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Re-evaluating Ice Bathing

Ice bathing for runners

The goal of ice bathing is to reduce the inflammation following a workout, which is typically viewed as a means to ‘enhance’ recovery. However, just because it can be effective doesn’t mean that it should be used in all situations.

Acute inflammation as a result of normal exercise is a very organic and necessary process for training adaptations to take place. The inflammatory response activates regenerative processes that allow adaptation to take place. Thus,  purposefully reducing inflammation may actually reduce the benefits of a session.

Expanding on the above, ice bathing takes anti-inflammatory effect through means such as: reduced nociceptor sensitivity, reduced exercise induced oedema, and altered white blood cell activity. In effect, it essentially dampens localized inflammatory activity and fluid build-up, communicating to the body that it has recovered possibly without the maximal healing response we’d want.

Athletes shouldn’t just hop into the tub after every hard workout, but instead should use this modality for the right reason and time in training, if looking to gain from its benefits (which will be individualistic). The same can be said for a handful of other therapies and practices: more is gained when used sparingly. Professional runners may use ice bathing as follows:

  • During a base/build phase, which constructs the foundation of training, they embrace the adaptive nature of training by tending to step away from ice baths. Aside from acute injuries, unusual soreness, or minor niggles they let their bodies be
  • Approaching season, an athlete might have a week with a few key sessions, and it’s important for them to have fast restoration for each session. These sessions are usually high quality, and the overall week’s stress is more important than an individual session’s.
  • During racing, normally in sports consisting of stage racing (eg. cycling) or close proximity succession of races (Olympics heats, semis, finals with few days). Again, where the focus is fast restoration and freshness in order to give good performance for the next exertion.

In essence: don’t try to eliminate the stress as soon as possible – it’s part of the process, use recovery modalities to your best benefit, acknowledge that psychological could likely also play a role (what influences the mind is also very important, and lastly be open-minded to different practice’s legitimacy (when pros post pictures on Instagram of latest products doesn’t mean it works).

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