Applying ice or heat can provide relief for many running injuries. For different types of injuries, though, you should use these treatments at different times. Basically, you shouldn’t be going back and forth between a bag of ice and a heating pad, which I know a lot of runners do! Here’s a guide to when to use hot or cold therapy:
When to Use Cold Therapy
When you’re first injured, ice is a better choice than heat. It can reduce both pain and inflammation of an injury and is usually helpful for the first 24 to 48 hours after an injury. You can use ice immediately after sustaining an acute injury, such as a sprained ligament or strained muscle. You can also use ice if you’ve re-aggravated a chronic injury, such as plantar fasciitis or shin splints. Cold baths or swimming/sitting in cold water can also help with muscle recovery after running a marathon or long-training run.
What to Use: You can use an ice pack, a plastic bag filled with ice; a bag of frozen vegetables; or even a frozen water bottle, which is especially good for pain on the bottom of the foot. Make sure that you place a towel between the ice and your skin — don’t apply it directly. Although ice therapy is generally safe and effective, don’t use ice for longer than 20 minutes at a time because of the risk of damage to your nerves and skin.
How Long: Ice for 15 to 20 minutes for three to five times a day, if possible. For acute injuries, ice the first 24 to 48 hours after the injury. For chronic injuries, ice when you’ve re-aggravated the injury and are feeling pain.
When to Use Heat Therapy
Following the first 24 to 48 hours of an injury, heat can increase blood flow to the injury, which may help promote healing. Heat also serves as a muscle relaxer, which can help with pain relief. If you have a tender or tight spot that’s been bothering you for a little while, applying heat before you run or workout can help loosen your muscle and relax the area.
What to Use: Use a heating pad or a towel soaked with hot water. Place the pad on or wrap the towel around the affected area.
How Long: Before you head out for a run, apply heat for 5 to 10 minutes. If you have a tight area after a long period of sitting or staying in the same position, you can also apply heat for 10 to 15 minutes for some relief.
Also see: How to Prevent Post-Run Muscle Soreness