Ice Baths vs. Heat Therapy: Which Is Best For Runners?
Both ice baths and heat therapy provide fantastic benefits for athletes. The key is using the proper one at the right moment.
In this post, we dive into the benefits of both, the effects they have on an athlete’s body, and how you might include ice and heat in your training regimen.
Are Ice Baths or Hot Baths Better for Athletes?
Athletes often disagree on which is better for runners: ice baths or heat therapy. Both of these have benefits and offer distinct advantages.
The general rule is that you use ice for acute pain and heat for muscle soreness.
Also, ice is best used in the first 45 hours after an injury; whereas, heat may be better in the days that follow the initial 48.
5 Reasons to Use Ice Baths
Wondering to yourself, are ice baths good for you?
There are many benefits of ice baths.
- Cool Down: An ice bath can help you cool down quickly.
- Prevent Soreness: Another perk is that submerging in icy water can help keep the muscle soreness at bay.
- Recovery: Dipping into cool water can promote muscle recovery.
- Injury Prevention: Some research points to reducing the risk of injury through ice bathing.
- Setting Up for Tomorrow: Ice baths can help get your body ready for the next challenging workout.
Do Ice Baths Help Runners?
Ice baths can definitely help runners. Hard running can create micro-tears in the muscles, much like occurs in weight lifting. Sitting in an ice bath can help ease the pain and swelling part of the inflammatory response to those micro-tears.
Ice baths work to constrict the blood vessels. This can help reduce the delayed onset of muscle soreness (AKA DOMS) that would normally result.
Another positive vote for ice baths is the psychological boost that they bring to the athlete.
How Often Should Runners Take Ice Baths?
There is no magical number for when or how often a runner should take an ice bath. I find ice baths are most helpful after a particularly strenuous workout or a very long run. Taking an ice bath every day isn’t necessary if you are doing your workouts correctly.
Think about it: a good percentage of your running should be done at a nice, easy pace. Save the ice baths for especially hot days or challenging workouts, as it will help you cool down and recovery.
What Are the Disadvantages of Ice Baths?
Completely immersing in a bath full of ice can be dangerous for some people. This is especially true for anyone with an underlying heart condition.
Overexposure to very cold temperatures can also be hard on your body. Also, many people go right from the ice bath to a hot shower in an attempt to warm up. This seems counterproductive.
There is also no scientific evidence backing all of the claims made by coaches and athletes. On the one hand, how can you argue with a practice that coaches have used with athletes for decades?
Just because people do, it does not mean there is a confirmed physical benefit.
How Cold Should It Be?
Some runners will tell you to fill your bath with a ton of ice as that is necessary to get the desired results. Others will contradict that statement.
While coaching, I worked closely with an athletic trainer who was adamant that although ice baths helped runners to bounce back, many athletes would gain the same benefit from just a very cold bath. In other words, the ice itself may not be a crucial component.
Do you struggle to get yourself into the ice bath? Try running cold water and getting in that bath first. Then, once you are in, have someone add the ice.
This is a way to acclimate a bit slowly, and many runners find it more palatable.
Should You Take an Ice Bath the Day of a Race?
There are so many differing opinions on this topic. When coaching high school cross country, my coaching partner had the kids take an ice bath the night before some of the biggest races. If you do some research online, you will find this is a relatively common practice among athletes, particularly distance runners.
Although most runners don’t take an ice bath the morning of a race, there are many who soak in one after racing. I find it helpful if I have run 10 miles or more, as it seems to add the spring back into why step.
Does Heat Therapy Actually Work?
So the opposite end of the spectrum is heat therapy. As someone who occasionally takes an ice bath, I have to admit I also use a hot bath. The key is knowing which one to use under certain circumstances.
A hot bath will promote blood flow to the muscles. This is done by dilating blood vessels.
Not something you should do right after exercising; you may find a hot bath helpful a day or more after a challenging workout when you are sore and struggling.
A hot bath can help aid healing by increasing circulation.
Is Heat Good for Pain?
Using heat is best when you have lingering pain or an issue that is not brand new or acute pain. Heat can be used to warm up muscles before a workout, for example.
My daughter was a competitive swimmer and had shoulder surgery in high school. The doctor and athletic trainer had her warm up with a hot pack before competing. This helped her avoid unnecessary pain and discomfort and kept her in the water.
Another example is using heat therapy for back pain. You can use a hot bath or a heating pad to help alleviate back pain. Just be cautious not to use anything too hot.
When Should You Not Use Heat Therapy?
Are you still confused and wondering when to avoid using heat?
- Post-workout – You should not use heat right after a workout.
- Acute pain – For acute pain, use cold/ice instead of heat.
- Swelling – Do not use heat if the body part is swollen.
- Time – Like with ice, you can get too much of a good thing. Be sure to give your body a break.
- Protect your skin – Be sure you are not using a hot pack directly on your skin.
How Often Should You Use Heat Therapy?
First off, you can use heat in a couple of ways. Heat can be applied just to a particular body part, or you can submerge into a hot tub that warms most of your body.
While you can use heat daily, remember that pain happens for a reason and should not be ignored. If you have discomfort that does not go away, you might need medical attention.
Heat is best used in 15-20 minute increments, followed by at least that same amount of time without the heat applied.
So, Are They Both Good for Runners?
The bottom line is that both cold and hot baths have benefits for runners. The key is using the proper one at the right moment.
- Contrast Hydrotherapy, web site ,
- How to Use Heat and Cold to Treat Athletic Injuries, web site/book excerpt ,
- Heat and Ice Treatment for Pain, web site ,
- Should You Use Ice or Heat for Pain?, web site ,
- Should You Try Whole Body Cryotherapy, web site ,
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