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Do Ice Baths Really Help After a Long Run?

ASK THE PHYSIO Kate Senini opened her own clinic, Pure Physio with colleague Andrew Sargent in the Melbourne CBD, in 2010.  A keen runner, Kate’s passion is running specific injuries. She enthusiastically spreads her knowledge through lectures, seminars and freelance writing. Contact Kate on 03 9090 7325 or follow Pure Physio on Facebook.

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The simple answer is yes.  Nobody likes to sit in an ice filled bath, or stand in the icy water of the sea at the end of a hard training run. But there’s a lot of merit in helping our muscle tissue recover quickly – allowing us to start the next run with fresh legs.

Understanding the value of ice baths requires an understanding of how muscles actually work. Muscles are very similar to complex little engines. They contain lots of individual muscle fibres operating like cylinders that cross over one another as they contract, and lengthen away from one another as they relax.

The individual fibres are arranged in bundles that operate as a unit when under load. The size of the bundles in a muscle is relative to the amount of load that muscle is placed under during an individual’s ‘normal’ level of training.

Increased training outside the individuals’ ‘normal’ program (longer distance running or more interval and hill training) will affect the ability of these muscle fibres to function. The increased duration of load and impact causes the fibres to become fatigued, which leads to micro trauma and tears.

Inflammation of the affected muscle tissue then results, as well as protective tensioning of the surrounding fibres. This inflammation causes sensitivity of the nerve endings within the muscle, which causes pain, and localised swelling resulting in the sensation of muscle stiffness or tightness.

This sensation, as well as inflammatory waste products produced, are often referred to as DOMS – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.

Ice is important in settling the inflammatory response quickly. It acts by constricting the blood vessels and capillaries within our muscle tissue, decreasing the chemicals that flood to an area in response to micro tearing. This allows the body to repair damaged muscle fibres more quickly, and also stimulates the body to build new muscle fibres in order to cope with the higher volume of training. In this way, our body can adapt to greater distances or speeds required to meet the training demands.

So the next time you shudder at the thought of the ice-cold water, think how much better you will be on your next run!

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