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Ice, Ice Baby! Freeze Sore or Injured Leg Muscles

Just the other morning, I finished the first of what promises to be plenty of hot, humid long runs with my training group and while we were trying to rehydrate, a relative newbie came by and asked me the best to treat a sore calf muscle. He was diligently stretching the calf after every run, followed later by dipping his legs in a Jacuzzi and then placing a heating pad on the calf for another 10 minutes. The calf hadn’t been responding at all to his treatment and he was worried.

He should be.

Yikes! Heat for a sore, inflamed muscle? Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Heat is almost always contraindicated for inflamed, strained running muscles. Inflammation is heat, I explained, and after you heat up a sore muscle by running, the last thing it needs is more heat which does nothing but prolong the inflammation.

Ice baby, that’s what he needs.

Ice. It’s simple, doesn’t require a prescription or cost hardly anything and is as close as your freezer. Ice is nice.

It’s the runner’s best friend. Ice promotes healing of sore muscles, relieves inflammation, feels soothing and has absolutely no side effects. And you can recycle it time and time again.

At some point, all athletes learn the value of ice. Especially runners who suffer from all sorts of muscular aches and pains that need quick attention.

But runners, who are new to the sport like my friend, generally reach for a heat source first to treat a sore muscle because it feels good. It’s a common enough mistake, but one that should be corrected as soon as possible.

Let it be said as simply and direct as possible: Your first line of defense should always be ice for any minor muscular injury such as a strain, sprain or common shin, Achilles, calf, soleus, hamstring or foot soreness. If after a hard run or race, there is any lingering muscular pain or soreness, reach immediately for ice.

Ice. Almost never heat. Heat might feel comforting on a sore muscle, but go for the cold.

Here’s why. After a muscle is strained or injured, inflammation follows. Blood vessels at the site of the injured muscle expand which causes pain, soreness and swelling.

Placing a bag of ice on the injured muscle as soon as possible, quickly reduces the swelling which can also reduce lingering pain or soreness. It also reduces any downtime due to the injured muscle.

Inflammation is heat which raises tissue temperature and is the body’s way to increase circulation in the injured area. Ice does just the opposite. It reduces inflammation by preventing swelling and actually decreases the blood flow to the injured muscle which reduces bruising and pain.

That’s why sitting in a hot tub, whirlpool or Jacuzzi is just about the worst thing you can do for sore or injured muscles (especially right after a hard race such as a half marathon or marathon). Soaking an injured muscle in hot water (or using a heating pad) will increase the inflammation, rather than lessen it.

You may have heard that some elite runners put their legs in a bathtub of ice after workouts or races. They know that inflammation generated by the hard workout or race, can be knocked out by the ice which also prevents swelling and hastens recovery. It isn’t easy or especially comfortable, but a 10-minute ice bath is one of the best things you can do for tired, sore muscles.

There are even commercial whole-body cryotherapy chambers such as CryoStudio of Austin which provides an extremely cold environment (using nitrogen gas) for a couple of minutes. I have never used it, but the cold therapy aids in recovery and reduces any inflammation and swelling, just like an ice bath does.

Heat does have a role, but only four or five days after the muscle was injured and the swelling has gone down. At that point, heat can increase circulation in the injured area which will promote healing. Many runners alternate heat with ice, but only after the swelling has subsided. Some runners also use a heat source to warm up a leg muscle—typically hamstrings and calf muscles—before a workout.

But after a muscle has been strained or injured, use ice as soon as possible to reduce the severity of the injury.

Using ice properly, is easy. Just fill a large plastic bag with crushed ice and apply it to the injured muscle. Put a towel underneath you to soak up the melting ice. Apply the ice for 15-20 minutes. If the ice is too cold or your skin is too sensitive, place a thin towel between your skin and the ice.

There are also commercial cold packs that can be refrozen. These work OK, but some don’t get cold enough for me to be as effective as ice.

What also works great is a bag of frozen vegetables, preferably peas. Again, just apply the frozen veggie bag to the injured muscle and leave it on for several minutes. After finishing, just re-freeze it.

The other common way to apply ice is by filling a paper cup with water and freeze it. You then peel some of the paper off the cup and massage the injured muscle with the ice.

Just remember: Ice over heat. Ice is the best friend any injured runner will have.