Hot Versus Cold: Which Therapy for Recovery?

After a good training session, it can be tempting to soothe aching muscles with a hot bath. This is not the best method of recovery and should be avoided. You’re already probably a little dehydrated after a tough workout, and sitting in a sauna or hot tub will only exacerbate this. In addition, when it comes to inflammation – the slight swelling that often comes about after hard training, adding heat will only make things worse by adding extra blood and heat to an area which already is hot.

There are two methods that are proven to be much more effective:

Cold therapy/Ice Baths

The good news is you can still have a bath. The bad news is it’s got to be brimming with ice cold ice.

Hot Versus Cold: Which Therapy for Recovery?

These evil godsends work because they address the issue of microtrauma – the tiny tears in muscle fibres that occur after hard training. We want microtrauma: this temporary damage stimulates muscle cell activity and helps repair the damage and strengthen the muscles (causing muscle hypertrophy/growth). But this trauma also causes the dreaded DOMS (delayed onset of muscular soreness) that causes even the fittest athletes to hobble like they are 50 years past their sell-by date. So training will be hampered for the days afterwards unless you can find a way to recover quicker.

Here’s where the post-exercise ice bath comes in to play. It works by:

  1. Constricting blood vessels and flushing waste products, like lactic acid, out of the affected tissues
  2. Reducing swelling and tissue breakdown
  3. Reducing pain by numbing affected areas

The treatment for injury is RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Treat the microtraumas as you would an injury, and boost repair without the use of heat, and certainly without heat in the first instance post-exercise. Ice is the appropriate therapy for the first 48 hours. It will slow down the blood flowing into an injured/traumatised area, thereby reducing the amount of blood pooling into the area, and with that, minimising swelling. You should aim to sit in your bath for up to 10 mins, but anything over 3 mins will aid recovery. Simply hang in there as long as you can bear!

Cold-Hot-Cold/Contrast Therapy

One way to use heat to your advantage is to contrast an ice bath (12 degrees or so) with a hot bath or shower (40 degrees), and repeat if possible. During rewarming, blood circulation increases, and in turn improves the healing process by transporting lactic acid away from the muscles.

Hot Versus Cold: Which Therapy for Recovery?

Hot water treatment increases muscle tissue temperature, thus causing the blood vessels to widen, or vasodilate (you get flushed when you are hot because the vessels widen and blood is therefore closer to the surface of the skin). This causes increased blood flow and brings the benefit of increasing oxygen and antibody supply. Heat also improves muscle contractility and stretching ability, which is why you should always ‘warm up’ before hard exercise. As aforementioned, you do not want to bring any hot therapy into the equation until the muscles and joints have settled and any temporary inflammation has receded (around 48 hours after).

Hot Versus Cold: Which Therapy for Recovery?

Once muscles have settled, contrast therapy promotes rapid switching between vasodilation and vasoconstriction, causing a ‘pumping’ action, transporting toxinated blood away from the muscles and supplying fresh ‘clean’ blood quickly, whilst you are inactive. Active recovery (e.g. a 30-minute easy bike ride) can also help with this flushing process, but then there is the fact that you are using muscle glycogen, whereas in a bath you can conserve your energy. Aim to always begin and end the treatment session with a cold blast. In between each cold therapy is a hot therapy. A typical hot/cold treatment would include three ice therapies and two hot therapies. The time for each cold or hot treatment should be three to five minutes with a total treatment time of 15 to 25 minutes.

Certainly, there is a time and a place for both active and inactive recovery between key sessions. What you want to make sure is that you are being proactive in your healing processes!

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