Recovery Hacks: Ice Baths versus Epsom Salt Baths

Two runners run down a trail. They are likely contemplating whether to take an ice bath or an epsom salt bath after their run.

When you run hard, you need to recover harder. Adding a regular recovery routine to your schedule can help prevent injuries and keep you running strong. Stretching, foam rolling, and massage are some great ways to loosen tight muscles and alleviate soreness. If you’re new to running or haven’t quite nailed down a recovery routine yet, check out these 3 ways to maximize your post-run recovery.

Hydrotherapy, which refers to using water as a therapeutic treatment, is a popular option among runners. Two of the most common hydrotherapy methods are the ice bath and the epsom salt bath. While both involve sitting in a bathtub, they couldn’t be more different.

An ice bath, sometimes referred to as cryotherapy, involves submerging your legs in ice or ice-water for about 10 to 15 minutes. An epsom salt bath refers to soaking your legs in a mixture of warm water and epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) for about 20 minutes.

“After a long run, I’ll do an ice bath to reduce inflammation. I always follow up with a warm bath about an hour later to get the blood flowing again,” explains Nicole Paciorek, an avid half marathoner from Miami. “The night before a long run or race, I’ll do a warm epsom salt bath before stretching. It loosens my muscles and relaxes my mind.”

Runners swear by both methods, but is one better than the other? Here’s what you need to know about ice baths and epsom salt baths:

Epsom Salt Baths for Runners

A woman runs on the sidewalk.

Soaking in a hot bath, perhaps with some candles and a good book, can be a great way to relax and unwind. Add in a mixture of epsom salt and you have your own at-home spa treatment. Epsom salt is relatively inexpensive, and you can find it at your local pharmacy or grocery store. It’s a naturally occurring compound of sulfate and magnesium.

Magnesium is an important mineral for runners that helps regulate blood pressure and strengthen bones. It can even help enhance athletic performance in some cases. According to an article by Yijia Zhang, “human studies indicated Mg [magnesium] supplementation may improve performance parameters in both aerobic and anaerobic exercises.” The article also states that your body needs more magnesium as your activity level increases.

Magnesium supplementation has also been shown to improve sleep, something all runners need plenty of. According to an article by Gerry K. Schwalfenberg, “Magnesium is a natural NMDA antagonist and a GABA agonist, both biochemical actions which have a relaxant effect and facilitate sleep.” If you’ve been having trouble falling asleep, a warm epsom salt bath before bed just might do the trick.

Some scientists are unsure about whether epsom salt baths truly raise your magnesium levels, but they can still be beneficial. According to Dr. David Rudnick, a chiropractic sports physician, soaking in warm water, with or without epsom salt, is a great way for runners to treat soreness and pain.

“We know that soaking in hot water provides circulation, improves stiffness and reduces pain. When it comes to chronic overuse injuries, which are seen commonly in runners, there is typically very little, if any, inflammation in these tissues. I recommend epsom salt soaking for acute injuries and for the relaxing effect that hot water provides stiff and sore muscles,” Rudnick explains.

Ice Baths for Runners

A man runs on the sidewalk.

Taking a freezing plunge into a tub filled with ice and water may not sound like a fun time, but it’s something plenty of athletes swear by. Ice baths are known to alleviate the soreness and achiness typical after a long run or workout. Cold plunges have been all the rage on social media, touted by influencers, celebrities and even some professional athletes.

There’s plenty of scientific evidence touting the health benefits of ice baths. “The ice bath will cause constriction of blood vessels. This has been suggested as a mechanism that helps with the flushing of waste products, such as lactic acid, out of the affected tissue,” Lateef explains. “The cold temperature will reduce swelling and tissue breakdown. Ice water immersion is also said to be able to shift lactic acid.”

But Rudnick says ice baths don’t provide the anti-inflammatory benefits many people associate with them. “There is a pain reducing effect of cold water immersion, however, research has yet to prove an anti-inflammatory benefit. This is confusing since people believe icing has anti-inflammatory properties,” he explains.

When it comes to treating injuries, he recommends warm water immersion over ice baths. “Ice is a vasoconstrictor, which means it reduces circulation to an area. This is generally a disadvantage when treating most athletic injuries because we know that improving circulation improves healing abilities and mobility,” he says.

Some research actually suggests that ice baths can delay your recovery after a hard workout.

A study published in European Journal of Applied Physiology compared the training effects on athletes who immersed themselves in cold water after exercise, and those who remained in a room temperature environment. The study found that “training-induced molecular and humoral adjustments, including muscle hyperthermia, are physiological, transient and essential for training effects. Cooling generally attenuates these temperature-dependent processes and, in particular, hyperthermia-induced HSP formation. This seems disadvantageous for training.”

The physiological changes that occur during training are necessary for long-term growth and improvement. If cold water immersion reduces these changes, then the full benefits of training can’t be attained.

Ice Baths versus Epsom Salt Baths: Which one is right for me?

So which is better, epsom salt baths or ice baths? Ultimately it depends on your body, your training and your goals. If your objective is simply to alleviate pain, then an ice bath might be the way to go. If you’re looking to improve circulation and reduce stiffness, soaking in a warm epsom salt bath or even a hot tub can do the trick.

At the end of the day, moderation is key when it comes to hydrotherapy. Runners tend to go all in with whatever method they choose, wanting to see results right away, but too much of anything can be detrimental to your training. If you’re struggling with soreness or pain that isn’t going away, make sure to see a doctor or physical therapist.

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