Friday, March 26, 2010

My First Ice Bath

When I trained for my first marathon, many of my marathon runner friends asked me "Do you take an ice bath to help you recover?"  I had never done so before and didn't take one when I trained for my first marathon (the ING NYC Marathon on 11/1/2009).   Over the course of my training, I used ice daily on my knees and feet, but never an ice bath.  I believe that ice is a miracle drug.  Over the years when I have been hurt (particularly while playing basketball), ice has helped me recover quickly.   Over the last week, my legs, in particular my knees, have been fatigued, so I decided to try my first ice bath (which actually ended up being an ice bath last night and another one tonight). 

When I trained for my first marathon, I frequently put my foot and ankle in a bucket of ice to reduce swelling and to help recovery.  Anybody that has ever put their foot and ankle in a bucket of ice knows how painful it is. Getting to 10 minutes is a real challenge. However, the results are always worth it - an even application of ice to the foot and ankle always helped my recovery.

So why do people take ice baths?  The scientific theory is that the ice bath helps to repair microtrauma, or tiny tears in muscle fibers that result from intense exercise (like marathon running).  Some believe that the ice bath will (1) constrict blood vessels and flush waste products, like lactic acid (which often builds up in the legs of marathon runners after long runs), (2) decrease metabolic activity, and (3) reduce swelling and tissue breakdown.  Then, with rewarming after the ice bath, the increased blood flow speeds circulation, and in turn, improves the healing process.   As I did a little research on the web about ice baths, it became clear to me that some people believe that ice water baths are helpful (e.g. world record holder Paula Radcliffe and many other elite marathon runners swear by them), but some studies have shown no benefit from them.

I have considered taking an ice bath from the waist down many times to reduce the inflammation in my legs and knees from long runs.  I'm not sure that the human body is meant to run 15-20 miles every Saturday, so let's see if an ice bath helps my recovery.  My legs have been very fatigued lately from back to back 20 mile long runs the last 2 weekends.  In the book Born to Run, the author talks about ice baths and mentions that the temperature of the ice bath should be around 46 degrees.  "46 degrees?" I thought to myself, this is definitely warmer than the bucket of ice I use.  I also read that some people believe that a temperature even warmer, say around 50-59 degrees, can also have benefits. So, last night, for the first time, I filled my bath tub with cold water (of course throwing in some espon salt too).  I was surprised how cold the water was.  Last weekend, I went to a few stores to try and find a thermometer to measure the water's temperature, but was unable to find one.  I put my foot in the water and it was freezing!!  I remember thinking to myself "this would be great to soak my foot and ankle".  I put some warm water in the tub to warm it up (ok, I'm a wimp, but it was just too cold without warming it up a little), held my breath, and got in the water.  BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!  From the waist down, I went numb.  The first few mintues were tough, but then my body adjusted and after 12 minutes I got out.  I felt great!!!!!  The pain in my legs was gone and when I woke up the next morning, my legs felt much better.

Today, it occured to me that perhaps a Pet store with Fish Tanks would have a thermometer to put in the water.  Sure enough, for $1.79, I found one.  So tonight, after feeling so good after last night's "cold water" bath, I tried it again.  I filled the tub, put the thermomter in, and it read 50 degrees.  Perfect, I thought, we are lucky that the water in our building is so cold.  No ice needed, I decided that somewhere between 50-59 was my target temperature.  Like last night, I put my foot in the water to test its coldness, and it was freezing.  After a blast of hot water tonight, the tub warmed up to 55 degrees.  Perfect.  The temperature felt exactly like last night.  I got in the water.  BRRRRRRR!  55 degrees felt much warmer than 50, that's for sure.  It was painful at first, but I ended up sitting in the tub for 18 minutes.  When I got out, I was totally numb, but my body quickly warmed up and I felt great.  We will see if it makes a difference before and after my 15 mile long run tomorrow.  So far, my verdict is that it has significantly helped me.


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