› Ice Baths

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Optimise Your Recovery -
Ice Baths And Other Training Recovery Techniques

Ice baths are just one tool available to enhance your training recovery. If you have read our training recovery page you will know that you shouldn't leave your recovery to chance. This should be planned in the same way that you plan your training.

As well as thinking about what training sessions you need to do to get fitter, you also need to work out what the ensuing fatigue from each session is going to be and plan your recovery strategies appropriately.

Ice baths can be effective but only if used properly, so read on to find out how to make the most of these.

Recovery Techniques Available

There are many different things you can try to optimise your training recovery.

Some examples are:

  • Ice baths
  • Contrast bathing – hot/cold water immersion
  • Compression garments
  • Nutrition – hydration and refuel protein/carbohydrate shakes
  • Sports Massage
  • Stretching
  • Active recovery – e.g. gentle swimming/cycling

Ice Baths

Ice baths are thought to have several beneficial effects:

  • Improve blood circulation to help remove waste products from the muscles
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Improve muscle activation
  • Reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)
  • Improve next day training ability
  • Allow optimum fuel recovery
  • Psychological benefits –improve well being / relaxation
  • Overall improved muscle function

The temperature does not need to be freezing. Around 10 - 15C/50 - 60F is usually recommended. Ideally you would immerse your whole body, and be standing if possible, for up to a maximum of 15 minutes.

Ice baths can be useful up to 48 hours after training or racing. Ice baths have been found to have the biggest effect following particularly damaging training sessions. So for example high intensity sessions, weights or plyometric sessions.

There is however a school of thought that long-term use of ice bath sessions can actually hamper the adaptations to training. The inflammation and fatigue you create in a session causes your body to adapt. If you reduce this then there is the potential that you reduce the adaptation to that session.

We would suggest using ice baths sparingly, usually in the time before a race when short-term recovery is more important than long-term training adaptations.

Contrast Bathing / Contrast Water Therapy

The theory is that by moving from hot water to cold, blood flow is improved and waste products are flushed more rapidly from the muscles. Similar to ice baths this technique has been shown to reduce inflammation in the muscles.

It is probably less popular than ice baths, and doesn’t appear to be as beneficial, but it is better than no treatment at all. Due to the potential negative effects of long-term ice bath use we would generally advise contrast bathing as a more regular recovery aid.

You should alternate between hot and cold water on a 1:1 timing ratio. Research has shown that 7 rotations of 1 minute of hot water immersion followed by 1 minute of cold water immersion to be most effective.

You should always finish with cold water, and aim to use this technique immediately after training or racing.

Nutrition

Taking on board carbohydrate and protein immediately post training or racing (within 30 minutes) enhances your recovery. This is due to a greater rate of delivery of carbohydrates to the muscles, so the muscle stores can be more quickly completely resynthesised.

Consuming a combination of protein and carbohydrate has been shown to reduce the decrement in muscle function and delayed onset muscle soreness compared to just carbohydrate alone.

In addition, recent research indicates there may be added benefits of combining this with caffeine, as this increases the rate at which glycogen is restored in the muscles.

There are many nutritional supplements available claiming to enhance recovery. These should be used with caution, particularly if you are liable to be drug-tested. Even if you aren’t, they can be quite costly and often don’t do much more than a well-planned, well balanced diet can do for you.

For some impartial advice about supplements have a look at the Australian Institute of Sport’s nutrition website.

The main thing you need to do with regards nutrition and recovery is make sure that you take the appropriate food or drink to training and races so that you don’t delay your recovery.

Have a look at our nutrition pages for more information about the best nutrition practices for training and racing.

Compression Garments

Compression kit is becoming more and more popular and there is a variety of different kinds available commercially.

Compression kit is designed to apply pressure, and so increases the velocity of blood flow in and to the muscles. This is thought to enhance the removal of waste products and also reduce muscle damage.

Compression socks and other compression garments can also be used during training and some research studies (but not all) have found that compression kit improves performance in some types of activities.

With regards using it for training recovery, the kit can be worn immediately after a session for up to 96 hours post training. You can even sleep in it. Compression garments have been shown to reduce muscle swelling.

We have seen a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting the benefits of compression tights. For example several triathletes who had regular weekly massages were asked by their masseur if they had had a light training week because their legs were in good shape. In fact the athletes had just started using compression tights.

Massage

Many claims are made about the benefits of massage but there is actually limited evidence to support this. Massage can increase peripheral blood flow in localised areas and the mechanical warming and stretching of soft tissues provides temporary flexibility gains. Increased muscle relaxation is also demonstrated.

Studies have shown that massage can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and muscle swelling. However no positive effect on actual muscle function has been shown.

Massage does appear to have a positive psychological impact, with improved mood and increased wellbeing regularly being cited as benefits.

Sports massage can be effectively used from immediately after a training session or race up to 72 hours afterwards.

There is also a lot of anecdotal evidence that massage can reduce injury rates. Athletes training multiple sessions per day over long periods will find their muscles tighten up and even with a well structured stretching programme it can still be difficult to prevent this happening without the use of massage.

Stretching

Research has supported claims that static stretching during warm up does not reduce risk of local muscle injury. However stretching after training and racing has been shown to reduce injury risk.

In practical terms some gentle stretching can easily be incorporated into your warm-down. Focus on the main muscle groups used during your session or any areas that you feel are ‘tight’ or causing you any problems.

Active Recovery

As a triathlete possibly doing many hours of training, recovering by doing more exercise can seem wrong, and even hard to fit into your schedule!

However doing some gentle activity on rest days can help to alleviate muscle soreness and restore muscle function.

This MUST be exercise of an EASY intensity otherwise it is a training session not a recovery session! Activities that are non-weight bearing such as aqua jogging or cross training are ideal.

Sleep

Not really a tool as such, but a good nights sleep is probably one of the most important (and undervalued) training recovery modes. 7 – 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep help you recover and adapt to training.

However too much sleep, late nights, sleeping for long periods in the day, sleeping in or travel across time zones can all have a negative impact on sleep patterns.

Everyone needs different amounts of sleep - how much you need is however much it takes to not be sleepy the next day.

The immune system is boosted by the hormone melatonin during the middle of the night. Also, the lighter stages of sleep help reinforce neural pathways that have been stimulated by training. Dreaming helps you feel less stressed.

Research has shown that exercise increases “deep sleep” - the most important part of sleep during which reparative hormones help regenerate muscles and connective tissue.

If we are deprived of deep sleep we lose our ability to function properly – both physically and mentally.

Relaxation is just as important as sleep. If you are stressed about things then your training recovery will be affected. So finding ways to relax if you feel tired can help.

How Best To Use These Different Recovery Tools

Research hasn’t been carried out into the long-term effects of some of these training recovery methods.

For example there is a school of thought that using ice baths every day could be detrimental. Your body adapts and improves by being exposed to stressors, and if these are minimised, then maybe you won’t actually adapt to those stressors and improve.

If you are ill or injured you should use cold therapies with caution and particularly with injury you should seek medical advice first.

The best form of action is likely to be the use of a combination of the different training recovery tools, and then altering these depending on the type of session you have done, how you are feeling and what training you have coming up.

How do you know if you're recovered? Read our monitoring recovery page!

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