The Great Ice Debate: Recovery Strategies for Endurance Athletes

The Great Ice Debate: Recovery Strategies for Endurance Athletes

To ice or not to ice? A debate as old as time. Well, not really but it is definitely a hot topic amongst endurance athletes. First things first, we need to determine what we are trying to achieve. Are we looking to improve our recovery from a hard session or are we trying to speed up the rehabilitation from injury?

Training Recovery

In most cases, if we are not doing silly things in training, there is no immediate pain after a hard training session. The pain of a high intensity effort stops as soon as we do. What we are looking to do through a ‘recovery protocol’ as the professionals now call it, is speed up our adaption to the training, so that we are in a good enough state to train well as soon as possible.

The use of icing and ice baths has become fairly prevalent in the World of professional sports over the last few years. Ice reduces inflammation and the related pain and, as a result, there is a general feeling of relief from these symptoms as soon as it is applied. This makes sense in contact sports such as rugby but will it improve the recovery from low-impact sports such as running and cycling? The jury is out and more recently there is a growing line of thinking that icing straight after an endurance training session is actually counter-productive.

The ‘training-effect’ is based on the premise that we set out to overload our muscles in a training session, causing micro-damage, which results in inflammation. That inflammation signals to the body that it needs to make repairs. During those repairs, given enough time before more damage is inflicted by the next training session, the body will go beyond simply building back to where it was but will make improvements in order to prevent similar damage from occurring. Very simply, that is improvement and the objective of our training sessions.

Ice, immediately after a hard training session narrows blood vessels to decrease blood flow to the area. Slowing circulation in this way can reduce the inflammation. The problem lies in the fact that we actually want that inflammation in order to signal the bodies repair response, which in turn results in improvement. So, although submerging ourselves in an ice bath immediately after a hard training session might make us feel better in the short term, it may be slowing our progress in the longer term.

A major component of a good recovery protocol for an endurance athlete is refuelling. Restocking our energy stores (carbohydrates and good fats) and providing the body with the building blocks to rebuild muscle (protein). The body distributes these macro-nutrients via the bloodstream. Restricting the flow of this by narrowing blood vessels through icing seems counter-productive and actually limiting recovery time, rather than improving it.

So, what is probably more beneficial to recovery would be heat, or at least warmth, which increase circulation and, theoretically, the distribution of essential nutrients.

The old fashioned mantra, ‘no pain, no gain’, seems to hold a grain of truth then. Muscle weariness, stiffness and mild pain is actually a good thing and activates the bodies adaptive responses.

Injury Recovery

Where the use of ice is supported is for acute injuries. So, sudden injuries that occur as a result of trauma through impact or strain. Icing not only reduces restrictive swelling and inflammation but also dulls pain as a result of reducing nerve activity in the area. Research suggests that icing is most effective within a few hours of the injury occurring but, for similar reasons to those mentioned in relation to training recovery, it is not advised for more long term treatment. After the initial period of treatment, heat has been suggested as a better method for treating chronic or over-use injuries resulting from endurance activities. The improvement in circulation to the injured area allows a more rapid transport of the necessary raw materials that the body uses to enact it’s repairs.

When looking at self-treatment of recovery or injury there is one fact that is constant – Our bodies are amazing and have all the tools to deal with anything we throw at them. All they need is the time and the necessary macro and micro nutrients to perform their tasks. If we think about what we are trying to achieve from that perspective, whether it be recovery from training or from injury, and aim to assist the body rather than hinder it, we will recovery and improve through the right amount of training and, more importantly, recovery time.

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