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6 Ice Bath Benefits + What Is The Optimal Time To Stay In?

A complete guide to getting the most out of your icy plunge.

All our fitness and training resources are rigorously vetted by our expert team and adhere to our Exercise Advice Guidelines.

Unless it’s a hot and humid summer day and you’ve just finished a tough tempo run, the mere thought of plunging into an ice bath after a run will probably have you shuddering and shivering.

Post-exercise ice baths, or cold water immersion, is a popular recovery and injury-prevention modality in athletic training and sports rehab.

Ice baths may offer a plethora of potential benefits, including reduced muscle soreness and inflammation, aiding in faster recovery, and improved performance.

With an ideal duration of 11-15 minutes, incorporating ice baths into your post-run routine can enhance your overall well-being and running experience.

Even though the evidence demonstrating the efficacy of post-workout ice baths on recovery has been inconclusive, many elite and professional runners swear by their chilly soak.

Curious to see if ice baths may be a missing piece of your running recovery and performance?

A man in nature jumps into icy water.

What Is An Ice Bath?

An ice bath is a form of cryotherapy (cold therapy). 1Allan, R., Malone, J., Alexander, J., Vorajee, S., Ihsan, M., Gregson, W., Kwiecien, S., & Mawhinney, C. (2022). Cold for centuries: a brief history of cryotherapies to improve health, injury and post-exercise recovery. European Journal of Applied Physiology122(5). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-022-04915-5

It involves soaking the legs, hips, and lower back in a tub of very cold water or ice water after a workout to reduce inflammation and soreness

6 Ice Bath Benefits

There are several potential ice bath health benefits for runners:

A runner clutches their quad.

#1: Ice Baths May Reduce Muscle Soreness

Sore after a race, long run, or hard workout? The primary purpose of ice baths is to reduce sore muscles, and many studies2Moore, E., Fuller, J. T., Buckley, J. D., Saunders, S., Halson, S. L., Broatch, J. R., & Bellenger, C. R. (2022). Impact of Cold-Water Immersion Compared with Passive Recovery Following a Single Bout of Strenuous Exercise on Athletic Performance in Physically Active Participants: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis and Meta-regression. Sports Medicine52(7). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-022-01644-9 has indeed demonstrated that ice baths can reduce soreness after exercise.

The cold exposure causes the blood vessels in your submerged legs and hips to engage vasoconstriction.

When you get out of the ice bath, these blood vessels change from constriction and dilate rapidly, flushing out the metabolic waste products that can cause delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and increase nutritive blood flow.

#2: Ice Baths May Reduce Inflammation 

The cryotherapy and hydrostatic pressure of water against your legs in an ice bath can reduce inflammation after a run. 

#3: Ice Baths May Reduce Post-Workout Fatigue

The decrease in DOMS and other recovery-promoting benefits of ice baths can reduce fatigue after your run so that you bounce back faster for the next workout.

Feet in a bowl with a temperature gauge.

#4: Ice Baths May Improve Performance 

As many runners feel like ice baths facilitate recovery from workouts, regularly doing ice baths can potentially allow you to train harder more often, which can lead to greater increases in performance.

#5: Ice Baths May Improve Sleep

There is some evidence3Chauvineau, M., Pasquier, F., Guyot, V., Aloulou, A., & Nedelec, M. (2021). Effect of the Depth of Cold Water Immersion on Sleep Architecture and Recovery Among Well-Trained Male Endurance Runners. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living3. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2021.659990to suggest that cold water immersion therapy may improve sleep. However, it’s important to note that results were most favorable when the entire body was submerged, including the athlete’s head.

This benefit is thought to be largely due to the effect of the ice bath on the central nervous system.

#6: Ice Baths May Increase Mental Toughness

Perhaps the most uncontested of the cold plunge benefits is the mental toughness you can develop by forcing yourself to get in and endure the wildly uncomfortable soak. 

Running takes grit, determination, and perseverance, and many elite athletes say that training yourself to endure an ice bath translates to your toughness as an athlete. 

When you dip your toe into an ice bath, everything in your head screams, “I can’t get in that!” However, if you work up the nerve and get in, the initial intense discomfort quickly wanes as you become numb. 

Much like staring down a difficult and daunting workout or race, you find that your mind can try to talk you out of things you can absolutely do.

A thermometer sits in ice.

How Long Should You Stay In An Ice Bath?

So, what amount of time is ideal?

The answer to how long should an ice bath be is what generally pulls us away from the idea. The general consensus from the literature is that the ideal length of an ice bath is 11-15 minutes.4Machado, A. F., Ferreira, P. H., Micheletti, J. K., de Almeida, A. C., Lemes, Í. R., Vanderlei, F. M., Netto Junior, J., & Pastre, C. M. (2015). Can Water Temperature and Immersion Time Influence the Effect of Cold Water Immersion on Muscle Soreness? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine46(4), 503–514. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-015-0431-7

‌This maximizes the cryotherapy benefits of cold water immersion without inducing excessive stress or putting tissues at risk of frostbite or the body at risk of hypothermia.

If you are a beginner to ice baths, start with 5 minutes and gradually work your way up to a maximum of 15 minutes.

A close up of a stopwatch.

Do Ice Baths Work?

There have been conflicting results from studies investigating the efficacy of ice baths on muscle recovery.

Some studies5Kwiecien, S. Y., Kwiecien, S. Y., McHugh, M. P., McHugh, M. P., Howatson, G., & Howatson, G. (2020). Don’t Lose Your Cool With Cryotherapy: The Application of Phase Change Material for Prolonged Cooling in Athletic Recovery and Beyond. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living2. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2020.00118 have shown significant decreases in muscle soreness and inflammatory markers, while others have not. Similarly, some studies6Mooventhan, A., & Nivethitha, L. (2014). Scientific evidence-based effects of hydrotherapy on various systems of the body. North American Journal of Medical Sciences6(5), 199. https://doi.org/10.4103/1947-2714.132935have shown performance benefits whereas others have not. 

Other studies7Peake, J. M., Roberts, L. A., Figueiredo, V. C., Egner, I., Krog, S., Aas, S. N., Suzuki, K., Markworth, J. F., Coombes, J. S., Cameron-Smith, D., & Raastad, T. (2016). The effects of cold water immersion and active recovery on inflammation and cell stress responses in human skeletal muscle after resistance exercise. The Journal of Physiology595(3), 695–711. https://doi.org/10.1113/jp272881have concluded that ice baths may be an effective recovery modality, but no more so than active recovery options like light jogging.

How Cold Should An Ice Bath Be?

So, what should the water temperature be?

Water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius and 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Most rehabilitation specialists say an ice bath should be about 10-15 degrees Celsius or 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit.

What To Do After An Ice Bath

After an ice bath, carefully get out, towel off completely, and put on warm, dry clothes. Note that your feet may be numb, so you should move around carefully and deliberately so that you don’t fall.

If you are really at a cold temperature, you might consider taking a warm shower, sauna, and drinking hot beverages to gradually increase your body temperature.

Be careful with the temperature of your shower water, as your skin may not be able to properly detect how hot the water is.

Are Ice Baths Dangerous?

Cold water exposure through cold baths is generally considered safe for most runners with a few notable precautions:

Extended cold exposure can lead to frostbite or hypothermia. Do NOT stay in the ice bath longer than 15 minutes.

If you suffer from health conditions like circulation issues or have peripheral neuropathy, do NOT take an ice bath without consulting your healthcare provider or healthcare professional first.

If you have medical conditions, are pregnant, have diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, low blood pressure, or POTS, ice baths may not be safe. Consult your healthcare provider prior to trying an ice bath after a run.

A bathtub with flowers in it.

How To Do An Ice Bath At Home

Unless you have access to an athletic training room, chances are you’ll have to fashion an ice bath at home. You’ll need a bathtub or a very large container like a child-sized swimming pool.

Fill the tub with cold water and ice. Most experts recommend a water-to-ice ratio of 3:1.

  • Unless you only want to soak your lower legs, fill the tub as high as possible, leaving room to accommodate the water your body will displace when you get it.
  • Wait about 10 minutes to allow the water to chill. If you have a thermometer, you’re striving for 10-15 degrees C or 50-60 degrees F.
  • Take a deep breath and get in!
  • Soak for 5-15 minutes. 

If you don’t have a bathtub at home but still want to reap the wellness benefits, try a cold shower.

Are cold showers as good as ice baths?

Although ice baths involve immersing the body in much colder temperatures for a longer duration, which may provide more significant physiological effects, cold showers can still be a convenient and accessible way to experience some level of cold therapy.

A man with a beard emerges from icey water.

Ice Bath Tips

Getting in and staying in an ice bath isn’t easy.

Here are a few tips to make your ice bath sessions more tolerable so you can reap the ice bath benefits:

Just Get In

Tentatively dipping a toe in can make the process overwhelmingly unappealing. Take a deep breath, and try to get in all at once.

Buy Wetsuit Booties

Your feet are often the most uncomfortable, but neoprene wetsuit socks or booties can provide the protection you need.

Sip Tea

A hot beverage can ease the cold.

A cup of tea in a glass mug.

Layer Up

If your torso can’t fit in the tub under the water anyway, wear a sweatshirt or top to keep your upper body warm.

Add Ice As You Go

If you are really struggling to get in your ice bath, just start with cold water. Gradually reduce the temperature range as you go.

After you get in, pour in the ice. You’ll want to stay in the ice bath a little longer (up to 20 minutes) since the water won’t be as cold to start, but it’s a more approachable way to acclimate to the ice bath.

Now that we’ve discussed the potential ice bath benefits, and tips to take one, why not give it a try to see if it can help you improve your recovery?

You can also take a look at some of our other helpful recovery tips in our article: Sore Legs After Running? Try These Recovery Techniques.

References

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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