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Do post-run ice baths help recovery?

Pam LeBlanc

Editor’s note: This article was originally published August 27, 2013

I’ve always hated slipping into a bathtub bobbing with ice cubes, but because I thought it helped my legs recover after a long run, I’ve suffered through my share of icy plunges.

Now comes word that the big chill might not be doing any good. A new study from the University of New Hampshire found that runners weren’t any less sore or swollen when they iced down after a run.

“It doesn’t help you feel better and it doesn’t help you perform better,” says Naomi Crystal, the lead researcher in the study, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. “Ice baths are very popular as a treatment, but the research is really mixed as to whether they’re beneficial.”

For the study, 20 recreationally active college-age men ran for 40 minutes downhill at a grade of minus 10 percent. Half the subjects then stood for 20 minutes in a tub filled thigh-high with 40-degree ice water.

Measurements were taken at intervals from one hour to three days after the exercise. Researchers measured the subjects’ perceived soreness while walking down stairs; tested quadriceps strength on a resistance machine; measured thigh circumference; and looked at the concentration of plasma chemokine ligand 2, a marker for inflammation, in blood samples.

They found no difference in strength or perceived soreness among the subjects, and thigh circumference did not change significantly for any of the subjects.

Concentrations of CCL2 were not statistically significant, but tended to be slightly lower in the runners who took ice baths. Results were inconclusive.

I’m not cancelling my post run ice baths and dips in Barton Springs just yet. Maybe it’s in my mind, but something about the brisk water and numbing sensation just make me feel better.

But only after I’ve toweled off and warmed up again.