Manipulating the temperature of your body can be a great way to aid your performance and recovery, but knowing the difference between the two can make all the difference. Although it might seem like it, simply slapping on a hot or cold pack when you feel a bit of pain might not be the answer to all your problems.
As well as this, hot and cold therapy shouldn’t be the answer to all your problems just like a coffee shouldn’t be your go-to instead of sleep. Temperature packs shouldn’t be used to cover up poor technique and form or as an excuse to over-train, they can simply help in a time of need and on an ‘as and when’ basis.
Hopefully, you’re already in the rhythm of washing after a workout, but today, we’re going to discuss why altering the temperature of your shower could actually be a great way to help you recover.
Using ice water sends the blood away from your skin towards your internal organs or where the blood is needed most. After exercising, the muscles that you’ve damaged are going to be in direct need of the blood, so that’s where it’ll be sent
Cold therapy works by constricting the blood vessels to reduce inflammation. Yet, inflammation is actually an important part of the recovery process. Inflammation is what’s created when the body becomes injured in order to promote healing. If we didn’t have any inflammation, then we simply wouldn’t be able to heal ourselves. A Swedish article stated that “the application of cold packs reduces local muscular blood-flow by approximately 50% after 10 minutes”. Reducing inflammation can also help us to feel less sore which can be particularly beneficial if you badly suffer from DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).
Researchers from the Cochrane Database Systematic Review looked at various controlled trials involving cold-water therapy for recovery, totalling 366 participants altogether. The aim was to examine the use of temperature, duration, and frequency of the recovery technique to find out firstly, whether it works and secondly, what the best approach is if so. The participants ranged from those who just rested without any ice bath and those who took on the cold for at least five minutes.
The conclusion was that “pooled results from two studies found cold-water immersion groups had significantly lower ratings of fatigue and potentially improved ratings of physical recovery immediately after the end of cold-water immersion”. However, “pooled data for pain showed no evidence of differences between the two groups at four follow-up times (immediately, 24, 48, and 72 hours after treatment)”. Essentially, this means that the individuals who underwent cold therapy felt better straight after their treatment, but each group felt the same in the days afterwards.
So, when it comes to cold therapy, it’s definitely effective at alleviating pain, but doesn’t do much in the way of recovery. Though, it’s important to note that cold therapy such as cryotherapy may have other benefits to health above and beyond recovery from exercise sessions.
If you’re looking for more information about Cryotherapy and its applications, then check out this video.
Heat does the opposite of the cold and directs blood away from your internal organs towards your skin. Studies have also suggested that it does a relatively opposite effect to that of cold therapy, too.
The idea with heat therapy is that it helps to relax and loosen the muscles. You can think of your muscles a little bit like butter. Cold makes it stiffen, heat makes them melt. The idea is that by using heat therapy, your muscles can soften and become more mobile, reducing your risk of injury and increasing your range of motion.
By applying heat to your muscles, you can increase oxygen uptake and supposedly, tissue healing, too. Electrotherapy (ultrasound, shockwave, etc.) can be used to hit deeper tissues whilst wax baths, saunas, and steam rooms can be used for the whole body.
Research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research stated that deep heat (a heat therapy supplement) showed no significant benefits for muscle soreness, range of motion, or strength.
Although, another study, albeit a small one using only 67 participants, from the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation showed that “at hour 24 post-exercise, pain intensity, disability, and deficits in self-reported physical function in subjects with the heat wrap were reduced by 47%” in relation to back pain. As well as this, 24-hours post-exercises, the heat-relief group experienced 138% greater pain relief when compared with a cold-pack.
Yet, to back up that small study, another from the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research using 87 patients found that thermotherapy patients (i.e. heat-treated patients) reported “significantly less pain compared to cryotherapy and control”.
There seems to be a lot of anecdotal evidence in favour of heat therapy, but not as much science to back it up just yet.
Quickly alternating between hot and cold temperatures cause your blood vessels to expand and contract (dilate and constrict) to increase blood flow. Blood helps to direct nutrients towards your muscles which helps them to recover both more effectively and efficiently. This process is known as ‘water therapy’ and is actually known for having many benefits for the skin, too, due to its effects on the pores.
An article by Nadler et al. stated that “contrast therapy, which alternates between hot and cold treatment modalities, provides no additional therapeutic benefits compared with cryotherapy or thermotherapy alone”.
Which should I go for?
The way in which you use each one depends on the issue itself. The healing process consists of three phases:
- Inflammatory: This is where the body contains the damage to a specific area which is where cold therapy can come into play to reduce pain and swelling. Using heat at this point can actually increase swelling, so try not to use any heat therapy for around 2 days after the injury or issue starts.
- Proliferation: This phase is where new tissue is formed and heat can be applied to direct blood to the area and aid in the recovery process.
- Remodelling: Lastly, the remodelling phase is where the body puts the finishing touches on the healing process and so, heat therapy can still be used.
As the research isn’t fully there yet to back up either idea, it’s suitable to suggest that cold therapy should be used for immediate relief whilst heat therapy could be used to aid more long-term recovery.
Yet, both should be used sparingly. If you’re continuously reaching for your packs to put on your body, then the chances are that there’s a deeper problem involved which needs addressing.
I would suggest avoiding either unless the pain or issue is particularly bad as there are other more proven techniques to aid your recovery after exercise.
- Light cardio: doing some active, non-strenuous movements after a workout can help to get blood flow around the body whilst also reducing the strain upon your mind. Reducing cortisol (the stress hormone) is key for effective recovery, so doing something calming both physically and mentally after a workout is heavily recommended.
- Stretching: Stretching will help to reduce muscle cramps and improve the range of motion after exercise. Active stretches are recommended prior to your session whilst static stretches suit post-exercise much better.
- Foam rolling: Foam rolling is essentially the DIY alternative to a sports massage, helping to reduce DOMS by kneading out any knots and tight areas you might have developed from your session.
All three of the above can be used daily to improve your recovery, so if you have a particularly bad case of soreness, then you try to include at least one per day.