Runners often face confusion when choosing whether to apply heat or ice to an injury. After a hard workout should you take a dip in a relaxing hot tub or a chilling ice bath. Which is going to get your legs back under you and feeling good quickly. Well it depends on the situation, the injury, and how long after your last hard effort or the point of injury. Here are some guidelines to follow when it comes to choosing hot of cold when it comes to treating injury or simply speeding recovery. Follow these rules and you will make sure applying temperature helps instead of hindering your recovery!
Lets first consider the situation where you have an injury or a specific area of pain and you are trying to decide how to make it feel better. If your pain is in a muscle or tendon then you probably will continue to run on it, unless the pain is too severe. If running is still an option then it is best to apply heat prior to running and ice afterwards. The heat before your run will get the blood flowing to the area and insure that the tissue is as loose as possible and ready to move. After your run you want to reduce the inflammation as soon as possible so recovery can continue so you should ice for at least 15 to 20 minutes. If you run early in the day it is not a bad idea to ice a couple more times throughout the day and even once before bed, just make sure there is an hour or two between ice sessions so you allow fresh blood to get back into the area before you send it out again.
If the pain is too severe to run on then the protocol is to avoid heat at all cost for 2-3 days after the injury is sustained. During this time you should simply rest the area and ice several times a day–again making sure there is sufficient time between ice sessions. After these three days heat is not bad if it feels right. It will allow the area of injury to loosen up. Definitely when you start running again you should heat up the area before heading out!
For a non-soft tissue injury such as a stress fracture ice will do little to help and should actually be avoided. The reason for this is that bone repairs itself though an inflammatory process. If you constantly ice the bone you may be delaying this healing process. Heat however is not a bad idea for bone injuries as blood flow is often a limiting factor. Bones do not get nearly as much blood flow as muscles do and therefore they take much longer to repair themselves. If you heat a bone however you can increase the rate at which it can heal.
Now lets consider the case where you are a completely healthy runner and just looking to recover quicker from your last hard workout or race. In this situation it may sound appealing to relax in a hot whirlpool or under the stream of a hot shower–but this may not be the best option. After a hard effort your muscles likely have high levels of inflammation and the key to maximizing recovery is to minimize this inflammation. While hot water may feel great, it is not doing great things for your muscles. It is allowing inflammation to run rampant and as well as delaying recovery, it raises your chance of injury, which is already pretty high after a hard workout or race.
Instead of soaking in a hot tub, seek out an ice bath. While it is not nearly as comfortable while you are in it, it will feel much better in your next couple of runs. The cold reduces inflammation in your muscles and therefore provides a better environment for them to recover and rapair any damage. However, you may think this to mean that you should ice after every run right? If it improves recovery that is always a good thing. Well that isn’t necessarily true. There can be too much of a good thing when it comes to icing. You can adjust to the cold to a point where it doesn’t serve much of a benefit anymore. Further, studies have shown that too much icing can actually reduce benefits from benefits as some inflammation is what causes your muscles to come back stronger after recovering. Therefore, save the ice baths for when you really need it and won’t be able to feel good on your subsequent runs without it.
When used correctly heat and cold can be great additions to your overall training. They can help you to heal injuries quicker and come off of workout feeling better. You just need to make sure you know when to use each. There is a place and time for each but if you choose the wrong one for your situation, you may produce the opposite effects that you are going for. Follow these rules and you will experience all the benefits temperature treatment has to offer!