Several years ago I was working with an elite marathon runner who was training for the Olympics here in Flagstaff. During one session, I noticed that her legs were very cold to the touch. When I asked her about this she replied, “Oh, I just got out of an ice bath”. I commented that an ice bath sounded painful. She said, “My legs get so heated during a 26 mile run that the ice feels wonderful”. At the time I couldn’t understand how that could be until I ran my first marathon, after which I tried the ice bath. What I can tell you is “the ice feels wonderful!”
I noticed that after running 26.2 miles and an ice bath, my muscles felt better then when I did a shorter training run of only 16 or 18 miles without an ice bath. Without the ice, I felt more ache and stiffness in my muscles causing me to hobble around later in the day. After the ice bath, my muscles felt more revived and resilient (albeit still a bit achy) even though I ran about 10 miles farther! Was it just my imagination? The fact is there is some science to support my experience.
By now most people know to treat a muscle injury with ice. But the ache and irritation post workout isn’t really an injury, so common sense would say there is no need for ice. This is true for the average type of workout. But if you are in a prolonged training regimen, like training for a marathon run, ice is indicated for post workout recovery. Here’s why.
Prolonged and continuous muscle use like in distance running and cycling that lasts longer than two hours, generates so much heat that increased blood flow to the muscles is needed to bring additional oxygen to the tissue, as well as provide cooling during the workout. The increase in blood flow causes the surrounding tissues to stretch which creates additional irritation and is the cause of much of the post workout muscle ache. When ice is applied within 30 minutes of the workout, the swelling of the muscles related to the increased blood flow is reduced thereby minimizing the secondary tissue irritation.
Additionally, studies have shown that ice is effective in reducing the sensation of muscle pain. This is likely the reason why I felt so much better after running the marathon followed by an ice bath. The effects of the ice on the muscle inflammation was what enabled me to feel relatively normal the next day, rather than hobbling around.
There is a problem with ice however. It’s when ice is used during a workout or competition to treat muscle pain with the hope or expectation of returning quickly to physical activity. A new study shows that using ice during an event (like in football, or baseball), where there is a break in the action (like half time or between innings), using ice to mitigate muscle pain can reduce physical performance and possibly increase the risk of muscle injury upon returning to the action.
Studies have found that athletes experienced reduced muscle strength as demonstrated by not being able to jump as high, spring as fast, or throw a ball as far up to 20 minutes after icing. The theory is that the ice slows the speed of the electrical impulses running through nerve cells and thereby reducing the effectiveness of the muscle.
The study used an icing period of 20 minutes and the researchers concluded that if ice is used during physical activity, it should be followed by a period of slow warming for at least 15 minutes before resuming the activity. The researchers caution that relying on ice to reduce muscle soreness to get an athlete back into a game is inadvisable. They recommend sitting out the rest of the game so you can be ready for the next game.
But if it’s the end of the event, feel free to jump into the ice bath and enjoy it. Just don’t plan on moving too quickly for a while after.