Cold therapy constricts blood vessels and decreases metabolic activity, which reduces swelling and tissue breakdown. Once the skin is no longer in contact with the cold source, the underlying tissues warm up, causing a faster return of blood flow, which helps move the byproducts of cellular breakdown to the lymph system for efficient recycling by the body.
For someone experiencing inflammation from physical effort or an injury -- or if you’re looking to prevent injury -- cold-based therapy is an effective part of a recovery plan. You'll experience decreased muscle soreness, which is not only good for feeling better sooner, but it also preps your muscles better for the next workout. Though you could use individual ice packs, cold-water immersion generally produces a greater and longer lasting change in deep tissues and is a more efficient means of cooling large groups of muscles simultaneously. You should only soak for 10 to 15 minutes max. Otherwise, the cold can do damage to your skin. You might also notice that when you exit an ice bath, your legs feel stiff. Don’t worry, that's normal. That's the cold working on repairing the trauma to your tissue on a micro-level, and you'll feel much better the next day.
Runners benefit from ice baths and cold therapy. The body of science suggests that even though the impact of cold immersion post-workout can be minimal, it can do some good. At the end of the day, the aim is to prepare the body for the next workout, and cold is an important factor when rebuilding recovery -- along with sleep, diet, hydration, stretching, and more.
To make an ice bath experience more tolerable, fill the tub with two to three bags of crushed ice, then add cold water to a height that will cover you nearly to the waist when seated. Before getting in, you can put on a sweatshirt and warm hat. You may also want to have a cup of hot cocoa or tea handy!
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