After a long, hot run in the high heat of summer, it’s tempting to want to jump right into an ice bath. But are there any real benefits to ice baths? We’ve seen coaches and therapists use both hot and cold water therapies for recovery purposes for decades, but which option is the right choice? We turned to an expert and seasoned runner to find the answer.

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It doesn’t take a scientist to realize that hot versus cold therapies are like day and night. They each provide different benefits.

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One simple way to offset the injury risk inherent to lots of running is cold-water immersion—known to many runners as the ice bath—or cryotherapy. Cold therapy constricts blood vessels and decreases metabolic activity, which reduces swelling and tissue breakdown. Once the skin is no longer in contact with the cold source, the underlying tissues warm up, causing a faster return of blood flow, which helps move the byproducts of cellular breakdown to the lymph system for efficient recycling by the body, explains Robert Gillanders, D.P.T., a physical therapist at Point Performance and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association.

“When I’m actively trying to manage my recovery, I’ll balance my harder effort days with cold water,” Gillanders says. “Being strategic with days [you use an ice bath] is your most sensible plan. An ice bath on your most intense days makes sense.”

For someone experiencing inflammation from a hard effort or injury or if you’re looking to prevent injury, cold-based therapy is an effective part of a recovery plan. You’ll experience decreased muscle soreness, which is not only good for feeling better sooner, but it also preps your muscles better for the next workout. What’s more, research published in the Journal of Physiology in 2015 has shown that cold-water therapy can help you recover faster on strength-training days as well. And, a 2012 review of 17 studies published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that “running-based exercises showed significantly larger effects in favor of cold‐water immersion.”

However, newer research has found ice baths may not be a recovery cure-all for your muscles. For instance, a 2019 paper published in the Journal of Physiology found that ice baths can hamper the generation of new protein in your muscles after resistance exercise. In addition, a 2017 study in the Journal of Physiology found that ice baths are just as beneficial as active recovery for minimizing inflammation after exercise. So while ice baths are effective, if you prefer to stay out of the cold water, there are other ways to achieve the same result.

Which Is Better for Recovery: Ice Baths or Heat Therapy?

Heat, on the other hand, offers some recovery benefits to the body as well. There is less scientific evidence here encouraging the use of heat, but soaking in a hot tub is not frowned upon by experts. Heat can aid in muscle relaxation and create changes on a cellular level, allowing fluids to flow more freely through your body. Warm water also increases the temperature of your muscle tissues making it easier to stretch (this is why hot yoga is a thing). It’s a similar sensation to why you might be able to touch your toes after a run when your muscles are warm and but not before.

That said, there’s a time and a place for heat. If you’re recovering from an injury, steer clear of heat, as the body has a tougher time dealing with it, says Gillanders.He recommends that you save heat therapy for less-intense workouts. The sweet spot is 102 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 to 15 minutes. That temperature is higher than your average body temperature, so you’ll get the benefits of heat recovery.

While there are some benefits to heat therapy, runners will benefit the most from ice baths and cold therapy. The body of science suggests that even though the impact of cold immersion post-workout can be minimal, it can do some good. “Cold wins out here,” says Gillanders. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to prepare our body for the next workout, and cold is another brick in rebuilding after recovery with sleep, diet, hydration, stretching, and [more].”

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However, it’s worth noting that if you’re aiming for visibly bigger muscles, postworkout ice baths might not be your best bet. A different2019 studypublished in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that immersing yourself in cold water after resistance training didn’t result in any visible muscle growth. But if you are more focused on simply increasing your strength and power, these factors weren’t affected by ice baths and cold showers.

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Though you could use individual ice packs, cold-water immersion generally produces a greater and longer lasting change in deep tissues and is a more efficient means of cooling large groups of muscles simultaneously. But if the sound of submerging your body in ice cold water makes you want to run the other way, we’re with you. Luckily, to see benefits of cold water immersion, all you really need is water at 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. “The water doesn’t have to be full of ice,” Gillanders says. “It just has to be cool.”

In fact, that’s why even with the “warmer” temperatures suggested, Gillanders suggests only soaking for 10 to 15 minutes max. Otherwise, the cold can do damage to your skin. You might also notice that when you exit the ice bath, your legs feel stiff. Don’t worry, that’s normal. That’s the cold working on repairing the trauma to your tissue on a micro-level, and you’ll feel much better the next day.

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Gillanders recommends this recovery to be included on your harder workout days whether in the gym or logging heavy or muscle-burning mileage. This should be paired with other recovery methods such as proper rehydration, a healthy diet, and stretching for maximum benefits.

To make the ice bath experience more tolerable, fill the tub with two to three bags of crushed ice, then add cold water to a height that will cover you nearly to the waist when seated. Before getting in, put on a warm jacket, a hat, and neoprene booties if you have them, make a cup of hot tea, and collect some entertaining reading material (perhaps the latest issue of Runner’s World?) to help the next 15 minutes fly by.