I recently became the proud owner of a beer fridge. This is a fridge that lives in our garage which is now home to cold beer, white wine, bubbly and other chilled drinks that do not fill up our food fridge. This is a riveting, interesting read, isn’t it?
You see, I have been reading many accounts of how my favourite endurance runners have ice baths, so I thought “I’ve lived in Finland, I have dived into ice covered lakes in the middle of snowy forests when it has been minus 26 degrees outside before, I can cope with an ice bath once a week, can’t I?”
So I had other motivation for this new appliance that lives in our garage… The freezer compartment is filled with sacks of ice cubes that we simply do not have space for in our home freezer. Then, when I have finished with my weekly long run (anything 15 miles or more), having showered, I pull on a warm jumper of some kind, fill the bath with cold water, sit in it, immersing my legs and empty a sack of ice cubes in with me while I sit and endure it for approximately 12 minutes. If it’s good enough for Mo Farah, it’s good enough for me!
I don’t have access to facilities that boast an ice bath when I have finished my runs, so the homemade variety os something that I am going to be working into my recovery schedule for a few weeks before my full Berlin marathon training schedule gets underway – if I think the benefits are worth it, I’ll work it into my schedule proper.
Those regular readers familiar with my work will know of my love for all things evidence-based. If someone told me of a homeopathic remedy that boosted running endurance, I’d likely politely sidestep it. So prior to choosing to engage in a weekly ice bath, I wanted to have a look at the evidence base supporting it, or not as the case may be.
My ongoing research work in the hypnotherapy field has helped to familiarise me with the Cochrane review process for assessing interventions making claims of being healthy or beneficial. I was delighted to discover that ice baths (referred to as cold-water immersion in the review) has been the subject of a review by the Cochrane Collaboration. This organisation run by scientists and doctors examine evidence-base for a range of medical care interventions and analyse the evidence base supporting them to give us an honest, accurate account of the efficacy and credibility of those interventions.
The Cochrane review of ice baths examined 17 studies and though the studies were considered low quality and relatively small in size, it was found that there was enough evidence to suggest that immersion in cold water after intense exercise reduced muscle soreness. It was also suggested that ice baths reduced the performance drop that often follows long runs, for example.
I decided to read up some more and the evidence tended to suggest around 12 minutes was the optimum time and the water temperature ought to be around 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 10-15 celsius. Yeah, I went a bought a thermometer too, just to be as scientific as possible (though anal might be a better description).
During my explorations, I also stumbled upon an additional systematic review of the evidence supporting ice baths. Ian Wilcock and colleagues (2006) investigated how ice baths helped reduce muscle soreness. I sort of wish I had not read this, because they suggested that the benefit from ice baths is as much to do with the pressure of the immersion than it is the temperature of the water. Not too dissimilar to the notion of compression stocking, for example.
However, with studies that have compared ice cold water immersion and room-temperature water, cold water tends to offer up a number of additional benefits; the reduction of inflammation and damage caused by the long-duration workout (just as physics and doctors often advise icing an injury in the first instance), the cold lessens nerve impulses, which in turn reduces pain from soreness, and the evidence also suggests (but cannot explain why in full) that the ice water reduces further the levels of biological markers of muscular damage. There are opponents to doing it citing lack of evidence, but heck anything that offers me advanced recovery is great in my book – and for me, even if I get some psychological placebo benefit, I’ll be happy.
For me, it was enough to secure my faith and warrant the trial that I have now started, I’ll report back with how I get on.
However, this running blog is about us using our minds to help us with our running and this is a prime place where your mindset is going to serve you well. because it is not the simplest of tasks to plunge yourself into an ice bath. Upon the first toe being dipped in, the inclination is to pull it out and run away. So here are my list of tips for how to use your mind to stay immersed in ice water for the beneficial 12 minutes:
1: Mental rehearsal: Mentally rehearse the ice bath in your mind. You can do this during your run or you can do it on any previous opportunity. Imagine sitting in the ice bath, being comfortable, coping with it easily and gaining all the benefits.
2: Distraction: Safe distraction means that you keep tuned into yourself enough to know if you have stayed in too long (though I fully insist upon you having a timer set when you do any ice bath).
Think of a safe place, a favourite place that you enjoy Engage in a pleasant memory, think of some dreams you have for yourself and your life. Listen to music, or the radio, or even have a cup of tea on the go – it distracts focus and also keeps you warm inside.
With distraction, you could also have an alternate point of focus, such as focusing upon your fingers that are warm and comfortable out of the water. Or focus on a picture, read a book, or recant a mantra to yourself – these things are all made exponentially better if you know self-hypnosis to use in combination.
3: Relaxation: Learning how to relax and thus lower tension and response to cold takes some practice in my experience. Therefore, you might use mental rehearsal as a precursor to this process; imagine seeing yourself in the bath, being relaxed. Then fully imagine being in the bath and remain relaxed, then you have created an association of relaxation to the ice bath.
Then use any progressive relaxation technique you know of when you immerse yourself in the bath.
4: Soothing mental imagery: In addition to some of the imagery I have mentioned already (safe place etc) you can imagine soothing, warming colours moving through your legs. You can imagine being sat near a fireplace, or being tucked up in bed, or even imagine snuggling up to a hot water bottle.
This is often helped with practice and mental rehearsal as mentioned with previous techniques. You can have a go at this technique too: Deep Heat for Runners.
5: Positive self-talk: Using your cognitions in an undeniably convincing fashion to tell yourself that you are comfortable. If your internal dialogue is thinking “EEEEKKKK!! C-C-C-Cold… F-F-F-Freeeeezing-g-g-g-g!!” Then it is likely to contribute to your inability to stay in the water for the optimum timescale. Instead, be assured and comforting with your internal dialogue and use words that you associate with warm holidays and comfort.
Remind yourself of the benefits you are deriving – speeding up your recovery time, lessening the performance drop and being able to train harder and better as a result.
6: Self-hypnosis: I cannot put it into a soundbite or nutshell. There are many self-hypnosis techniques included in this blog or at my main hypnosis blog for free. Or you can go get my book The Science of Self-Hypnosis as it’ll equip you greatly for this and may other applications.
There you have it, the evidence suggests this will benefit you and here are the tips to equip you to cope with it if you fancy experimenting with it as I am. Fingers crossed (like that’s going to help).
Bleakley, C.; McDonough, S.; Gardner, E.; Baxter, G.; Hopkins, J.; Davidson, G. (2012) Cold water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (2).
Wilcock, I. M.; Cronin, J. B.; Hing, W. A. (2006) Physiological response to water immersion-A method for sport recovery. Sports Medicine, 36 (9), 747-765.