Ice or Heat Therapy? What’s best for long distance runners?

Hot and Cold Therapies

Training for a marathon can do a number on your body. Not to mention when you have to actually run it. That is why many marathon runners use different hot and cold therapies to help with their muscle pains after a run.

Different Types of Heat Therapies

A few different ways to undergo heat therapy after a long run can include:

  • A hot bath
  • Using heat patches
  • Rolling a hot water bottle over desired areas
  • Using heat lamps

You can add Epsom salts to your hot bath for added help with stiffness. It should also never be above your average body temperature.

When using a hot water bottle, be sure to never directly pour water onto your skin as this can burn you

Infrared heat lamps are used by trainers to speed up recovery time. As a beginner, you probably won’t have access to these but if by chance you do, these are great at relieving your muscle pain.

Different Types of Cold Therapies

You can undergo cold therapy in a few different ways.

  • An ice bath
  • Rolling a frozen water bottle over desired areas
  • Using an ice compression pack
  • Using a cold compress
    • Either ice cubes in a cloth or frozen vegetables
  • Cryotherapy chamber

To take an ice bath at home, simply fill your tub up to your waist with cold water and dump about 2 bags of ice into it. You can keep your shorts on, and we recommend wearing a long sleeve to keep your arms warm. Only stay in for 6-8 minutes at most.

Why Runners Seek Heat and Ice After a Long Run

After a long run, runners often seek ice and heat to start their recovery process. Some runners alternate between the two recovery techniques to take advantage of the benefits of both.

Heat is best used for muscle fatigue, or the soreness and discomfort you feel after a run. It can also be used for the Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS) that occurs 24-48 hours after exercise.

Cold therapy is best used to reduce Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage (EIMD) and to prevent DOMS. It can also be used to treat acute injuries.

Related: Can I run if my legs are sore (DOMS)?

What’s Best For Muscle Recovery?

When it comes to muscle recovery, heat is best for chronic soreness while cold is best for inflammation reduction.

Both of these are important benefits. Due to this, a combination of both therapies is the best solution. Alternating between cold and heat will help reduce your overall pain.

The cold will reduce your blood flow to help with the inflammation, then adding heat will increase your blood flow to help the muscles relax.

If you are prone to cramping, cold may not be the best choice for you though because it makes the cramping worse. What works best is different for each runner. Try both types of therapies and see what works for you.

What to Know About Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy is another term for cold therapy. It was invented in Japan in 1978 and gained popularity when the European rugby team began using it about a decade ago.

In the pro-athlete world, you can find cryotherapy chambers that utilize liquid nitrogen to drop your body temperature. These are not for people who have

  • High blood pressure
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Heart problems

Cryotherapy whole-body devices have not been approved by the FDA as an effective treatment, however, many trainers and athletes swear by cryotherapy practices.

It is also important to note that cryotherapy sessions should not last longer than 8 minutes.

You can access cryotherapy chambers in spas, or you can do the simple ice bath or frozen water bottle trick at home.

Advantages of Cold

There are multiple advantages to using cold therapy. A few of these advantages include:

  • Lowering the risk of tissue damage
  • Restricting blood flow to reduce inflammation
  • Relieving pain by numbing areas that are sore
  • Delaying DOMS
  • Reducing recovery time

Ice is helpful with more acute pains and is known to help prevent or lessen next-day soreness.

Disadvantages of Cold

However, there are disadvantages to cold therapies that should be addressed. These include:

  • It can worsen the cramping of muscles
  • If done incorrectly, it can cause hypothermia (staying in the bath or chamber too long)
  • It is dangerous for people with cardiac conditions
  • It can reduce strength training efficacy

Be sure to take care before taking an ice bath and set a timer outside of the tub for no more than 8 minutes.

What to Know About Heat Therapy

Heat therapy has been around since the ancient Egyptians and Greeks used it in 500 B.C. Since then it has been widely accepted as a form of muscle therapy, although the FDA has not approved its effectiveness.

This form of therapy is best for old injuries or chronic muscle pain.

Advantages of Heat

Heat therapy offers an array of benefits including:

  • relaxing muscles
  • Increasing blood flow
  • removing lactic acid build-up

A major advantage of heat is that it improves circulation so that more oxygen can get to your muscles. This helps to vastly speed up recovery time.

The other main advantage of heat is that it is warm and comforting. Psychologically, we feel like it is working well and therefore we can trick ourselves into healing faster.

Disadvantages of Heat

Some disadvantages to heat include:

  • It increases inflammation
  • It can burn you
  • May not prevent DOMS

Since heat increases circulation, it will increase inflammation which can make acute injuries more severe.

Also, it doesn’t prevent pain later on from DOMS as ice does.

Is There Any Risk for Your Health?

As with any treatment, there are possible risks to your health. However, both heat and cold therapy have minimal risks associated with them.

Health Risks Associated With Heat Therapy

A couple of health risks to consider when using heat therapy include:

  • Increased risk of infection if used on an open wound
  • Too high temperatures can cause you to burn your skin
  • Can cause swelling

Heat therapy should never be used on an open wound because it can increase the risk of infection as well as cause the infection to spread quicker.

Make sure to move around the source of heat on your body so that it doesn’t burn you. This should be done at least every 20 minutes.

If you experience swelling of any sort, immediately discontinue the heat therapy.

Are There Times When You Shouldn’t Use Heat Therapy?

You should never use heat therapy::

  • On a new injury
  • On an open wound
  • If you are already overheated
  • If you have diabetes
  • If you have vascular disease
  • If you have deep vein thrombosis
  • If you have multiple sclerosis

When using heat therapy, make sure to use a comfortable temperature, not one that burns you. If you are already hot, heat is not the route you should go as it can cause you to become overheated.

If you are someone with any of the medical conditions listed, you should check with your doctor about whether or not heat therapy is recommended and safe.

Health Risks Associated With Cold Therapy

As with heat therapy, cold therapy also has a few health risks you should be aware of. These include:

  • Tissue, skin, and nerve damage from the ice being in one spot too long
  • Can cause you to temporarily experience
    • Numbness
    • Redness of your skin
    • Tingling
    • Irritation of your skin
  • Can increase the risk of blood clots for people with cardiovascular disease
  • Can cause freeze injuries on open wounds

Be sure to move the source of cold around your body so that it is not concentrated in one area for too long.

If you have an open wound, there are fewer layers of skin to protect your body from the cold which might result in different types of freeze injuries.

Are There Times When You Shouldn’t Use Cryotherapy?

You should never use cryotherapy if you:

  • have sensory disorders
    • This includes diabetes
  • experience cramping in your muscles or joints
  • have poor circulation

Sensory disorders prevent you from feeling when the ice is causing damage to you.

Cold therapy decreases your circulation, which can cause you to cramp more if you are someone who experiences stiff joints and muscles.

A beginner runner can run a marathon as long as they properly care for their bodies during the training process, as well as after the race itself.

A combination of both heat and cold therapies after each run can help your body to recover faster. A faster recovery means more training time to ensure you’re ready for that big day.

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Coach Scott's Credentials:
  • Published Author
  • RRCA Certified Running Coach (Level 2)
  • RRCA Certified Youth Running Coach
  • NASM CPT (Certified Personal Trainer).
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  • NASM WLS (Weight Loss Specialist)
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He has published over 20 books including, Beginner's Guide to Half Marathons: A Simple Step-By-Step Solution to Get You to the Finish Line in 12 Weeks! (Beginner To Finisher Book 3), which has become an Amazon International #1 bestseller. Scott specializes in helping new runners become injury-free race finishers. He recently completed his 22nd half marathon race. 

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Ice or Heat Therapy? What\'s best for long distance runners?

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