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Busting the Ice for Recovery Myth

How many times have you instinctively slapped on a pack of ice or some other frozen packet of frozen veg on an injury? We are guessing more than once. We are sure your doctor or personal trainers have suggested the ice for recovery or RICE therapy for an injury.

No, it is not the grains. This is an acronym for “Rest Ice Compression and Elevation”. This is a go-to relief cure that has been employed for injury for over four decades.

The question is, do ice have benefits to heal injuries, or in any way hasten the recovery process?

What do you think?

While there is no tangible or valid research or documents showing the potency or efficacy that ice in any way reduces inflammation or hastens the healing process of damaged tissues if you belong to that school of thought that ice heals, think again.

This misconception or thought was backed by a review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012: it states, “While ice is a common cure for acute muscle strains and pains, there is no clinical backing supporting its effectiveness”.

But there is more.

The doctor that coined the acronym RICE in 1978 has retracted the R and “I” in the acronym. Dr Gabe Mirkin now says that ice and rest can hinder/delay effective healing instead of hastening the recovery process.

That is a long time coming. So what is the truth?

What happens when you apply ice to an injury?

It is not unusual to sustain muscle damage or inflammation after a long workout, jogs runs, or hours at the gym.

Inflammations will happen, and that doesn’t mean that it’s bad or it will hurt you. It is your body’s way of acknowledging the pain and setting off a controlled healing process and a pathway to gains.

You have to know that when there is an injury on you, your body triggers an inflammation to prevent you from using that muscle group, thereby permitting it to heal.

If you let it be, the pain, sore and tightness should disappear in a couple of days. However, the human instinct in us wants to push beyond our limits. We want to influence the body’s due process, and we run to the fridge and slap on a pack of ice.

Okay, let’s not get this twisted. You will feel instant relief as the throbbing dies down. What wouldn’t when ice is placed on it?

But something is actually happening.

The region will go numb, which is expected when you slap below zero substance on your skin. However, there is a reason. The ice gradually but sure slows down the nerve conduction velocity.

What is the nerve conduction velocity?

This is the pathway that sends signals to your brain that there is a sore on a muscle.

Ice acts like a barrier, stopping the signals and inciting a feeling of relief. Now because the brain does not get any signs, it automatically assumes the sore is gone. In this case, people with chronic and throbbing pain will undoubtedly feel relieved when an ice pack is slapped on, according to several studies.

Remember, ice diminishes the soreness. It does not heal. This false hope means you are tempted to work out with an unhealed muscle group, straining them the more, leading to more injury down the line.

Is inflammation good?

running inflammation

The more you train, the sorer you get, but recovery makes it better. Remember, inflammation is a healing process. When the inflammation indicator is switched on, the body responds to this muscular damage by sending white blood cells to the region.

Now, these cells perform two functions. They clean out the cellular debris and supply healing nutrients to the site. Before these cells arrive, the surrounding damaged blood vessels shrink to accommodate the pain and pressure in the region.

When the cells reach the injured region, they clean out the debris causing the vessels to increase and expand to enable nutrients to get to the injured point. This expansion is the inflammation you see and feel after an injury.

Now the inflammation or swelling will go down via the waste removal pathway called the lymphatic system. However, this system does not work automatically; it is triggered. It will only swing into action when the muscles shrink, as in an injury.

But you have a role to play too.

So when you choose the ice recovery process, you are instantly hindering this process and locking in waste in that region.

What ice does is stop down the healing process. This means waste debris is not evacuated, and rich healing nutrients do not get to the region to trigger healing. Overall, ice is like the pause button.

It stops everything and prevents seamless muscle recovery. This hindrance process was demonstrated by a study narrated in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2013.

So instead of the ice for the recovery process, how do we heal sore muscles and get back to our daily routine?

By moving – keep moving that is the way to heal.

The Dynamic Recovery Option

Remember we talked about the lymphatic system not been automatic unless it’s triggered. This is where it comes into play. The system relies on the activeness of the muscles to do their job. So rather than slap on a pack of ice or go back to your rigorous routine, indulge in light exercises or simple pain-free movement to start the healing process.

Now, if you are wondering why movement, this is it. That instinct to rub on an injury is your brain telling you what to do to initiate the recovery process.

So the next time you secure an injury, do not RICE it or slap it on ice. Try simple movements like stretches, foam rolling, contracting, and relaxing the sore muscles, which will jolt the lymphatic system to action and enhancing the healing process.

So how effective is the dynamic or active recovery process?

It is very effective, according to recent research. Hence it is proven beyond a doubt to reduce swelling and cellular stress of sore muscles. Moreover, athletes have been using this method for ages. For example, many high-distance runners, joggers, sprinters, and cross-trainers use short jogs and runs to relax and relieve muscle soreness. Regardless of the sport, from weight lifting to regular exercises, the dynamic recovery option is effective and will reduce soreness.

Ways to improve blood circulation

Without efficient blood flow, the soreness tarries, but the following should help with the soreness.

Massages

massage therapy

A tissue mobilization therapy by a trained masseuse should restore proper movement and dissipate any tightness between the muscles.

Using foam rollers or massage guns is equally effective in disintegrating scar tissue, reducing contraction, and increasing muscle length resulting from repeating movements. The massage should be done once or twice a month and other relief methods every week.

With these modalities, you will be worse before you are better – Recovery will not be smooth sailing as you will feel pain due to scar tissue breakdown, but you know what they say, no pain, no gain.

Compression

This is another method to get the blood flowing to quicken the healing process. Some compression method and benefits are:

Using Static compression socks

Static compression socks (spandex) are a norm in the fitness industry. You see them everywhere. Whether on guys in the gym or outdoor, you will find one exercise person wearing it.
Research shows that these garments’ pressure range of 6 to 29mmhg has a limited impact on recovery due to their static nature. They will only have an effect when you are moving.

Recovery Boots (IPC) and its benefits

Intermittent Pneumatic Compression is a system that improves blood circulation and arterial blood flow using an inflammation boot. They have shown to be more effective than regular compression garments up to 10 x more. The squeeze-release milking action makes them more effective over other compression garments. Athletes can use it in warming down or stimulate the lymphatic system during injury or DOMS, Delayed, Onset Muscle Soreness.

Additionally, the IPC recovery system also reduces the heart rate and blood pressure in athletes that use it.

Besides lowering your heart rate and pressure, it reduces breathing, relaxes muscles, and boosts lymphatic system action.

IPC aids in quick recovery, enabling you to train more, but that is not all. While it boosts faster recovery better than other compression systems, it boosts soft tissue health too.

Areas like hips, knees, and ankles will experience better recovery and strength when using IPC, which is incredible. This process is called parasympathetic. The IPC also triggers relaxation and rest, and even sleep, which is beneficial for recovering muscles.

ice for ecovery

IPC Prevents Blood Clots

Perhaps one of the most significant benefits of the ICP recovery system is to prevent blood clots. Blood clots happen due to prolonged immobility, blood flow speed reduction, which results in blood clots.

How does the IPC work?

While it encases your leg or hand or wherever you need it, the squeeze-release action triggers a natural sensation that prevents clotting. This also improves circulation and gets oxygen-rich blood & nutrients faster to sore muscles to hasten recovery.

Athletes on the road should have a portable IPC recovery system with them to continue the recovery process. Remember to carry a powerful power bank to prevent interruptions when in use.
Incorporating IPC into your post-workout will enable you to recover faster, which may mean athletes can train more often. Gains or improvements also lock in faster, given the faster recovery time to allow the magic of super-compensation or gains. Soft tissue also benefits as it is pumped at higher than usual volumes into soft tissue areas such as knees, ankles and hips, promoting soft tissue health.

Warmup

Eight minutes on an IPC cuff is equivalent to a 30 to 40-minute warmup run/ride. This allows a warmup at a lower metabolic cost and saves your energy and time, saving valuable energy to enable the athlete to hit the high notes of a given training session.

IPC Parasympathetic System Benefits

Stress is part of our lives and even more so for athletes with a high training load.

Stress be gone. IPC has excellent benefits and a critical beneficial influence over the parasympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system is a part of the autonomic nervous system (our bodies version of autopilot) — the part of your brain that balances and manages and brings everything back to homeostasis.

The parasympathetic is also known as “rest/digest”, which handles slowing things down and reallocating blood away from your muscles to vital organs so you can perform internal functions.
It slows down the heart and breathing while relaxing your muscles, which produces vasodilation. It usually results in cold hands and feet. We have talked a lot about this. Still, the thing to understand is that you activate your parasympathetic handling if you can create vasodilation and warm your hands and feet.

So, these are not isolated things. They all work together. When you increase one, you increase all of this. So, it can have incredibly profound, far-reaching influences and benefits on your health.
Incorporating IPC into your post-workout will enable you to recover faster, which may mean athletes can train more often. Gains or improvements also lock in faster, given the faster recovery time to allow the magic of super-compensation or gains. There are soft tissue benefits pumped at higher than usual volumes into soft tissue areas such as knees, ankles and hips, promoting soft tissue health.

The first thing that we want to talk about is digestion. These functions – digestion, immune system, anabolism, and reproduction – are 100% controlled by the parasympathetic.
The sympathetic does not influence these, except that it can shut off the parasympathetic. So, to drive this forward, we need to induce parasympathetic activation.

If you do not have access to an IPC recovery system, walking and hiking should do the trick, especially if the injury is on your lower limbs. Additionally, low impact and low-intensity workouts like swimming, static cycling, and yoga are great will maintain a stable metabolism, nervous and endocrine stress while hitting the range of motions for recovery.
These same tactics should be employed anywhere there is an injury around the body. You must stimulate the blood flow and rest at intervals but ensure its low impact without extra stress or strain on the injured muscle group.

Our Frozen Verdict

Yes, ice will reduce the pain, but it does not stop inflammation or hasten the healing process. It is, however, an option for athletes shying away from OTC painkillers, but if you have a target to go back to training soon, the dynamic recovery process is the way forward.

Regarding icing and cold therapy, there are still misconceptions yet unclear.

One: using ice to reduce inflammation reduces the body’s capacity to adapt to the intensity of the training. However, if ice truly reduces the soreness of an injury, it means the athlete can go back to training sooner than later.

Furthermore, if you are looking to build strength and stay stronger after training, ice baths don’t provide benefits. However, if the athlete is in the super-compensation stage, then using an ice bath for recovery is not ideal as it might return them to baseline. With that said, an athlete can benefit immensely from cold water short bout immersion therapy to boost recovery and douse the pain.
So which is correct? We don’t know, depending on the situation and circumstances, one or the other will work effectively. More research is still ongoing, and hopefully, there will be a definitive answer in the future. For now, icing and ice therapy are hanging.

After all, is said and done, these are recommendations worth noting regarding ice therapy.

They are not the best for strength building and supercompensation but if it makes you feel good and takes you away from the pain, go right ahead. Whether it is between prelims or during a final event, regardless of the type of sport, try it.

However, cold therapy or ice baths are bound to increase tiredness and lower strength, but if you want to stay in tip-top shape, whether during training or workouts, you best skip the freeze.

Despite a 2011 meta-analysis of previous data that states cold baths reduce perceived swelling and pain by 16 per cent, as printed in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The study also discredits itself because of significant flaws in the research and conclusion.

The reason is due to a placebo effect. There is no way to blindly conduct such research without the athlete knowing. So the placebo effect stems from a mental awareness that this treatment might work, thereby disrupting the body’s normal process of reacting to cold water for healing.

Does the percentage make any difference?

Even a one per cent change is a lot, but 16% is humongous, and this falls in the real-life range of 14 to 25 calculated by previous studies from pain reduction.

Overall, the reduction will make a significant difference in the life of an athlete.

Placebo effect?

Well, the benefits are psychological (a thing of the mind). In an ice experiment in 2014, two groups were employed. The researcher has the placebo group apply fake pain-relieving cream and soak in room temperature water while the other took a dip and came out. The results were similar.

Overall summary

  • IPC or tools that mimic the squeeze and release action is still the gold standard and appropriate way to recovery after any rigorous exercise
  • Coldwater immersion does offer temporary relief and help with recovery, but it is all in the athlete’s mind.
  • Contrast water therapy is better than cold water immersion and offers temporary relief.
  • Just because it is called an ice bath does not mean freezing or room temp water is okay.
  • You cannot attain total recovery without any active recovery process
  • Just as cold bath, hot water baths hinder healing too

If you feel the need to do cold therapy, what are some guidelines to get the benefits of ice baths?

• First of all, do not remain in the water for too long.
• The best temperature is 52-60 F or 11 – 15 degree Celsius
• Do not spend more than 10 – 15 minutes soaked in the cold bath

If you follow these three instructions, you should get the benefits of this therapy without the risk involved.
Keep moving; get your IPC boots on, #recoveryfaster #bringonthegains

ice for ecovery

Author: Michael Lyons

With Three Decades of tech and Meditech experience, 10,000 hours of endurance sports coaching and competing at the NZ national team level, Michael’s passion is biohacking recovery and wellness for athletes, for those with short term and long term medical conditions and healthy aging. Michael consults and partners with leading medical practitioners to provide therapy solutions for short and long term illnesses, including diabetes, DVT, Lymphedema, pre and postnatal, post-surgery, autism (ASD), PTSD, and sleep apnoea.

Michael also consults and partners with High-performance sports organisations, Three Olympic Gold medallists, two current world champions, the Rugby World cup, NZ Rugby, the Singapore Olympic team, the NZ Olympic team, Clubs and coaches.  He also teaches the recovery modules for the fitness industries personal training courses.

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