We hope that you love our articles and find them useful and informative! In full transparency, we may collect a small commission (at no cost to you!) when you click on some of the links in this post. These funds allow us to keep the site up and continue to write great articles.

Is Heat or Cold Treatment Better for Recovery?

We all know that recovery is as important as training. The fact is, if your body isn’t properly recovered, you’ll never be able to reach your full potential in both training and races.

The time when you’re not running or cross-training needs attention and intention. One of the biggest questions we get about recovery is about heat and cold therapy.

Is heat or cold treatment better for recovery? At the end of the day, it depends on your reasons for needing the therapy in the first place.

Let’s dive in and have a look at what heat and cold do to the body and when to use which one for the best effect.

What Effect Does Heat Therapy Have On the Body?

Applying direct heat to any area of the body encourages blood flow.

The more oxygen-rich blood flows through a sore muscle, for example, the more nutrients it brings and the quicker the muscle can move from a state of fatigue to being ready for action again.

The warmth causes the surrounding tissues to expand, loosening up tight tissues. This can cause swelling to increase, though, in parts of the body that are already compromised.

In a nutshell, circulation and elasticity of muscles and joints are increased and pain is decreased in response to heat, when applied in the right circumstances.

Heat therapy that involves the whole body (for example, a sauna or warm shower) also helps to lower blood pressure and increase the heart rate. This has benefits to the cardiovascular system, as well as improving O2-rich blood flow in the muscles.

What Effect Does Cold Therapy Have On the Body?

Cold, on the other hand, causes the surrounding tissues to cool and contract. It stimulates vasoconstriction, which causes veins to constrict and cell metabolism to slow down, so there’s less blood flow in the area and fewer nutrients being delivered to that particular part of the body.

The reduction in cell metabolism also means that inflammation is reduced. This is excellent when it comes to swelling, as it really helps to prevent that fluid buildup.

Full-body cold therapy, which is only designed to be done for a few minutes at a time, can cause a spike in blood pressure.

When to Use Heat and When to Use Cold

Both heat therapy (thermotherapy) and cold treatment (cryotherapy) have their place.

But don’t just go with how you feel on the day! Because of their specific effects on the body, each one is better suited to specific conditions of recovery.

Here’s when to use heat and when to use cold therapy.

Heat Therapy: Muscle Tightness & Soreness

Heat increases circulation and brings nutrients to the muscles and joints. However, this can increase swelling, so it’s not the best choice for acute injuries.

It is, however, an excellent therapy for sore, stiff muscles. Improving blood flow to the muscles helps to bring nutrient-rich blood right to the area of pain, which assists in the repair of muscle fibers and also reduces pain somewhat.

The heat is also likely to loosen up muscles so you don’t end up with T-rex arms or walking funny because your leg muscles are tight and painful!

If you’re an experienced runner, you may find that you don’t often experience stiffness after a run anymore. It may be more likely to happen after a hard cross-training session.

Cold Therapy: Acute Injuries

If you suffer an acute injury on a run or doing something else, cold therapy should be your first port of call. As runners, we should all know the RICE principle for treating injuries!

Twists, sprains, and strains can benefit greatly from cold. The coolness causes veins to constrict and cell activity to slow down, which can be effective at preventing or reducing swelling.

It’s also numbing, which can be helpful in the moment. Remember to be mindful about how long you leave ice on an injury, as it can be damaging if left on for too long.

Keep icing in 20-minute intervals until the swelling has reduced and the pain is manageable. It may take a few days to get to this point.

But once you’re there, you can begin to introduce heat slowly to rejuvenate the now-stiff muscles and joints.

Best Heat and Cold Therapies

What are the best ways to apply cold and heat? Well, it really depends on you, the circumstances, and exactly why you’re doing it. Here are some ideas:

Heat Therapy Options

Some of these are localized options that you can apply to specific parts of the body. Others are full-body options for general muscle soreness and loosening.

  • Heating pads/wraps
  • Heat packs
  • Towel soaked in hot water
  • Hot shower
  • Sauna

Cold Therapy Options

Cold therapy options are also many! Here are some of the most popular cold treatments. Keep in mind the effects of cold and make sure to do them safely! We offer some safety tips further down.

  • Athletic ice pack
  • Homemade ice pack
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Frozen water bottle
  • Cold shower
  • Ice bath

Are There Dangers to Heat and Cold Treatments?

It’s important to moderate your use of both heat and cold treatments. Both are designed to have a noticeable effect when used in short bursts.

There’s a reason doctors and physiotherapists suggest 15 to 20 minutes of applying ice or heat with a good few hours in between sessions.

Exposing your body (full body or particular muscles or joints) to either heat or cold for long periods of time can be detrimental.

Heat, even though it diminishes as time goes, can cause burns. Ice can burn too! Frostbite is a very real danger, and it’s a form of burn.

Full-body cold treatment is also advised against for those who have high blood pressure. It can cause a spike in blood pressure which may be dangerous.

Who Shouldn’t Use Heat Therapy?

If you fall under any of these categories, it’s best to avoid heat treatment.

  • Those with deep vein thrombosis or other vascular disorders.
  • People with sensory disorders, such as multiple sclerosis or diabetes.
  • If you’re already suffering from overheating.
  • On a new, open wound.

Who Shouldn’t Use Cold Therapy?

People who fall into these categories should avoid cold therapy. Localized cold treatment may be less worrisome, but full-body cryotherapy definitely should be avoided.

  • Those with sensory disorders.
  • Individuals with poor circulation.

Safety Tips for Heat and Cold Treatments

Whichever type of therapy you choose, these tips can help you stay safe and get the most out of your chosen treatment.

  • Choose the right type for your condition!
  • Adhere strictly to time guidelines for both therapies.
  • Always wrap ice packs in a cloth – never place them directly on the skin.
  • Stop therapy immediately if you experience any adverse effects.
  • Never use heat or cold on an open wound.
  • Ice baths should be limited to 8 minutes at the most.

What Other Actions Should You Take for Recovery?

Recovery refers to the period of time in between training sessions (both running and cross-training; or in the case of triathletes, running, biking, swimming, and other forms of cross-training).

When your muscles are in between those intense workout sessions, they take the time to rest and recover. But as much as they do their own healing thing, there are some actions you can take to help them get back up to speed faster.

Keep in mind that recovery runs are a great idea, but there’s also a need for proper rest between sessions to give your body space to heal and get stronger.

Nutrition

Nutrition is as important for recovery as it is for performance. Refueling after a run is important, and so is staying hydrated even on days in which you aren’t training.

Make sure to fuel your body appropriately when you aren’t getting ready for exercise, as much as when you are. Healthy, nutrient-dense foods are important.

That’s not to say you can’t have a burger or a donut every now and then, but don’t make a habit of indulging in processed foods just because you’re not actively exercising.

Supplements may also come in handy for recovery. They’re not absolutely necessary, and you can absolutely get by without them. But they can help immensely if you happen to be deficient in a certain area.

Vitamins like magnesium and potassium are excellent supplements, as many of us don’t get enough of them in our meals.

Foam Rolling

Foam rollers are an invaluable tool for self-massage. They can be hugely helpful in getting rid of stiffness and large knots in muscles and can be easily used by yourself with no help from anyone.

If you don’t have a foam roller but want the benefits, here are some acceptable and effective substitutes you probably have lying around the house.

Stretching

Stretching is an excellent way to maintain flexibility and mobility when not actively exercising.

It gets the blood flowing and keeps muscles healthy and happy. Also very easy to do anywhere, any time!

Sleep

Sleep is the most underrated recovery factor. The body heals during sleep, which means getting enough of it is essential both for recovery and muscle building.

While 8 hours is the universal golden number, it really depends on you. 6 hours may be enough for you, or you might need 10 to feel refreshed. Take some time to figure out what’s a good number and make sure you get it.

Summary

You should be icing acute injuries as soon as possible to reduce swelling. After a few days, as the muscle or joint begins to stiffen due to immobility, you can introduce heat.

If you’re just dealing with sore, stiff muscles after a hard workout, heat therapy is an excellent way to increase blood flow and loosen up those tight spots.

The Wired Runner