Recovery: Hot vs Cold

Growing up as an athlete in Russia I always knew that a hot bath or wet sauna are great for recovery. When I moved to the US, however, I quickly realized that this concept is quite foreign to athletes and fitness enthusiasts here. More often than not I see people applying ice packs to the sore or swollen muscles and when I suggest doing the opposite I am usually met with a puzzled look.

Let’s take a look at the science behind both options.

Cold Therapy for Recovery

A hard workout will create small trauma to the muscle and other tissues, which means inflammation. Cold therapy is aiming to reduce the inflammation as fast as possible and relieve the discomfort. But here is the thing, inflammation is NOT a problem in this setting, itis only dangerous if it becomes chronic. Inflammation is a necessary tool that acts as a signal for recovery. Taking ice bath, for example, does indeed reduce inflammation but it also slows down the recovery process.

On the other hand, cool rather than cold bath/shower may help the recovery. During the workout, blood rushes to the muscles and our vessels become wider. Taking a cool shower or bath helps with shrinking blood vessels just enough to reduce the inflammation without postponing the recovery.

Hot Tub or Heat

When my clients pull a muscle I usually recommend applying some cold for the first day and then sleep with the heating pad. Here is why. The body has a natural way of healing: inflammation, repair, remodel. Applying ice reduces inflammation, but too much of it will slow down repair and remodel. Heat on the other hand, helps keeping the vessels dilated and brings all necessary nutrients to the injury site.

I use this method on myself and my clients; I always note how much faster I heal when I apply heat vs cold, or not applying anything at all.

When it comes to post-workout recovery I now often use a combination of both: warm bath for 20min followed by a cool shower. This way I can reap the benefits of both worlds 🙂

Which option do you prefer? Have you tried other ways for a faster recovery?

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