Battle of the Baths: Epsom Salt vs. Ice
The use of ice baths and epsom salt baths as aids to recovery have long been touted, discussed, and argued. Runners can stand to benefit from both types of baths – if you use them correctly!
Like all good runners, I try my best to focus on recovery. For me, this means incorporating things like foam rolling, yoga, proper nutrition, and lots of sleep into my training program. But last training cycle I hit my peak weeks hard and came crashing down into my taper. My entire right side body hurt, my legs were indescribably tired, and all I really wanted was to sleep for the next 2 weeks until race day. I wasn’t injured, but I wasn’t recovering properly either.
I went to see my massage therapist, who I admittedly was not seeing nearly enough during my hard training cycle, and she immediately told me to ice as much as possible. A week later, I went back and she said to use heat as much as possible. I was confused.
Epsom salt baths
Epsom salt in it’s purest form is made up of magnesium and sulfate, a mineral compound that is known for it’s health benefits and soothing properties. According to the Epsom Salt Council, “Doctors cite many health benefits from either soaking your feet or taking a bath in Epsom salt, including soothing muscle pain and aches.” Additionally, heat is traditionally used to relieve tightness, making a hot epsom salt bath ideal for tired runners’ legs.
To use epsom salt for recovery: draw a hot bath and dissolve 2 cups of epsom salt into the water. Soak for 20 minutes.
Ice baths are just that, icy cold baths. Athletes have been using ice baths as a recovery aid since the dawn of time*, and are particularly popular here in the U.S. The idea behind the ice bath is simple: after a hard effort or race your muscles are inflamed, thus ice helps to reduce inflammation and encourage faster recovery. The jury is out on whether or not the science behind the ice bath actually adds up, but it’s hard to deny the relief that comes from submerging your entire body into a tub of chilly water.
To use an ice bath for recovery: draw a cold water bath, then add as much ice as possible. Aim to submerge your entire lower body (legs, hips, glutes), then stay in the water for as long as you can stand, but no longer than 10 minutes. Pro tip: wear a bathing suit bottom and socks (your feet will thank you) and a long sleeve or sweatshirt on top (roll the bottom up so it doesn’t get wet!)
Epsom Salt Bath Vs. Ice Bath
Both types of baths can aid in recovery, but which is best when and why? I use both types of baths for different reasons. In general, heat helps to soothe stiff joints and relax muscles, while cold helps to dull pain and reduce inflammation. I’m not a doctor, but I’ve been successfully utilizing epsom salt and ice baths for some time now. I suggest using epsom salt baths for relief from tight and stiff muscles (think long training weeks or tired legs from lots of miles) and ice baths for inflammation or pain (think hard workouts, big races, or any type of pain that you would otherwise apply ice).
For me and my crashing taper earlier this year, I took a lot of ice baths initially to reduce inflammation – apparently my muscles had a lot of it! Once the inflammation had gone down, it was safe to start pumping my muscles with magnesium sulfate to sooth and relax my tired legs. The result? I wasn’t feeling 100% by race day, but I felt much more recovered and my legs knew what to do!
*Not an actual fact, but if you’ve ever seen runners at the end of Grandma’s Marathon, you’ll notice that they all head to the icy waters of Lake Superior. Coincidence? I think not!