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Scissors, Paper, Ice Bath

ice baths for runners

Scissors, Paper, Ice Bath
By Kieran Thomas
Image © lzf / Dollar Photo Club

Debate rages over the most efficient and accessible recovery methods out there. From regular foam rolling, afternoon naps, compression tights, and now even portable electrical nerve stimulation machine (TENS machines); the market is hot for the next edge in recovery. The humble ice bath still ranks as a high favorite and remains a staple on many a runner’s recovery menu. Chilling out in a bath tub full of water and ice after a long hard day of running is thought to help reduce muscle soreness (known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS) but also help you recover faster. Such a fabulously tortuous idea for masochistic runners, but does it actually help?

The excitingly named study, ‘Effects of cryotherapy on muscle damage markers and perception of delayed onset muscle soreness after downhill running: A Pilot study’ wades into the icy waters by looking at eccentric loading and that awkward next-day deep muscle pain, DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).

The Theory of DOMS

DOMS is still a bit of a mystery. Modern thinking holds that the awkward muscle pain in the days after exercise (DOMS) occurs more frequently and with more severity through eccentric contractions. In other words, when the muscles are working but lengthening at the same time. Running downhill or down steps is a good example.

It’s supposed that in these situations far more tension is created within the muscles causing greater structural damage (and pain a day or two later).

Cryotherapy, or the ice bath, is a much-cited solution for avoiding or limiting that pain associated with DOMS and allowing you to bounce back sooner.

The Test:

This study took 10 Males volunteers who were all 26 ± 5 years of age, 173 ± 8 cm height and 70 ± 4kg body weight, and sedentary. Every volunteer was told the purpose of the study and as a result knew what they were being tested for and how they were going to be tested.

The volunteers were subjected to two bouts of exercise, which focused on downhill running once a week for two weeks. The volunteers were made to run on a treadmill with a negative slope of 6.6% for 25 minutes at 8 km per hours with a warm up and a cooldown at either end of the exercise.

After one of the bouts, and at random, the volunteers would be ask to stand in waist high water which was maintained at a chilly 15 degrees for 30 minutes.

They had blood taken over the following 24 and 48 hours to measure a couple of indicators of muscle damage (creatine kinase (CK) and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH)). Participants were also asked about their muscle pain where they had a scale of 1-10 to measure against.

The Results:

All of the subjects reported no DOMS before starting the exercise. Afterwards was a different story.

  • For those who didn’t use the cryotherapy: 24 hours after the exercise they had an average pain scale of 6.2 while 48 hours later that decreased to 5.3.
  • Those who did use cryotherapy: Had an average pain of 2 after 24 hours and after 48 hours there was no pain reported at all. In terms of perceived pain, the cryotherapy was super effective.

The blood tests also brought back interesting results as well:

  • Creatine kinase in those who used Cryotherapy was from a statistical standpoint significantly less than those who didn’t use cryotherapy – muscle damage was reduced significantly.
  • On the other hand the other indicator, lactate dehydrogenase from a statistical point remained the same whether cryotherapy was used or not.

Interestingly, concentration of calcium in the blood was measured as well with calcium levels spiking at the 48 hour mark for those who didn’t use cryotherapy showing that the body may be trying to compensate for the increased muscle damage.

So what does it all mean?

This study suggests ice baths are a wonderful idea after big runs with plenty of decline. Whether it’s a placebo effect, purely a subjectively perceived decrease in pain, or an actual measurable drop in chemical concentrations in your blood, ice baths are an effective treatment for the dreaded stiff legs. They’re also cheap and easily accessible.

  1. Rossato, M, de Souza Bezerra, E, Seixas da Silva, DC, Santana, TA, Malezam, WR, & Carpes, FP 2015, ‘Effects of cryotherapy on muscle damage markers and perception of delayed onset muscle soreness after downhill running: A Pilot study. / Efectos de la crioterapia en los marcadores de daño muscular y en la percepción de mialgia de aparición tardía tras carrera en bajada’, Revista Andaluza de Medicina del Deporte, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 49-53.
About Kieran Thomas (5 Articles)
When he's not busy watching the Rocky IV training montage on infinite repeat or running atop mountains yelling the names of Russian Boxers, Kieran sifts through various sports studies trying to pick out the important bits that will make you a better runner. When he's not doing any of those things he's writing for his own blog Fit For Purpose

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