You get back from a long, hard, run on your quest to have your best race ever. You read somewhere that ice baths are a great way to reduce soreness and improve recovery. You fill the tub, throw in your ice, and stand there contemplating… You hop in and slowly lower yourself in. As you inch closer to your waist line knowing the worst is yet to come… the thought may have crossed your mind, “Is this worth it?”
Ice has long been used to reduce swelling, inflammation, and soreness following activity. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS –actually pronounced “doms”) is a term to describe that “good sore” athletes have been seeking since the dawn of sport. The research indicates that your peak soreness occurs roughly 48 hours after a hard workout. What most don’t realize is that when we apply a load through a muscle that it’s not accustomed to, the muscle fibers tear. In response, the body repairs the damaged muscle to be stronger and more resilient, so that the next time you perform that identical activity, chances are you won’t be as sore. It becomes more resilient TO THAT MOVEMENT, which may or may not carry over to running.
Most athletes seek this “good sore” or DOMS and use it as a benchmark to monitor strength improvement and, indirectly, performance. However, you can be extremely fit, yet develop soreness from an activity that would not be considered performance enhancing. Before I digress much more, I want everyone to realize that soreness should not be a benchmark for increasing strength or improving performance. Your strength training should be sport specific. A basketball player’s strength program will differ than that of a runners, baseball, football, etc. If an NBA player jumps into a pool with Phelps and completes a workout I’m sure he wouldn’t be able to lift his arms the next day. Did the soreness make him a better basketball player? Nah. Too often runners throw themselves into strength programs that don’t mimic the sport. Sure, you will get sore, but does that strength equate to faster, stronger, and improved durability running? Probably not.
Most athletes seek this “good sore” or DOMS and use it as a benchmark to monitor strength improvement and, indirectly, performance.
We left off somewhere about lowering yourself into the tub… so is an ice bath really worth it? If so, how long, how cold, etc.
An article published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology1 set out to determine the short term effects of various water immersions on recovery. The researchers studied the effects of cold water immersion and a few other immersion techniques on athlete recovery following hard efforts of activity that was to promote DOMS. Athletes were submerged to their naval (roughly) in 50⁰F (10⁰C) water for 15 minutes. Cold water immersion displayed a couple advantages over the other techniques tested:
Significantly lower Creatine Kinase (CK) concentration during enzyme analysis. CK is a biological marker for muscle damage.
A maximum voluntary contraction (think a 1 repetition maximum) was greater in comparison to all other groups both 1 hour and 24 hours after the damaging activity. So this means you may be able to perform better on subsequent hard days or back to back race days.
Other studies have suggested that cold water immersion has also decreased delayed onset muscle soreness; however, this study showed no significant difference in soreness across all groups tested. Don’t be sold on that though, as they measured participant’s soreness 24 hours after exercise. It’s well stated that peak soreness occurs 48 hours after exercise (mentioned above). It’s one of those things that bring your palm to your forehead as you wonder why they didn’t take a 48 hour measurement (duh).
A previous blog covered the use of compression stockings to enhance recovery and soreness. That, paired with an ice bath can help prevent considerable soreness following bouts of intense, muscle damaging exercise.
The take home message is this:
Ice baths have been shown to decrease biological markers (CK) of muscle damage and increase force output for maximum voluntary contractions. A temperature of 50⁰F (30⁰C) should be used for 15 minutes. Also, there’s no need to jump into the icy abyss after every run or bike. You’re simply looking to do so after muscle damaging activity (hard races or training sessions).
1. Pournot H, Bieuzen F, Duffield R (2010) Short term effects of various water immersions on recovery from exhaustive intermittent exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 111:1287-1295.