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Many of us may not mind the aching and soreness after a good run. If anything, it’s a badge of honour, a sign that we’ve pushed our limits. However, some pains are tougher than others such as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), the 24-28 hours of muscle pain we get after exercise. It causes loss of strength and range of motion. So, which is the better way to beat it, hot or cold tubs?
Break the Ice
Cold tubs, a form of cold therapy that involves ice bathing, is a widely known practice to treat muscle injuries. It’s cheap and simple. But how does it work?
Simply put, it is a pain reliever. A study has shown that icing may help in facilitating recovery and allowing athletes to perform exercises earlier than normally possible after a muscle injury.
A group of researchers at the University of Ulster in Ireland has found that ice bathing for a few minutes after exercise can reduce muscle soreness by 20 percent. Regarding pain and discomfort management, anything that could tone down the pain level from a big, nasty ten to a bearable eight is a miracle worker.
But sadly, cold tubs are not the one-stop recovery method we all want and need. These experts have stressed that ice bathing does not fix anything, it just numbs the pain. It could help to reduce inflammation in tissue injury, but that’s as far as ice bathing could go.
Also, while nothing may sound better than dipping into a tub full of ice after a gruelling run under the scorching sun, prolonged immersion in ice can lead to a series of side effects. Researchers have found that ice baths can cause shock and increased heart rate. More than 20 minutes of immersion in ice-cold water can also adversely affect strength, speed, power and agility.
While the studies mentioned above do show some benefits, it’s still unknown whether ice bathing is more effective than other treatments. Indeed, the long-term effects of ice therapy, both good and bad, must be further studied.
“It doesn’t mean that you have to love one and hate the other. Hot and cold therapies target different symptoms.”
Hot or Not
Just like its cooler counterpart, there has been very limited research done on hot tubs – a form of heat therapy. One thing that experts seem to agree is that when you feel muscle stiffness or cramps, you may want to keep your ice in the freezer and turn up the heat instead. Heat therapy performs better than ibuprofen and other pain relieving medication in soothing muscle and joint stiffness.
That’s right, the kind of stiffness you feel when having neck or back pain. In the same study, heat has also been found to relieve back pain by 70 percent and thankfully, improve functional mobility by 95 percent. This is crucial when your legs feel wasted after an arduous marathon or training session. After all, you wouldn’t want to walk around like Frankenstein’s monster, would you?
A study also shows that applying heat after exercise provides significant prevention and early treatment of DOMS. However, the study was conducted in a small group and it definitely requires more data to prove conclusively the effectiveness of heat therapy. However to a certain extent, it seems that heat therapy is a good bet for you to beat DOMS, for now.
Best of Both Worlds?
It doesn’t mean that you have to love one and hate the other. Hot and cold therapies target different symptoms. A hot tub may work wonders if you use it to relieve muscle stiffness, but it can give you hell if you use it to soothe inflamed tissues.
In an ideal world, we could all pinpoint and identify the exact pain we feel. But realistically, our body is a complex system and what could be just a dull stiffness may feel like a strain.
So, some experts advocate for the combination of both hot and cold therapy. After exercise, it’s recommended to do ice therapy first, especially if there’s swollen muscles or joints. The ice will constrict the blood vessels causing fewer pain signals being transmitted to the brain. Heat therapy can come after. Heat helps to relax tightened muscles and increase blood flow to remove any lactic acid build-up.
So, there you have it. The debate of hot versus cold tubs for post-run recovery is by no means settled. Hopefully, we’ll uncover more findings and insights in the future. As for now, engage in hot or cold tubs with prudence; the safest option perhaps is to give your body time to repair itself naturally before your next physical challenge.
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