Post-Workout Plunge: Cold Therapy to Reduce Soreness, Prevent Injury

Julie Ryan Evans

Flickr photo by ianduffy
After complaining to a friend about the aches and pains in my legs from running, she suggested I try the cold plunge.

Immersing my body in a giant vat of ice water sounded about as appealing as ... potty training my son again (one of the most undesirable things that springs to mind). But I like to run and want to do whatever I can to prevent injury and pain, so I decided to take the plunge, literally.

Cold therapy, officially known as "cryotherapy" (probably because it makes you want to cry), is supposed to help constrict the blood vessels in muscles, get rid of lactic acid, and prevent inflammation, resulting in less soreness and fewer injuries.

The cold plunge at my gym sits next to the hot tub and looks very similar to one, but it feels nothing, and I mean nothing, like one. The first time I attempted it and its measly 30-something degrees, I think I was able to stay in for all of about five seconds.

Everyone said I'd need to work up to it. So I did a little more each time, with the goal of staying in for an entire song. I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to do it; it was so ... cold.

Then someone gave me the strangest, but best, tip -- to keep my socks on while I got into the tub.

The idea of cold, wet socks on my feet sounded even worse, but I tried it. And for whatever reason, it made a huge difference. It didn't suddenly become warm, but it became more bearable, and I'm now often able to stay in for a couple of songs.  

While there's debate in the scientific community as to the actual benefits of cold therapy, many professional athletes say it's an integral part of their training. Personally, I can absolutely feel the results. I'm able to run longer on multiple consecutive days with much less soreness.

I still dread doing it each time, but I'm always glad after the fact.

Not every gym has a cold plunge, but you can get the same results from an ice bath at home. Just pour a couple of bags of ice into your tub, fill with water, and see how long you can stand it -- ideally 10 to 15 minutes.

Nikki Kimball, a physical therapist and amazing runner, described her tactics for making it through a ice bath for Runner's World: "Before getting in, I put on a down jacket and a hat and neoprene booties, make myself a cup of hot tea, and collect some entertaining reading material to help the next 15 to 20 minutes pass quickly."

Valerie Bertinelli is also a fan of cold therapy and took an ice bath after completing the Boston marathon recently.

What about you -- do you use a cold plunge or take an ice bath after a workout?

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