Oh, the pain. In mid-July, 2,000 triathletes participated in the Ironman Racine 70.3 event. By the end of race day, many competitors were hobbling on sore, tired and overextended legs. With medals around their necks, the agony of covering 70 miles in 90-degree heat and a sudden soaking downpour over the transition area, turned quickly to pride for their personal accomplishments.
Still, many people, like me, wondered just how badly our legs would hurt over the next few days. My daughter Claire, an all-state rugby player who often competes in weekend multigame tournaments, suggested taking an ice bath like her teammates due to aid their recovery.
Skeptical at first, I recalled reading about professional football, baseball and basketball players using the technique. If it works for them, why not a back-of-the-pack triathlete?
Turns out many elite-level triathletes use ice baths to speed recovery.
Andy Schmitz is a sport performance manager for USA Triathlon who served as a U.S. team coach for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. According to Schmitz, ice baths are believed to reduce swelling, remove waste products from the muscles and reduce swelling. When muscle tissue warms after leaving the ice bath, increased blood flow encourages healing.
"When you put a large amount of stress on your body, an ice bath is essentially a way to cover up a large percentage of your body to help to provide a cooling effect to repair microtears in the muscle fibers," Schmitz said.
Getting your mind around the idea of submerging your tired and battered body into a bathtub filled with ice cubes is one thing. Actually lowering yourself in is quite another. I lasted less than a minute before climbing out. The intensity of the cold is almost painful. At my daughter's urging, I got back in. After climbing out at least once more, I finally felt comfortable enough to stay in for 6 interrupted minutes. As the familiar generic disclaimer states, "Your experience may be different."
"The most important thing to keep in mind is everyone has different tolerance levels," Schmitz said. "For some it can be mind over matter. Just don't overdo do it. Multisport Type A athletes may think more is better or colder is better. Colder is definitely not better if it's down to 45 degrees. Be cautious at the outset and start with water temperatures at about 65 degrees. And if you can tolerate that, take that down 10 degrees."
Once you acclimate to the temperature of the cold water, Schmitz suggested limiting your bath time to 10 minutes. "If you extend your exposure by a few minutes, each session you will be a lot more comfortable tolerating the cold. With an ideal temperature in the mid-50s to mid-60s, 8 to 10 minutes is all you need. If you go longer, there is a possibility of overexposure. As the temperature goes down, the risk of overexposure increases."
Ice baths offer the greatest benefits after long and intense workouts or races. "It's more important to use an ice bath after harder or longer sessions. Then it's more appropriate to help repair damaged muscle tissues and help circulation," Schmitz said.
Triathletes who have tried ice baths as a recovery tool find themselves feeling better within hours of taking the plunge. "As the day progresses, they will feel better," Schmitz said. "The more important result is when they go to run the next day. They can handle a hard workout much better and actually feel refreshed."
According to an article in the July 2008 issue of the International Journal of Sports Medicine, cold water immersion might help recovery from short maximal efforts. Other research studies are inconclusive about the benefits of ice bath therapy. But many positive testimonials can be found on a wide range of triathlon-related websites, forums and blogs.
Personally, comparing the way my legs felt after the Racine 70.3 with marathons I've run, the ice bath therapy definitely decreased my recovery time. Instead of gingerly walking around two days after a marathon, I was actually looking forward to going for a short run.
• As you prepare your first ice bath, be conservative with water temperature. Most rehabilitation specialists recommend a water temperature between 54 and 60 degrees. Schmitz suggests beginners start with higher water temperatures and decrease it by 1 to 2 degrees each time.
• Determine your personal cold threshold. Consider investing in booties, toe warmers made of wet suit material, as your toes are likely the most sensitive body part to be submerged.
• Avoid overexposure. Spending sic top 8 minutes in ice water will offer sufficient recovery benefits. There's no reason to stay in an ice bath longer than 10 minutes. Sitting in colder water longer isn't better. Cool water that's 10 degrees higher (60 to 75 degrees) can still offer benefits.
• Filing your bathtub with bags of ice isn't the only option. If you live near the Great Lakes or a river with potentially colder water temperatures, feel free to take a seat in the shallows.
• Enjoy the warm process. Throw on a pair of comfortable sweats and let your legs and body warm slowly. Enjoy a cup of tea or hot chocolate. Take a warm shower if you don't feel like you are warming up quickly enough.
- Lou Dzierzak