Recovery

The Benefits of Cold Plunging for Runners

Cold plunging, also known as cold water immersion, has become an increasingly popular recovery method for athletes of all levels. But can a quick dip in chilly water really help runners recover faster and reach new performance heights? Let’s take a deep dive into the science and benefits of cold plunging for runners.

Key Takeaways

CategoryDetails
What is Cold Plunging?Immersion in 50-59°F (10-15°C) water for a short time. Triggers vasoconstriction and vasodilation.
Physiological EffectsConstricts blood vessels, reduces swelling, increases circulation. Activates immune system, influences hormones.
Benefits for RunnersFaster recovery, reduced soreness, potential injury prevention. Improved circulation, mental resilience.
Research FindingsReduced DOMS, improved fatigue perception, enhanced next-day performance. Limited data on long-term adaptations.
Best PracticesWater at 50-59°F (10-15°C) for 5-15 minutes. Plunge 1-2 times per day or as needed, within 30 minutes after running.
Ideal CandidatesHigh mileage, marathon, and ultra runners. Athletes training multiple times per day, recovering from injury, and older runners. Competitive athletes.
Cold Plunge ProtocolGentle warm-up, change into swimwear, slow immersion, Build up to 5-10 minutes in cold water, dry off, light activity post-plunge.
DIY Cold Plunging OptionsCold plunge pools, ice baths, natural waters, cold showers.
Overall ConclusionCold plunging can support faster recovery, minimise soreness, and enhance running performance with proper safety precautions.

What is Cold Plunging?

Cold plunging refers to fully immersing the body in cold water for a short period of time. The optimal water temperature is between 50-59°F (10-15°C). This cold exposure triggers the mammalian dive reflex, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and initiates vasoconstriction. The blood vessels constrict to prevent body heat loss and blood flows to the vital organs.

After emerging from the cold water, vasodilation occurs as the blood vessels open up. This helps flush waste products and toxins from the muscles and delivers nutrient-rich blood flow to repair damaged tissue. The cold also dampens swelling and inflammation.

The Physiological Effects of Cold Plunging

Here are some of the key physiological effects that occur with cold water immersion:

  • Constricted blood vessels: Colder temperatures cause blood vessels to constrict to preserve core body heat. This helps flush waste products from muscles.
  • Reduced swelling: The cold reduces swelling and inflammation in muscles and joints.
  • Increased circulation: When you get out of the cold, increased circulation delivers oxygen and nutrients to tissues.
  • Improved immunity: Brief cold exposure activates the immune system and releases endorphins.
  • Hormone regulation: Cold plunging influences hormone levels like testosterone and norepinephrine.

The Proposed Benefits for Runners

Advocates claim that cold plunging can provide the following performance and recovery benefits for runners:

  • Faster recovery: The cold speeds up recovery between training sessions by reducing inflammation and flushing waste products from the muscles.
  • Reduced muscle soreness: Cold exposure constricts blood vessels and could help minimize delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
  • Injury prevention: Some research shows that cold plunging may help prevent overuse injuries like stress fractures by reducing inflammation.
  • Improved circulation: The cold-to-warm cycle enhances circulation, oxygen delivery, and nutrient supply to muscles.
  • Mental toughness: Repeated cold exposure activates the sympathetic nervous system and can increase mental resilience.

What Does the Research Say?

An increasing number of studies have investigated cold water immersion for athletes over the past decade. Here’s a summary of some key findings on cold plunging for runners and recovery:

While more research is still needed, the majority of studies report meaningful benefits of cold plunging for reducing muscle soreness and expediting recovery in runners.

The Best Cold Plunge Tub For Runners

If you’re a runner and like the ideas of improving your recovery, we recommend the Runitude Ice Bath Tub. While there are many of these on offer all at a similar price point, the Runitude stands out as it come with 6 re-freezable ice blocks, saving you the expense of the purchase further down the line. Simply drop these back in the freezer after your dip and they’re ready to go for the next day!

Runitude cold plunge tub and imensions

You can check this tub out via the button below. If you make the purchase we make a very small commission, but it hasn’t affected our recommendation and it also really helps us continue bringing you unbiased content.

Best Practices for Cold Plunging

Here are some tips for maximising the benefits of cold plunging:

  • Water temperature – Aim for 50-59°F (10-15°C) water. This is cold enough to get physiological benefits but not so cold as to cause pain.
  • Duration – Studies show benefits with cold water immersion lasting 5-15 minutes. Start with shorter durations of 5-10 minutes.
  • Frequency – Plunge 1-2 times per day during intense training periods or as needed for soreness. Avoid excessive exposure.
  • Timing – The optimal time is within 30 minutes after your run or racing for maximum effects.
  • Safety first – Never plunge alone, enter slowly, and exit immediately if experiencing pain or numbness.

Ideal Candidates for Cold Plunging

Cold plunging is not for everyone. Here are the types of runners who stand to benefit the most:

  • High mileage runners
  • Marathoners and ultra runners
  • Athletes training multiple times per day
  • Runners returning from injury
  • Older runners with longer recovery needs
  • Competitive athletes looking for performance edges

Listen to your body and discontinue cold plunging if it causes any negative effects. Refrain from cold exposure if you have certain medical conditions like Raynaud’s disease. When in doubt, consult your physician.

Cold Plunge Protocol for Runners

Here is a sample cold plunging protocol tailored for runners:

Supplies Needed:

  • Cold plunge pool, bath, tank, or natural body of water
  • Towel
  • Warm clothing
  • Stopwatch

Protocol:

  1. Conduct gentle warm up activity like walking for 5-10 minutes
  2. Change into swimwear
  3. Enter the cold water slowly up to neck level
  4. Remain immersed for 5-15 minutes
  5. Exit slowly and dry off immediately
  6. Get dressed in warm, dry clothes
  7. Engage in light activity like walking to increase circulation

Start with shorter cold exposures of 5 minutes and gradually increase duration as tolerated.

Cold Plunging Options for Home Use

You don’t need fancy equipment to try cold plunging. Here are some do-it-yourself options:

  • Cold plunge pools – Convert a plastic tub into a cold plunge pool or invest in an inexpensive inflatable or collapsible tub. Use ice water or cold packs to achieve desired temperature.
  • Ice baths – Fill your bathtub with cold water and add ice. Monitor the water temperature frequently. This is the most cost-effective option.
  • Natural waters – Rivers, lakes, or oceans can provide an invigorating outdoor cold plunge experience.
  • Cold showers – Simply turn your shower to the coldest setting for a quick cold exposure. Shorten your normal shower time.

Look for plastic tubs or portable pools that are large enough to immerse your full body up to your neck. This maximises the cold exposure.

Putting It All Together for Runners

Incorporating cold water immersion into your training can support faster recovery between workouts, minimize soreness, and potentially help you become a stronger runner. While research continues to evolve, many runners anecdotally report meaningful benefits from regular cold plunging.

Aim to cold plunge about 30 minutes after key training sessions or racing. Start with 5 minutes and build up to 10-15 minutes as tolerated. Consistency is important, so cold plunge at least 3-5 times per week during intense training periods. Listen to your body and take a break if the cold plunging starts to have diminishing returns or negative impacts on your running.

While not a silver bullet, cold plunging is an intriguing and low-cost training tool. Test it out for yourself and see if you notice a difference in your recovery and running performance. Just take the proper safety precautions – never plunge alone and avoid overexposure. With the right protocol, cold water immersion can help take your running to the next level. Just don’t forget your parka!

FAQ About Cold Plunge for Runners

What is cold water therapy, and how does it benefit runners?

Cold water therapy is a technique that involves immersing your body in cold water to help boost recovery. For runners, it can help reduce inflammation in peripheral muscles, reduce muscle pain, and accelerate improvements in cardiovascular fitness

How does a cold plunge help runners recover?

A cold plunge can help rejuvenate leg muscles and speed up recovery after intense workouts. By manually “tricking” your nervous and cardiovascular systems, you can flush more lactic acid and metabolic waste from your body while simultaneously improving circulation

When should runners take an ice bath?

Runners should take an ice bath after intense workouts, not every workout. Cold therapy constricts blood vessels and decreases metabolic activity, which reduces swelling and tissue breakdown and shifts lactic acid from the muscles. However, if you’re trying to set a new personal record or improve your running performance, it might be smartest to stay out of the ice

What is the best way to take an ice bath?

Fill a bathtub or large container with water so that your legs and hips will be submerged. The recommended temperature is between 54-59°F. You can measure the temperature before getting in or go by feel

Are there any other ways to recover after a tough workout that don’t involve submersion in cold water?

Yes, there are other ways to recover after a tough workout, such as stretching, foam rolling, and massage. However, cold water therapy has been reported to benefit the body (and mind) in many ways, and after a tough workout or race, cold water immersion can be particularly useful

Author - Mathew Stuckey

Mathew Stuckey is the founder of Ultramarathon Central, an online platform dedicated to supporting and inspiring ultra runners from all walks of life. With a passion for pushing the limits of what's possible, Mathew has taken on some of the toughest ultra events in the UK, including the Monster Triathlon.

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