One of the most common ways to prevent tissue damage for runners is through cryotherapy, also known as cold therapy, cold-water immersion or ice bath. Cold therapy helps to heal damaged tissue by constricting blood vessels to reduce swelling and tissue breakdown.
Robert Gillanders, a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association and a nine-time Boston Marathon runner, says that after the skin comes into contact with cold temperatures, the underlying tissues warm up, creating a faster return of blood flow. This helps move the byproducts of cellular breakdown to the lymph system for efficient recycling by the body, explains Gillanders.
Gillanders advises taking a cold bath on days where you have exerted more effort. “An ice bath on your most intense days makes sense,” Gillanders says.
For runners experiencing inflammation after training or from an injury, cold therapy is an effective part of the recovery plan. Athletes who undergo cold therapy experience decreased muscle soreness, which not only provides relief, but also prepares the muscles better for the next workout. Research published in the Journal of Physiology has shown that cold-water therapy can help athletes recover faster on strength training days as well.
When you should use cold therapy
Although there are some benefits to heat therapy, runners will specifically benefit more from ice baths and cold therapy. However, if an athlete is aiming for gaining bigger muscles, post-workout ice baths might not be the best option. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, immersing in cold water after resistance training didn’t improve muscle growth among athletes. However, if the focus is simply on increasing strength and power, ice baths and cold showers will not affect one’s performance.
It is normal for your legs to feel stiff after an ice bath. This simply means that the cold is working on repairing the trauma to the tissue on a micro-level. Gillanders suggests only soaking in cold water for 10 to 15 minutes max. Otherwise, it will cause skin damage. Gillanders also recommends this therapy to be included on harder workout days whether in the gym or after a job with heavy or muscle-burning mileage. Cold therapy should be paired with other recovery methods such as proper rehydration, a healthy diet, and stretching for better results. After this, your legs will feel much better the next day.
Cold therapy is also most important in treating leg injuries. Dr. Benjamin Thompson, an orthopaedic surgeon at Access Sports Medicine, says that ice is most effective for acute injuries.
“Excessive swelling can slow the process of healing damaged tissue,” Thompson says. “The use of ice therapy on an injury will reduce swelling and pain, as well as decrease blood flow to the treated area. This process will create a more favorable environment for healing and recovery.”
To treat an injured leg, apply cold therapy to the affected area for periods of 20 minutes at a time with 20 minutes break in between. Icing should continue for days until the swelling is gone and the pain is tolerable.
The use of the RICE method to treat injuries is also recommended. Rest, ice, compression and elevation (in that order) are standard protocol for all types of acute injuries.
Using ice packs for injury recovery
If you do not have access to an ice bath, the most common and convenient way to recover after a run is to use an ice pack. Ice packs are filled with a refrigerant gel and are reusable. Reusable gel packs are made of non-toxic materials that will remain in a slow-flowing gel state even when frozen. A good reusable gel pack should be able to follow the contours of your body and is large enough to wrap around the problem area, or comfortable to use in any position.
Having mentioned everything above, it is still worth noting that ice alone is not the only way to strengthen the legs to help you become a better runner. Like every other extreme physical activity, proper
- Hydrate immediately after your run with Gatorade or electrolyte drink.
- Stretch major muscle groups and anything that is sore or tight. Roll out any nagging injuries or problem areas.
- Eat a small meal that contains a 4-1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein.
- Take an ice bath.
- Eat a decent sized, healthy meal.
- Nap, put your feet up or get a massage.
- Take an Epsom salt bath.
- Get plenty of sleep.
Now that you’re equipped with the proper knowledge on how to prepare yourself, especially in cases of injuries, it’s time to hit the road once again and run more confidently than ever.
Got a question or anything I can help with? My name is Steve Stretton, and I’m the owner and manager at Gelpacks.com. You can drop me a line here. Good luck!