As far as recovery goes, there really is so much that falls under that umbrella. You have: sleep, nutrition, rest, recovery runs in a certain heart rate zone, compression, massage therapy/rolling, and the focus of this post, cold therapy. All of these means of recovery are important (nutrition and sleep obviously very much so), but one that is overlooked either due to not knowing about it or ignoring it is cold therapy.
As with anything in life, there are pros and cons of cold therapy and not just at the superficial level (pro: good for me; con: freakin' freezing!). Let's start with the cons, but I'll keep it brief. According to a Competitor article, one of the cons physiologists argue is associated with cold therapy is the fact that the inflammation ice baths is used to prevent and/or reduce is actually beneficial for runners. To these individuals, the battle of dealing with the inflammation and running on tired, sore, "flat" legs is a good means to adapt to that kind of stress. It makes sense, really. Think about it in terms of life. If we don't ever experience stress, struggle, or failure, then when those inevitable things happen, it can really affect us. But if we learn to cope and handle stress (in whatever way is right for each individual) then will likely be better off for future times stress creeps into our lives. So this con of ice therapy seems to be a big one and definitely one to consider. So I like what the professional runner Emily Harrison says is a good approach which I will get into shortly.
Let's get to the pros; the pluses; the "why you should consider ice therapy." First things first, cold therapy or Cryotherapy constricts blood vessels and reduces metabolic activity, thus reducing tissue breakdown and swelling. Why is this good? Well, when you run or complete a hard exercise activity, you have essentially damaged the muscles and tissue fibers that were used to get you through the exercise. The damage is fine. You lived right? But if you try to do back-to-back hard exercises, whatever they may be, those muscles may work for you, but it is not likely that they are functioning optimally and thus lowering your performance. So yeah, I may be able to get through to back-to-back long runs or speed workouts, but my times are going to be slower the second day, or if I'm pushing it to actually run harder or run faster times, I'm greatly increasing the risk of injuring myself.
Cold therapy is helpful in this case because it reduces that inflammation that is occurring after a hard workout and thus allowing you to do what needs to get done either the next day or perhaps that evening. It is for this reason why collegiate and elite track athletes, as well as other professional runners, use ice baths after racing, no matter the distance. Often, these competitive athletes need to perform very well again the next day or even that same day so ice baths are a way to help that recovery process.
Need more convincing? Okay, that's horrible. Don't just do what the freakishly incredible professionals are doing just because they are super-athletes. Really.
Simply put: periodization is what more competitive runners do so that, if done correctly, they will peak and run their top performance at their goal race or event. So when EH says to periodize the ice baths, she is suggesting that in the beginning, when you are building your base fitness, don't ice. Let the inflammation build up and have your body learn to adapt and overcome the built-up stress. But later on in your training, when you are starting to incorporate tough speed workouts to bring that fitness in and target your goal pace, you may want to also introduce ice baths to speed the recovery process. Running a tempo run on the roads, Tuesday, an interval workout on the track Thursday and a 2 hour or longer run on the weekend is not an easy thing to do even if you are only doing that and not running the other days. But sometimes training calls for that and any safe means of recovering should be considered to prevent injury (especially when your just weeks away from your goal race!).
Alright, well I think I've gone on long enough for one post. I hope you'll at least give ice therapy a try. As is always the case with doing something new, remember that it is all an experiment. Every person is different and what works for one person, even many people, will not necessarily work for you. Try ice therapy. Try the opposite (warm bath, with or without Epsom salts). Try rolling. Try icing specific joints or areas that frequently ache and pang after a workout. When you try something, you learn something. You become an active part of your recovery and that can only be a good thing!
PS: Just an FYI: Val and I are heading home to NJ tonight to visit our family. I'll blog while I'm there but certainly will not try to do so every night. I've been missing my and her family so much so I don't want to use what limited time we have there writing a blog post every day. Hope you understand!
PSS: Just in case you don't feel like opening up a search engine and reading some more, here are some more reads about cold therapy/ice baths/cryotherapy: