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Polar Plunge

By Marcus | In Recovery | on April 18, 2011

Kelly Starrett, the man behind the MobilityWOD series that we are so fond of, also is the owner of San Francisco CrossFit. Previously, his nuggets of mobility and recovery wisdom were only featured as posts on their gym’s blog. In one of my older posts, I linked to his argument against the regular use of ibuprofen by athletes, particularly CrossFitters.

So what do you do for relief, particularly after being mauled by Bear or run over by the Prowler? Whole9 ran an article on the benefits of ice baths, for those brave enough to endure them:

But the damage done during a hard training session also produces muscle soreness and inflammation, which can interfere with subsequent training. Ice baths temporarily constrict blood vessels and decreases metabolic activity, which reduces swelling and tissue breakdown. And immersion allows controlled, even constriction around all muscles, effectively blunting microscopic damage that you may not even feel. (You may hit the tub to relieve sore quads, but your calves, hamstrings, and hip/knee/ankle connective tissues will all gain the same benefits.)

The second advantage involves a physiological reaction provoked by the large amount of muscle submerged. After the initial shock of the ice-cold water, the body responds with vasodilation – a rapid circulation which flushes the damage-inflicting waste from your system. Once out of the bath, the area warms up again, and new blood rushes in to help the healing process.

Now K-Star’s article about ibuprofen also talked up ice baths and I’ve toyed with them since reading it. However, I found that I was doing it just a little wrong. You see, I used a single 10 lb. bag of ice and nothing but cold tap water. It was quite cold and provided some benefit, but not quite as intended.

Cold, but not cold enough

Their prescription?

Ready to get started? Assuming you’ve got a standard bathtub, here’s our prescription. Grab three to five bags of ice – that’s 30 – 50 lbs. in total

The other thing I screwed up was running for the relief of a warm shower afterward:

Do whatever you can to warm up – move around, don’t sit still – but resist the temptation to jump into a hot shower right away. Let your body warm up naturally, and allow that swift rush of blood to continue the recovery process.

They do give some tips that I did figure out through some trial and error — wearing swim trunks for your sensitive bits and a beanie to keep your noggin warm will make the experience slightly more tolerable. I also threw on the bathroom heater at full blast just to make the ambient air more pleasant once I got out.

The best benefit of this is when you can do it within an hour or so of training (the sooner the better). If you can’t get prepped in that time (or are just plain scared!) there’s still another option — the contrast shower. This is where you switch from water as hot as you can stand for 1-3 minutes and then to as cold as you can stand for 30-60 seconds (keep at about a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio).. the important thing is to END on the cold cycle. Yes, that part of it may suck — but it’s for your own good. I can say that I followed my own advice after being beat down by back squats followed by the Prowler Challenge on Saturday and my legs felt much better after the contrast shower.

WOD 04.18.11

Pistol Skillwork

Deadlift 1×5 or Wendler

Buy In: AMRAP 1 Rope Climbs
then 3Rds:
20 KBS
10 Power Jerks
10 Pistols
200yd Run

9 Comments to "Polar Plunge"

  • Holley says:

    April 18, 2011 at 11:45 AM -

    I used to do the ice showers when I played sports in high school…definitely not my favorite experience. It always helped some, but I had a really hard time warming up and often lost circulation in my fingers and toes for hours at a time. Does that mean I got too cold during the process?

    Today starts my Whole20 challenge (convenient that NLP is exactly 20 days away). I can’t wait to undo the damage of last weekend!

    1. Marcus says:

      April 18, 2011 at 12:10 PM -

      Do you mean you had a hard time warming up for your sport or warming up after the shower?

  • Mark Miller (M^2) says:

    April 18, 2011 at 1:37 PM -

    When I played competitive ultimate frisbee, we would empty out the hotel’s ice machine and fill up the tub. We’d have beer and rotate every couple of minutes (the beer helped me get in – its really cold). Ice baths do help when you were playing 2+ day tourney.

  • Holley says:

    April 18, 2011 at 1:37 PM -

    Warming up after the shower

    1. Marcus says:

      April 18, 2011 at 2:13 PM -

      @Holley — the loss of circulation would be pretty concerning, but did you follow any of the other tips that they give in the article? They state that you may shiver for a while afterward, but bundle up with a blanket and warm clothes as well as drink hot liquids to raise your body temperature. Was that your normal practice?

  • Matt (the lurking one) says:

    April 18, 2011 at 1:55 PM -


    It seems when reading anything to do with muscle soreness, recovery, or cleansing diets, references abound to “waste” in our body being the root many problems. One of those ultra-generic terms that clearly refers to one or more of various culprits, depending on the ailment. In the case here, can you elaborate? What is it that accumulates in stressed/damaged muscle tissue that needs to be flushed out?

    1. Marcus says:

      April 18, 2011 at 2:41 PM -

      @Matt — As stated in the post over at Whole9, “You train hard, which creates microscopic trauma to muscle and connective tissue. During your recovery period, those ‘microtears’ repair themselves just a little bit stronger than they were before.

      The “waste” in this scenario would likely be the damaged cells of the muscle and CT that are being repaired. However, if you’re truly curious to know the specifics, feel free to ask over in the comments at Whole9’s site. Dallas usually answers comments for more scientific responses within a couple of hours.

      Cleansing diets on the other hand, are full of shit — pun fully intended.

  • Holley says:

    April 18, 2011 at 2:43 PM -

    I would always jump into some warm pjs and climb under the covers in bed. Obviously I thought the results were worth it because I did it more than once, but I guess I was always curious if I was getting too cold.

  • Michael H says:

    April 18, 2011 at 8:42 PM -

    I did the contrast shower on Saturday after my super nap and it felt good!

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