Cold v Heat: Which is Better for Recovery

Cold v Heat: which is better for recovery.

After a heavy ass workout recovery is crucial so you can hit your next workout with the same high intensity. So with that said, what is the best way to aid recovery.

Obviously supplements such as l glutamine, branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), l arginine, creatine, protein, cannabidol (CBD), and omega 3 fish oils can go a long way in aiding recovery (among other supplements).

But I’m talking about something more simplistic, directly from Mother Nature, it’s Cold versus Heat, so which one is more beneficial for muscle recovery?

Benefits of letting your muscles recover:

This may sound silly but what are the benefits of allowing your muscles to recover properly?

Well, when you train this actually creates micro tears in the muscle tissue. And during your rest period these micro tears repairs are repaired via the cell referred to as fibroblasts, once they locate the damaged area of tissue, fibroblasts migrate to that particular area and deposit new collagen allowing the healing process to begin and once repaired your muscles should in turn increase in strength and size.

And studies have shown that ‘skeletal muscle fibroblasts play an important role in maintaining muscle mechanical and biological health.’

So what should you do directly after a workout?

The key here should be to try and repair the muscles in time for your next training session.

In order to do this you need to get oxygen to the muscles and flush out any waste such as lactic acid.

Lactic Acid:

Lactic acid is made when the body is low on oxygen and it helps convert glucose into ATP (energy).

Buildup of this can result in muscle fatigue, muscle pain and even cramps, so this needs to be flushed out asap.

So back to Cold v Heat, what are the benefits of cold therapy.

Cryotherapy/ Ice Baths:

Jumping in an ice bath or actual cryotherapy chamber can help reduce blood flow to the inflamed areas, and it reduces inflammation, and less inflammation will result in less soreness.

A study published in 2012 suggested that ‘there was some evidence that cold‐water immersion reduces delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), after exercise compared with passive interventions involving rest or no intervention.’

During the study ‘the temperature, duration and frequency of cold‐water immersion varied between the different trials as did the exercises and settings. There was some evidence that cold‐water immersion reduces muscle soreness at 24, 48, 72 and even at 96 hours after exercise compared with ‘passive’ treatment.’

However an article from 2019 suggested that ‘cold‐water immersion during recovery from resistance‐type exercise lowers the capacity of the muscle to take up and/or direct dietary protein‐derived amino acids towards de novo myofibrillar protein accretion. In addition, cold‐water immersion during recovery from resistance‐type exercise lowers myofibrillar protein synthesis rates during prolonged resistance‐type exercise training.’

So to make it clearer, cold therapy could hamper the generation of new protein in your muscles after resistance training.


Thermotherapy/Heat therapy:

Now heat is great at dilating blood vessels, so it helps promote blood flow to the muscles in question. So heat is great at relaxing muscles and helps improve circulation and delivers more oxygen.

It is also beneficial in helping alleviate sprains, strains, pains in the tendons and helps with stiffness.

Now there are less studies on heat therapy and DOMS, but one study found that the application of heat packs may help prevent DOMS.

‘Results also revealed that the greatest pain reduction was shown after immediate application of moist heat. Never the less, immediate application of dry heat had a similar effect but to a lesser extent.’

In some case moist heat was also shown to have ‘enhanced benefits, and with only 25% of the time of application of the dry heat’.

One study from 2006 did find that heat therapy can reduce DOMS.the study concluded that the ‘continuous low-level heat wrap therapy was of significant benefit in the prevention and early phase treatment of low back DOMS’ and this was based on the 24 hours post exercise

So let’s conclude: for:

Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS) – there are studies for both cold and heat but a direct quote from a study suggests that ‘although cold is commonly used after heavy exercise to reduce soreness, heat applied just after exercise seems very effective in reducing soreness. Unlike cold, it increases flexibility of tissue and tissue blood flow. For joints, it is still probably better to use cold to reduce swelling.’

Ice – is great for immediate relief and cold therapy seems to be particularly effective at treating swollen or inflamed joints, and helps block pain.

Heat- is great for increasing blood flow, and heat is particularly effective when applied to an area to relax the muscles and increase flexibility

What if you combine the two?

Contrast Water Therapy:

CWT is when you utilise both cold and heat, and you alternate between very warm to very cold water. CWT essentially uses the contrasting temperatures to allow the blood vessels to alternate between vasodilation (heat – dilates) and vasoconstriction (cold – constricts blood flow). This blood vessels opening and closing acts like a pump.

When you rapidly alternate between hot-water and cold-water immersions, your blood vessels open and close in a pulsing, pump-like motion. Some proponents think this pumping action can help relieve various injury symptoms.
A 2017 study found that this kind of therapy helped sports players recover from fatigue 24-48 hours after the game

But another study from 2013 concluded that ‘there seems to be little difference in recovery outcome when CWT is compared to other popular recovery interventions such as cold water immersion, warm water immersion, compression, active recovery and stretching.’

So weather you pick cold, heat or both make sure you select one when recovering as it’s better than doing nothing at all.


Mehmet Edip is a fitness writer, actor, and model who has worked in the industry for over 8 years. He focuses on achieving his physique through an all natural plant-based diet and shares his insight via his workout & nutrition guides.