which causes the body to burn more fat.

Safety & Precautions

If you do decide to do an ice bath, you should know that ice baths can be dangerous if done incorrectly. Here are a few things to remember when you undertake this form of therapy:

  • Don’t stay too long – While 10-15 minutes may be beneficial, 20-30 minutes can be downright dangerous, running the risk of frostbite or muscle damage from the cold.
  • Don’t overchill the water – Use a thermometer to ensure that your bath is in the 50-49 degrees Fahrenheit range, because anything colder than this may result in fainting, which is particularly dangerous when you are in a bathtub
  • Tell someone first – Before taking an ice bath, be sure that someone else is nearby and knows your plans so they can check on you if you don’t come out within a certain period of time
  • Try alternating with hot baths – Some research has shown that alternating cold and hot baths may be even more effective in recovery than ice bath therapy alone
  • Follow up with a warm drink – To get your body back to normal and avoid stiffness, wrap up in a blanket and enjoy a warm beverage after the bath is complete

Some athletes swear by ice bath therapy, while other will tell you that it makes no difference in muscle recovery or actually makes leg soreness worse the next day. A lot of the efficacy will depend on your particular body, your tolerance for cold, and how well you prepare your bath and follow safety precautions. It is always a good idea to speak with a trainer or physician before trying ice bath therapy for the first time, particularly if you have a history of heart problems or a circulatory disorder such as Raynaud’s disease.

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