The Ice Bath Challenge

The Ice Bath Challenge

By now you have seen an Ice Bucket Challenge or two. It has become a social media craze one hopes will keep going until we have some answers to ALS. It has become a reason to feel good about things that go viral. But as we watch celebrities, athletes, politicians and just regular folks dump buckets of ice over their heads, it got us thinking about long rides, short turn arounds, throbbing quads and cold therapy.

I like hotels for one reason: Ice Machines. Every hotel has one. I used to wonder why hotels found it necessary to place on every floor, a machine dispensing endless amounts of frozen cubes free of charge. But now I do not question their existence. Now I embrace it.

My affection for the Marriot Mr. Freeze earned me some eye rolling during a four-day bike tour/training camp. 10 of us had started in San Jose. We were headed for Los Angeles with stops in Carmel, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. The ride would cover approximately 400 miles and 20 thousand feet of climbing. The trip was described by its organizer as base training but we all knew there would be some pain dished out along the way. Recovery would be key to keeping up and keeping the trip enjoyable.

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A physical therapist started me on ice therapy. At the time I was overtrained and not recovering from my workouts. I was put on a regiment of massage, stretching and icing. The icing, I was told, would accelerate my recovery by reducing inflammation in my muscles. Inflammation is a natural response to strenuous physical activity but it needs to be dealt with so your body can repair the damage and come back stronger. The recovery program along with an adjustment in my training schedule worked to perfection. I went on to have a productive year racing my bicycle.

The scenery and company on our San Jose to L.A. ride were great. Our route was, for the most part, the pacific coast route. A great deal of our riding was on Pacific Coast Highway. The ocean was on our right and California’s rolling coastal hills were on our left. A highlight was day 2, 30 miles from San Luis Obispo. The group was riding down the coast, single-file, easily hitting 30 mph. We had just finished 8 thousand feet of climbing with mostly flat roads in front of us. The sun was nearing the horizon and Hearst Castle was in full view. It was true California beauty and a satisfying day in the saddle.

On the road, we pretty much stayed together. But just after check-in, our group would lose one of its participants. Me. While my training partners were scouting the hot tub, sending out for beers and uploading files to Strava, I was asking hotel staff to point me to the ice machine. Once in the room, I would get out of my cycling clothes, onto the floor and into my stretching routine. My buddies, meantime, were getting into their trunks and into bubbling hot chlorinated water. Once my muscles were properly stretched, I would start a cold bath, grab the ice bucket, a small trash can and head for the ice maker.

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Getting into a tub full of ice water is sort of like a Polar Plunge where crazy northerners jump into half frozen ponds just for kicks. Getting in requires preparation and execution. The bucket and small trash can of ice are placed next to the tub. A couple of deep breaths, then step into the tub, sit and in one motion, grab the buckets of ice and dump. Try not to scream.

If I have done it right the conditions send a good shiver up my spine and cause certain body parts to retreat. As Seinfeld’s George Castanza once said, there is significant shrinkage. I also have two other items on hand when taking a bath “on the rocks.” I have something to read to help distract my attention from the frigid conditions. I also keep a watch close by so I know when the ice age is over. Generally speaking, 8-10 minutes is enough or about the same amount of time it takes for the ice to melt.

Last summer, I actually found the ultimate ice bath, a lake at 10-thousand feet. Turquoise Lake is in Leadville, Colorado and during the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race it served as the perfect anti-inflammatory pool. Several of us racers made trips to the lake and went for icy dips before and after the event.

There is this strange, delayed reaction I often experience. Immediately after the bath I feel great, revived. But about ten minutes later I can feel more core temp plummeting. It is about this time I head for a a finishing rinse.  A warm shower halts the shiver and removes any remaining sweat and grime from the days effort.

I know this all sounds a little hard core.  Really, there’s nothing wrong with a few beers and a Jacuzzi after a long ride. Researchers and coaches remain divided over whether jumping into a tub of ice water will jumpstart recovery. But anecdotally I would say there is a benefit. During the four days down the coast I was fresh each morning while the rest of the group needed an hour of pedaling to clear their legs.  On day three into Santa Barbara we climbed San Marcos pass. Five miles at five percent and I was able to stay in touch with the strongest and youngest rider in our group.

Ice Baths are not the same as Ice Bucket Challenges. If you would like to know more about the latter and what you can do to help fight Lou Gehrig’s disease please go here.

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10 comments

  1. Peter Dedes

    We’d do ice baths stage racing in the 90’s. I still take an icy shower after a ride.. However my real life these days is a refrigeration service engineer. I get to see a lot of ice makers in various contexts. Let’s put it this way, it’s pretty rare for me to get ice for a drink when I travel or when I go out to eat. If I know the kitchen/bar, I’ll say yes, but mostly I say no.
    In many places, the bacterial content of the ice is worse than toilet water. Additionally the dark moist places inside them are havens for mold. The worst machines are the ones in places where bread is baked or beer is brewed. The yeast spores get into the ice maker and multiply leaving about 5 lb. of a snot like substance upon which mold can then grow.
    So it’s freezing cold showers for me now.

  2. SusanJane

    I’ve heard of bike porn. What does that make this?

    Before you get all weirded out about germs/bacteria/etc you need to keep context. Drinking fountains, soda fountains, and all the rest. We get crap in what we eat and drink constantly. Wrap yourself in plastic and stay home with Lysol products and Draino. When’s the last time you cleaned your automatic ice maker? shower drain pipe? carpets? cycling gloves a.k.a. snot rag?

  3. Les.B.

    This reminds me of a recent article in Bicycling.com. The author stated that some cyclists apply chamois cream out on the road, just get some in hand and reach down into the shorts and apply.

    The author went on to say that if one does this they should not touch handlebars, etc until washing hands.

    I figure this article was written for orphans who didn’t have a mother to teach them the basics of personal hygiene.

  4. Kevin McTighe

    This is in fun, but couldn’t resist. Please take it that way.

    Yo Mike,
    After your ice bath, suggest you wander down to the tub, have a beer or two, enjoy the great company, discuss the great scenery. Relax a bit. There will still be plenty of time for another ice bath or cold shower or whatever additional punishment is required to “stay with the strongest and youngest rider in the group”. And I’m with Ron S. Ditch the cap and cycling magazine for social hour. Everyone already knows you take your cycling VERY seriously !
    Wisenhimer (aka Fearless) Kevin

  5. Michael Hotten

    Peter-
    Thanks for the insight. I will never skip that post ice bath shower again. Do you have any dirt on hot tubs?
    Ron-
    The hat is for warmth but I can also confirm, I am a weirdo.
    Kevin-
    Your point is well taken. Over the past few months I have been using ice and IPAs for recovery.

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