Should You Use Ice To Recover From Training?
More often than not people will say “Absolutely, you need to control any swelling and it helps with numbing the pain!”. You’ve possibly said this yourself just now. Maybe you’ve been in a situation where you used a bag of peas from the freezer on a twisted ankle. If not for yourself you may have suggested an ice pack when someone got a bang or has sore muscles from training. Ice baths have been widely used by sports teams and athletes all over the world to aid in recovery from tough sessions. That’s what almost everyone thinks, but are they right? Does icing speed up recovery from minor injury or training? Should you use an ice pack next time you have a slight muscle strain or ligament sprain?
Let me explain why you shouldn’t bother. Dr. Gabe Mirkin is the man who first made the acronym RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) in his 1978 book “The Sportsmedicine Book”. For years it has been the go-to treatment for injuries and to help people recover from injury/training. However, in 2014 the very same man said that ice may delay healing instead of helping it. You can look for yourself here.
What happens when you get an injury? The injured area becomes inflamed or swollen. It might feel hotter or may even have some bruising. That inflammatory response is your body’s first stage in healing itself. Histamine is released causing swelling. Things called macrophages go into the injured site to fight any nasties that are there and growth factors are recruited. These growth factors stimulate a bunch of other good cells with fancy names to come in and start rebuilding the things that were injured/damaged. For this to happen optimally we need blood flow to and from the area. BUT when you start icing the area you slow that process down as cold makes our blood vessels constrict. You’re basically stopping the ambulances, fire engines and builders from going in and doing their job.
A study published in 2011 compared people who iced their torn calf muscles versus people who didn’t. The results showed the icing group had just as much pain in their legs after icing. They also didn’t return to work or activities any quicker than the non icing group. A scientific review in 2012 concluded that athletes who iced sore muscles or used ice baths regained strength and power slower than those who didn’t. Finally a study in 2015 found that subjects who used a cold therapy after training experienced less strength, size and endurance than a group who didn’t use cold therapy.
Take Home Message
When it comes to icing sore muscles after training, don’t bother. You’ll slow down your body’s natural recovery and also limit the benefits of that training on strength, muscle size and endurance. The same goes for anti-inflammatory medications if you’re using them post training. If you’re incredibly sore from training you could try some gentle exercise like walking to get some blood flow around the affected muscles. Or you could train smarter and not get to the point of being in incredible pain in the first place. Stimulate your muscles, don’t annihilate them!