Christ, I hate cold baths at this time of year. In the summer, the water is more or less lukewarm, so completely tolerable and probably ineffective as a therapeutic measure. But in winter it’s icy cold. It’s hard to say which bit of a cold bath is the worst, but I find the deep ache that grips your feet the most unpleasant thing of all.
It’s not even as if a freezing cold bath after exercise is even of proven value, even though it’s now pretty much standard practice in sport. Andy Murray tweets from his and cycling teams swear by the benefits of exposing tired muscles to the invigorating effects of ice water after a hard race.
Of course, icing damaged muscles is a well-established therapeutic protocol. Beyond that, there’s a belief that the sudden and intense muscle contractions squeeze out the lactic acid and other unwanted chemicals that build up during hard exercise. It’s all about rapid recovery – bypassing the normal post-exercise aches and pains and preparing the body to do it all again, soon.
And this is the debatable bit. The sports scientists I spoke to at Loughborough University a couple of weeks ago were equivocal. The most important thing for them was to eat lots of protein immediately after exercise, to speed up the repair of damaged cells, and then rest and let the body do its job. So who do you listen to? It’s hard to say whether it actually works as a recovery tool, since I can never really know how I would feel the next day without the bath. But I do it anyway. I expect the benefit is largely psychological, because it completes the post-exercise ritual of stretching (definitely good) and eating (likewise) and it is, in spite of discomfort, quite refreshing.
It also makes me feel that by stretching out the ordeal of exercise, I’m toughening up even more with a further test of willpower. And this, I suppose, is what it’s really all about for me. More than most sports, cycling is a test of mental and physical will, and is littered with almost mythical tales of near inhuman endurance. I’m not Bernard Hinault battling through the snow to win the 1980 Liege-Bastogne-Liege (and losing the use of a frozen finger in the process), but even a humble club cyclist like me can understand that performance, however modest your goals in comparison to an elite cyclist, is all about pushing yourself to an uncomfortable place and staying there until you either reach the end of the ride or drop off your bike.
So I clench my teeth and lower myself gingerly into a freezing cold bath after every unpleasant session on the turbo trainer, stay for as long as I can bear it and persuade myself that this is somehow doing me some good. And, as a symbol of my commitment to my goals, it probably is. Yuck.