Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Ice Bath and What it Means to Contemporary Triathlon Culture

"Everyone trains like a pro—recovering like a pro is what's hard, especially if you've got, you know, a job." —Somebody, probably someone who coaches.

I've been getting friendly with ice recently, as I try to recover from Achilles tendonitis on my way to IM St George (tick, tick, tick...). The thing is, as usual, is that research on this therapy (it goes by "cryotherapry" in the SAT Vocab World) is wildly inconclusive. Also as usual, athletes everywhere give anecdotal support to this kind of therapy, resulting in a kind of Pavlovian Informational Cascade ("Cascades predict that you can get massive social imitation, occasionally leading everyone (the "herd") to the incorrect choice. (Because everyone knows that there is very little information in a cascade, cascades are "fragile"; a little bit of new public information can make a big difference)."). Of course, individual experience with one kind of therapeutic treatment is the worst kind of "scientific" evidence (I put scientific in quotes, because individual experience is anathema to science).

Triathlon suffers badly from this kind of informational cascade, in which people make decisions based on the decisions of others, rather than their own instincts, beliefs, and observations. Athletic and cycling companies thrive on this kind of susceptibility, and I'm obviously taking part, with a row of sponsors just to the right of this post. Triathletes (who mostly come to the sport from recreational athletic backgrounds) often don't know what they're up to in terms of training, racing, and preparation, and it's not their fault. The internet has allowed a cacophony of opinion to blast upon all our ears, and the opinions are often differing or contradictory. The only thing triathletes are left to do is to choose which person they'll follow, and those decisions are based on the kind of subjective information with which we judge and root for sports teams (sense of shared identity, aesthetics, good-boy/bad-boy attitude, and what kind of success). Since athletic accomplishment is important to the triathlon community, athletes adhere passionately to the leaders they choose to follow—a brief perusal of the incendiary opinions on Slowtwitch will show the vitriol triathletes reserve for those who do not agree with their perspectives.

The Ice Bath is one of those subjects. Dig around out there and you'll find a host of anecdotal support for the process. Dig a little farther and you'll find studies that are pretty inconclusive on the efficacy of the ice bath. Here's a little digest of studies that may help you make a decision:

Sports Training Blog—"Cold water immersion or an ice bath may be an effective treatment to decrease skin, muscle and core temperatures, decrease metabolism, reduce inflammation, enhance blood flow, decrease pain and reduce muscle spasm...Performance in a time trial on successive days (over a 5 day study) was reduced with passive recovery and hot water immersion and maintained with cold/contrast therapy."

SpeedEndurance—Concludes that ice baths are inconclusive, and that you're best off going with how you feel the next day.

SportsMedicine on About.Com—Points out that for aerobic work ice baths may help, but may hurt weight training performance.

RunningTimes—Anecdotal support for the therapy plus the theory behind it.

Scottish Institute of Sport—Study that warns against the use of ice baths (mostly in a rugby/weight training context).

Clinical Sports Medicine—Digest on recovery procedures. Points out that there has been little clinical support for positive effects of ice baths.

Peak Performance—Discussion of different types of hydrotherapy. Points out that hot water can be beneficial, too.

Time to decide for yourself.

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