Ice Therapy

author : Team BT
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Is ice therapy all it's cracked up to be?

Ever heard of marathon runners dowsing themselves in an ice bath after training or triathletes icing down after a competition? Acute attention to recovery plays an important role in triathlon training to boost speed, efficiency, and performance - almost as much as the actual activity itself. Ice (or cold) therapy has been touted across various sports as a go-to recovery aid.

What does ice therapy do exactly?

  • Slows the conductivity of spasming nerves sending pain signals to the brain

  • Numbs the area of application providing an analgesic effect and limiting soreness down the line

  • Constricts (narrows) blood vessels to slow the influx of blood and reduce swelling

Beneficial for aiding a running injury like a sprained ankle or strained hamstring, ice therapy also has a unique benefit of speeding muscle recovery after intense training. As most triathletes know, high intensity workouts, weight lifting, and training for competition all helps build muscle at the temporary cost of it’s own damage. Vigorous activity creates tiny tears in muscle tissue which after a workout the body goes about repairing. Microscopic satellite cells in the muscle starting fusing together to build protein strands which heal the muscle tissue fibers and even grow new ones.

After ice packs, cold compresses, or ice baths are applied for 10 to 20 minutes, they are removed and underlying tissues start to warm up. As the internal temperature increases, blood vessels contract and widen, and blood rich with nutrients and oxygen comes rushing in. It flushes out built up toxins and lactic acid, and energizes cell production to fuel muscle repair. Ice therapy can be administered a few ways:

Ice Packs

Re-usable ice packs are cost-effective and convenient, when you’re at home. Ice packs should never be applied directly to skin but rather with a barrier like a wrap or towel between it and your body - this, and icing for no more than 20 minutes at a time, helps prevent ice burn. 

Disposable ice packs are great to have on hand at competitions and during training. They can cool to icy temperatures via chemical reactions which occur when you shake or break what is inside them. More expensive and less eco-friendly, disposable ice packs are still a smart tool to have on hand when training away from home or the gym.

Ice Massage

While massage post workout was shown in one 2012 study to aid healing by stimulating blood flow and mitochondrial production, ice massage may lend an additional hand. Ask a friend or training partner to take a large ice cube and rub it in concentric circles over stressed and inflamed muscles - most effectively in the spinal lumbar region (lower back). The quick movement prevents ice burn, but ice massage still should not be administered for more than 5 minutes at a time.

Ice Bath

The attraction of ice baths with athletes is largely that the application of cold therapy is spread to a wider group of key muscles than if an ice pack had just been applied locally. Hydrotherapy via cold water immersion gained trending popularity for some time, especially when national sports team started requiring them after games, according to Sports Illustrated. In addition to constricting blood vessels, reducing inflammation, and numbing nerve endings, it is thought that cold water immersion also slows metabolic activity in the submerged muscle groups. Experts recommend not going colder than 50 degrees fahrenheit for a good cold water immersion recovery period.

Cold Therapy Reminders

Like with most recovery suggestions, there are right and wrong ways to administer ice therapy. Here is a quick list: 

  • Ice for at least 10 minutes at a time minimum to induce the cooling effect all the way down into underlying tissues.

  • Never ice for more than 20 minutes at a time to prevent ice burn and speed healing, allow 45 minutes between icing sessions.

  • Ice not just once after a training session but repeatedly through the day up to five times

  • Don’t ignore chronic pain. For example, if knee ice packs temporarily relieve knee pain and inflammation, great! But if you’re finding yourself suffering from knee pain with every exertion, get to a doctor. 

  • Always ice after a run, never before. Icing before can numb vital muscle signals that your brain requires to understand if you are straining, spraining, or extending yourself to much.

Have you tried cold water immersion or post-training icing to speed muscle recovery and enhance performance? Much of the science is either still out or inconclusive in defining ice therapy’s efficacy in straight and narrow terms, but anecdotally, many athletes and competitors agree that it plays an important role in smart recovery. 


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date: June 22, 2017

Team BT