Hot and cold treatments are often used for offsetting the damage done on a run, but which method is best?

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In the high heat of summer, it’s tempting to want to jump right in an ice cold bath after a long hot, run. The question is, what ice bath benefits can you reap? We’ve seen coaches and therapists use both hot and cold water therapies in the realm of recovery for decades, but which option is really ideal for recovery? We turned to an expert and seasoned runner to find out.

Ice Bath Benefits

It doesn’t take a scientist to realize that hot versus cold therapies are like night and day, so of course they provide different benefits.

One simple way to offset the risks inherent to long bouts of running is cold-water immersion—known to many runners as the ice bath—or cryotherapy. Cold therapy constricts blood vessels and decreases metabolic activity, which reduces swelling and tissue breakdown. Once the skin is no longer in contact with the cold source, the underlying tissues warm up, causing a faster return of blood flow, which helps move the byproducts of cellular breakdown to the lymph system for efficient recycling by the body, explains Robert Gillanders, D.P.T., and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association, who has nine Boston Marathons under his belt.

“When I’m actively trying to manage my recovery, I’ll balance my harder effort days with cold water,” Gillanders says. “Being strategic with days [you use an ice bath] is your most sensible plan. An ice bath on your most intense days makes sense.”

For someone experiencing inflammation from an effort or injury or if you’re looking to prevent injury, cold-based therapy is an effective part of a recovery plan. You’ll experience decreased muscle soreness, which is not only good for feeling better sooner, but it also preps your muscles better for the next workout. What’s more, research published in the Journal of Physiology has shown that cold-water therapy can help you recover faster on strength-training days as well.

Heat Therapy Benefits

Heat, on the other hand, offers some recovery benefits to the body as well. There is less scientific evidence here encouraging the use of heat, but soaking in a hot tub is not frowned upon by experts. Heat can aid in muscle relaxation and create changes on a cellular level, allowing fluids to flow more freely through your body. Warm water also increases the temperature of your muscle tissues making it easier to stretch (this is why hot yoga is a thing). It’s a similar sensation to why you might be able to touch your toes after a run when your muscles are warm and but not before.

That said, there’s a time and a place for heat. If you’re recovering from an injury, steer clear of heat, as the body has a tougher time dealing with it, says Gillanders. He recommends that you save heat therapy for less-intense workouts. The sweet spot is 102 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 to 15 minutes. That temperature is higher than your average body temperature, so you’ll get the benefits of heat recovery.

Which is Best for Recovery?

While there are some benefits to heat therapy, runners will benefit the most from ice baths and cold therapy. The body of science suggests that even though the impact of cold immersion post-workout can be minimal, it can do some good. “Cold wins out here,” says Gillanders. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to prepare our body for the next workout, and cold is another brick in rebuilding after recovery with sleep, diet, hydration, stretching, and [more].”

When and How to Use Cold Therapy

Though you could use individual ice packs, cold-water immersion generally produces a greater and longer lasting change in deep tissues and is a more efficient means of cooling large groups of muscles simultaneously. But if the sound of submerging your body in ice cold water makes you want to run the other way, we’re with you. Luckily, you don’t actually have to. To see benefits from cold water immersion, all you really need is water at 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit to see the same benefits as if you were in that ice bath. “The water doesn’t have to be full of ice,” Gillanders says. “It just has to be cool.”

In fact, that’s why even with the “warmer” temperatures suggested, Gillanders suggests only soaking for 10 to 15 minutes max. Otherwise, the cold can do damage to your skin. You might also notice that when you exit the ice bath, your legs feel stiff. Don’t worry, that’s normal. That’s the cold working on repairing the trauma to your tissue on a micro-level, and you’ll feel much better the next day.

Gillanders recommends this recovery to be included on your harder workout days whether in the gym or logging heavy or muscle-burning mileage. This should be paired with other recovery methods such as proper rehydration, a healthy diet, and stretching for maximum benefits.

To make the ice bath experience more tolerable, fill the tub with two to three bags of crushed ice, then add cold water to a height that will cover you nearly to the waist when seated. Before getting in, put on a warm jacket, a hat, and neoprene booties if you have them, make a cup of hot tea, and collect some entertaining reading material (perhaps the latest issue of Runner’s World?) to help the next 15 minutes fly by.

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