Jumping into an ice bath is never the first thing on anyones mind. After a hard workout, nothing feels better than just laying there and doing nothing. But, sometimes it's not really the best thing to do. At some point you will feel the need or want to take a bit more of a proactive approach to recovery. Some of you might choose massage, some a hot tub and others still a sauna. These are all great methods. If you don't have the money to drop on occasional massages and/or your gym doesn't have a hot tub or sauna you're kinda screwed.
For the intrepid folks the other option...as I'm sure you've been able to guess by now... is ice baths. Check out a "quick" sneak peek of report I put together on ice baths and how you can use ice baths to help you in a variety of areas.
Ice Baths...A Quick History Lesson
If you take a second and think about it, hot showers are a recent comfort of our society. Just like agriculture, air conditioning, automobiles and all the other every day comforts we take for granted. If you're a paleo, or paleo-ish, diet follower, this approach is familiar to you. You don't eat grains because, for the most part, our early ancestors did not eat grains either. At least not in the mass amounts that some people think you need to. You also, more than likely, fast every now and again because it's an easy form of calorie restriction and because our early ancestors didn't have the opportunity to eat at whim.
The water heater wasn't even invented until the late 1800s (1870 according to a quick google search). So what did everyone do before then?
They manned (and womanned) the fuck up and cleaned themselves in lukewarm or cold water. The only lucky ones who were able to take the lukewarm to warm baths were near the tropics. All of us other unlucky bastards farther north and south had to deal with chilly to down right freezing water most of the year.
Some people, bless their hearts, adapted and WELCOMED this experience. Most notably the Scandinavians who practiced "avantouinti"…ice hole swimming. Most will probably look at this behavior as absolutely 100% bat sh*t crazy, but look at the observed benefits:
- Improves cold resistance
- Reduces aches and pains
- Relieves stress
- Creates alertness and focus
- Relaxing/helps you sleep better
- Assists in fat loss
How many of these things are you trying to accomplish? Most of these things, if not all of them, are goals that everyone who is trying to better themselves through fitness and/or nutrition is trying to accomplish. So let's take a deeper look into each of these benefits…
Ice Baths Improves Cold Resistance
This one is obvious, but don't discount it just yet.
Becoming more resistant to cold is accomplished through a process called "hormesis." Mostly this phrase is used to describe the body’s ability to create a resistance against a certain toxin by being repeatedly exposed to low doses of the toxin (similar to a vaccination). By exposing your body to low doses of certain stresses you build up a tolerance, or a resistance, to those stresses. Strength training, endurance training, speed training, calorie restriction, stretching…all of these are forms and approaches to hormesis.
True, you may not have to worry about enduring the cold for too long, but do you strength train because you might have to build a log cabin for your only shelter someday? Do you fast because you have to ration your food to make sure you survive for as long as possible?
No. You don’t. You do these things to prepare yourself for life and to be the one in control. If you haven’t dealt with self-imposed stress, how do you expect to deal with it when you have no control over what is causing the stress?
Being able to withstand the cold is easily one of the most accurate indicators of mental toughness. If you can willingly subject yourself to a cold shower or an ice bath when you know that a hot, steamy shower is only a few seconds away, then you have an amount of mental toughness that most people will never experience.
For athletes who play outdoors this mental toughness is mandatory to be successful. Ever see the Packers play at home on a playoff run? Don't tell me these guys aren't mentally tough and focused on their goal.
For the everyday person this amount of mental toughness may not be necessary, but do you really think it would hurt to have it? Mental toughness is a precursor to success in every aspect.
Ice Baths Reduces Aches and Pains
Any athlete knows the importance of reducing the aches and pains of daily grueling practices. If you can't recover from the practice on Monday you're more likely to perform well below your abilities on Tuesday and very possibly could be sitting on the bench by Wednesday.
Nobody wants that. That's why ice baths are common among all professional sports, 99% of college sports and a decent amount of elite level high school sports.
The reason behind the pain is simple: excess pressure. After an intense training session or practice you feel pain and discomfort because of micro trauma in the muscles you used throughout your training session. This micro trauma has to be healed, so your body reacts just like it would if you broke your arm or hit your head…it increases blood flow and the presence of fluid around the injury. The increase in blood flow is to help flush any waste products and to introduce nutrients and other elements to promote healing. The swelling is meant to immobilize the injury to prevent further injuries to occur. This extra fluid is what causes stiffness and soreness in your muscles.
Since micro trauma isn't nearly as serious as a broken femur, most people are able to train through the discomfort. The stiffness caused by the extra fluid means they are not able to train at or near 100% but are still able to get by.
When using an ice bath for recovery you mitigate this extra fluid from being present in the muscle and ease the amount of stiffness and soreness felt after an intense workout. The cold water causes the blood vessels in the submerged body part (usually the entire lower body) to constrict and limit the amount of blood flow able to get to the body part. This keeps the extra fluid out and immediately eases the pain felt from the micro trauma in the muscles.
After you get out of the ice bath and your body begins to warm back up the blood vessels will dilate and go back to their normal size. This change from constricted to dilated will cause more blood to rush through the vessels. This new “flush” of fresh blood will transport any nutrients, minerals and building blocks to the damaged tissue so it can begin repairing itself, and at the same time, more efficiently transports any waste away from the muscle to be taken care of by the body.
This is just like putting an ice pack on a sore muscle to ease the pain. Except now you're able to cover a larger surface area and keep the temperature consistent. When you use an ice pack it is generally accepted that you shouldn't leave it on for more than 20 minutes. After the 20 minutes is over and you remove the ice pack the temperature of the muscle will almost instantaneously begin to rise.
This is because ice packs only effectively treat surface level pain. Only the blood directly next to the surface of the skin, in the capillaries, will cool down significantly. Think back to biology 101, how big are the capillaries compared to veins and arteries? In case you don't remember or don't feel like looking it up, they are incredibly small. The amount of blood you can cool using an ice pack is miniscule. Just like in the ice bath, when your body is exposed to cold, it automatically constricts the blood vessels where the cold is being applied. This reduces the amount of blood that is actually able to be cooled by the ice pack even more and essentially makes it only useful to treat shallow pain.
Now think about sitting submerged in cold water up to your hips, or even just your knees. This covers much, much more surface area than any ice pack ever could. More surface area means more blood being cooled as it passes through the capillaries and more cooled blood passing through your sore muscles means better recovery and less pain.
Is your interest piqued? Let's hope so. Head over here to sign up and get "Iced Out!", a 27 page report on more than you'd ever think there was to know about using ice baths and cold water therapy to your benefit.
Who knew ice baths could be so fun????!!