Promoting recovery with heat or cold


What to choose to promote recovery: cold or heat???


Cold effectively assists recovery by reducing the natural inflammation induced by exertion

Heat assists recovery massages by reducing the natural contractures caused by exertion

Cold or cryotherapy

Cold is used in sports medicine to improve injury care thanks to a thermal shock that reduces the skin temperature from 35°C to 12°C

Cold application has many positive effects:

  • analgesic,
  • vasoconstrictor,
  • reduces swelling,
  • promotes faster restoration of damaged muscle cells.

The standard protocol is called RICE - R for Rest, I for Ice, C for Contention, E for Elevation

Below is a summary of cold properties

  • Analgesic (reduces pain).
  • Anti-inflammatory (reduces inflammation and swelling).
  • Vasopressor (stimulates blood flow).
  • Haemostatic action (reduces bleeding).

The combination of all these properties will improve recovery and reduce the harmful effects of muscle work, particularly muscle soreness

The principles of cold application

Lowering skin temperature from 35°C to 12°C, without ever going below 7°C.

Simple methods

  • Ice pack.
  • Ice cubes in a cloth or towel.
  • Iced water.
  • Colpac, called "cryogel pack" (freezer).
  • Cold spray (be careful to skin burns).
  • Instant single-use pack.

Methods suitable for top-level athletes

  • Immersion into cold water involves immersing a part (usually the lower limbs) or the entire body into a bath of cold water at 10°C during at least 10 minutes, preferably 14 minutes. It may be difficult to "go into" such cold water, and that may limit the number of people using this technique, depending on their motivations and objectives.

 There are two methods - the continuous immersion method, and the intermittent immersion method, the latter being apparently less effective

  • Cryotherapy cabins in dry and intense cold at – 110° for 2 to 4 minutes maximum make the skin temperature drop down to approximately 10 degrees. Protocol: After an adaptation period in a pre-chamber at -60°C for 30 seconds, you cross the cabin wearing a bathing suit, specific socks and gloves and making small movements with your limbs, then when you go out, you return to the pre-chamber at -60°C for an additional 15/30 seconds. This protocol requires close supervision and may be interrupted at any time if a problem occurs. Risks include hypothermia and cold burns

Is cold safe?

No, there are contra-indications and adverse effects

Contra-indications include cold allergy, cold urticaria ("cold hives"), Raynaud's syndrome, sensitivity disorders and wounds. The best is to seek your doctor's advice and approval before your first session

Possible risks: skin burn caused by applying a cold pack from the freezer directly to the skin, but also cracks, childblains and frostbites

The benefits of cryotherapy

Muscle recovery, restoration of damaged cells, and a feeling of well-being that has a positive impact on sleep quality

Heat or thermotherapy

Heat is soft and pleasant to the skin and helps provide a certain level of well-being, this is why it is naturally used by athletes to eliminate toxins and release muscular pressures due to exertion, such as soreness

Medical sources of heat:

  • Chemical or electrical warmers,"magic heat pads"
  • Infrared lights
  • Volcanic muds or Parafango
  • Thermal short waves
  • ultrasounds
  • Warm showers
  • Jacuzzi
  • Sauna
  • Hammam
  • Heating blankets
  • The sun!
  • Etc…

Effect of heat on the body

Preparation for massages

Relaxation, muscle relief

Vasodilatation, increased heart rate

Increased muscle elasticity, relaxing and anti-soreness effect

Sweat and toxin elimination

Brain stimulation and anti-stress effect

Example of heat source:

The sauna is a technique that comes from "cold" regions and Finland. It still appeals to many athletes who rely upon its undoubted benefits to optimise their recovery, by causing immediate increase of the heart rate and cardiac output

Recommended protocol for athletes:

Not immediately after workout, but after proper rehydration and a variable period of 30 to 60 minutes post-workout

Do 10 minutes sessions and repeat 2 or 3 times, with a cold shower or cold immersion in between.

Start with the lower benches for 2 to 3 minutes, then move to the upper benches where you can lie down, and go out after spending a short recovery time on the lower benches.

Wait for the sweat to come to pour water on the stones to increase the sauna's hygrometry and temperature.

After the sauna session, lie down on a bed or relax 10 to 15 minutes, and drink to rehydrate

Be careful to contra-indications that may be permanent or individual: Blood system disorder, wound, low blood pressure, certain skin conditions, history of stroke, claustrophobia, febrile condition, asthma in some cases, heat sensitivity, cardiac conditions

Attention: no sauna for YOYO diets!!


Cold is increasingly used by athletes for its recovery-promoting effect. It can be used on the entire body or locally on a single joint

Heat provides wellness and also acts on the mood and post-workout

Docteur Patrick Bacquaert

Médecin chef de l'IRBMS


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4.32 / 5 291 ratings
    4.21 / 5 42 ratings

      Sport is good for your health, and the objective is to avoid injuries and microtraumas and to recover as quickly as possible to enjoy the benefits of sport and maintain one's fitness and wellness
      Post-workout muscle soreness can be avoided or lessened so that it becomes tolerable and is not an obstacle either to everyday life or to going back to the stadium as soon as possible