Workout Recovery Strategies – Ice Baths, Foam Rollers, and Stretching

As I mentioned a few days ago, our training camp is off to a flying start at U of T men’s soccer. We’ve been going pretty hard for the past week with about 2 training sessions per day.

Actually, some of those “training sessions” were actual 90-minute games. We played 3 exhibition matches within the past week (on turf) and, as you can imagine, all this activity can take its toll on the body.

Therefore, proper rest is needed as are recovery strategies to help the body bounce back as quick as possible. And in this post I’m going to share 3 pretty controversial ones with you – so sit tight!

At the highest level of any sport THE most important aspect of training is how quickly and efficiently an athlete can recover.

Now before I get into some of the recovery strategies that we’ve been employing during pre-season training camp, I want to mention that these can be used regardless of whether or not you play soccer.

If you’re running several times a week or playing any sport that places high demands on your body, the following recovery strategies can be of help to you.

So let’s get started…

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DOMS – A Pain in the Butt…Literally!

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a familiar experience for the elite or novice athlete as well as recreational exercisers of all levels that usually sets in 24-48 hours after “novel” physical exertion.

You know the feeling I’m talking about…

Stiff, sore, achy muscles.

That, in a nutshell is DOMS. And as I’m sure you’ve experienced at some point in your life, DOMS is most prevalent at the beginning of the sporting season (or beginning a new workout program) when you are returning to training following some time off.

DOMS is also common when you are first introduced to new movements and certain types of activities regardless of the time of year.

For instance, eccentric activities (ie. the “negative” portion of muscle contraction like lowering into a squat) induce micro-injury at a greater frequency and severity than other types of muscle actions.

The intensity and duration of an exercise session are also important factors in DOMS onset. In general, the more intense and longer in duration the activity, the more soreness. Makes sense, right?

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What Causes DOMS

Up to six hypothesised theories have been proposed as possible causes of DOMS. They include:

  • lactic acid,
  • muscle spasm,
  • connective tissue damage,
  • muscle damage,
  • inflammation, and
  • the enzyme efflux theories.

I think it’s safe to say that no SINGLE theory is the sole cause of muscle soreness. Most likely, several of the above factors come into play.

As you probably know, the bummer with muscle soreness is that it can affect athletic performance by causing a reduction in joint range of motion, shock attenuation, and muscle force.

Think about the last time you went for a run when your legs with stiff and sore. Didn’t feel too good, did it? That’s DOMS in action!

Aside from these performance impairments, alterations in muscle sequencing and recruitment patterns may also occur, causing unaccustomed stress to be placed on muscle ligaments and tendons. These compensatory mechanisms may increase the risk of further injury if a premature return to sport or exercise is attempted.

A number of recovery strategies have been introduced to help alleviate the severity of DOMS and to restore the maximal function of the muscles as rapidly as possible.And I’ll be sharing 3 of those with you in this post.

Namely, ice baths, foam rollers, and post-workout stretching.

Bear in mind as well that many people turn to anti-inflammatory drugs and other “quick fix” solutions (ie. Advil, Tylenol) to dull the pain and “get on with it”. I’m not a fan of these approaches for I believe they only put you at greater risk of injury by desensitizing your body’s natural pain-response mechanisms.

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Now Here’s Where Things Get Interesting…

Although I employ several recovery strategies with my players, the current scientific research shows little to no benefit of these on reducing DOMS!!!

In fact, exercise has been shown to be the most effective means of alleviating pain during DOMS, however the analgesic effect is also temporary. Likewise, athletes who must train on a daily basis should be encouraged to reduce the intensity and duration of exercise for 1-2 days following intense DOMS-inducing exercise.

This is one of the reasons that I recommend a lighter “recovery” jog after an intense game or hard interval training day.

Some people are against long, slow cardio but in these cases it definitely plays an important role. That’s why one of the first things you’ll see any pro soccer team do the day after a game is a long, slow recovery run followed by some light stretching. You can do the same!

But regardless of what science says, I do what works and what me and my athletes feel better. So eventhough I take into consideration that most studies show minimal benefits (at best) for most of this stuff, I know that in the “real world” these strategies DO make a difference, even if it’s all in our head!

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Recovery Strategy # 1 – ICE BATHS

The theory behind ice baths is related the fact that, as we just mentioned, intense exercise causes muscle soreness – mainly in the form microtrauma, or tiny tears in your muscle fibers.

This muscle damage not only causes DOMS but it actually stimulates muscle cell activity and helps repair the damage and strengthen the muscles as well. So muscle soreness is kind of a double-edged sword.

So why use ice baths after an intense run or training session. Because ice baths are thought to:

  • Constrict blood vessels, helping to flush waste products, like lactic acid, out of the affected tissues;
  • Decrease metabolic activity and slow down physiological processes;
  • Reduce swelling and tissue breakdown

Then, as the body gets warmer (after exiting the ice bath), the increased blood flow speeds circulation, and in turn, improves the healing process. Although there is no current protocol regarding the ideal time and temperature for cold immersion routines, most athletes or trainers who use them recommend a water temperature between 12 to 15 degrees Celsius and immersion times of 5 to 10 and sometimes up to 20 minutes.

Once again, the literature is contradictory and inconclusive but since adding ice baths to our recovery regime this training camp our players have really been enjoying the benefits.

I think one of the most important benefits of an ice bath is the immediate drop in core temperature that takes place upon immersion. This can be a very important, yet overlooked, consideration especially in hot environments where heat exhaustion may easily occur after a hard run or training session.

A 2008 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found cold water immersion may help recovery from short maximal efforts or where athletes repeat high-intensity efforts on successive days (ie. training camp). In this study, researchers had cyclists complete a week of intense daily training routines. After each workout, they used one of four different recovery methods and took nine days off between each week of workouts.

The four recovery methods included:

1. Immersion in a 15 degree C (59 degree F) pool for 14 minutes;
2. Immersion in 38 degree C (100.4 degree F) water for 14 minutes;
3. Alternating between cool and hot water every minute for 14 minutes;
4. 14 minutes of complete rest.

They reported that the cyclists performed better in the sprint and time trial after cool water immersion and contrast water therapy, but their performance declined with both hot water baths and complete rest.

From the research that I’ve seen, it’s interesting to note that ice baths (and hot-cold contrast immersion) have been more effective in higher intensity aerobic sports (ie. cycling, running, etc..) than in strength training.

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Cold Water Immersion Guidelines

If you are going to try cool or cold water immersion after exercise, don’t overdo it. Ten minutes immersed in 15 degree Celsius water should be enough time to get the benefit and avoid the risks. Because cold can make muscles tense and stiff, it’s a good idea to fully warm up about 30 to 60 minutes later with a warm shower or a hot drink.

If you prefer alternating hot and cold baths, the most common method includes one minute in a cold tub (10-15 degrees Celsius) and two minutes a hot tub (about 37-40 degrees Celsius), repeated about 3 times.

This same protocol can also be applied while taking a shower.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t care whether the science supports the ice bath theory or not. All I know is that many athletes (including myself) swear that an ice bath after intense training helps them recover faster, prevent injury and just feel better.

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Recovery Strategy #2 – FOAM ROLLERS

In the last few years, my foam roller has become my best friend!

And unless you can afford to have your own personal massage therapist at your beckon call, then a foam roller is a must.

Why?

Because it improves the quality of your muscle and connective tissue.

Foam rollers basically allow you to administer a form of “self-massage” that can help your tissue stay supple, much like a piece of clay that has been well-worked by warm hands.

Now, some of opponents to foam rollers believe that these foam cylinders are useless and probably better-suited as floating devices in your pool. They claim that, as with any other stress on the body, your body simply adapts to foam rolling and that’s why there’s less soreness/pain while “rolling out” – over time.

I don’t know if that’s true or not but what I do know is that when I roll out my tight IT bands, I have less stiffness, soreness, and better performance in the majority of my activities (ie. running, soccer, tennis, lifting).

And the same goes for the athletes that I work with. Many of them swear by the foam roller. And, again, regardless of what the science says, if it works then why wouldn’t you do it?

Here’s one of my “older” videos where I show you how to “roll out” your IT band (which is, by the way, one of the toughest parts of the body to stretch and responsible for far too many lower body problems!):

I find that the best times to use the foam roller are after a session, when your muscles are stiff and ready for a little relaxation.

However, you want to ease into its use and avoid causing too much pain. Instead, build up the “intensity” of the roll out and overtime you’ll notice that those knots will soon be gone!

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Recovery Strategy #3 – POST-WORKOUT STRETCHING

Stretching is probably one of the most controversial topics in strength & conditioning. And I’m not talking about pre-workout static stretching, which is as outdated as the “mullet”.

Most research conclusively shows that holding a stretching (ie. static stretching) before your workouts, runs, or games is not beneficial for reducing injuries or performance. Knowing that, I’m still shocked at how many high level teams and athletes still employ it.

Anyways, what I’m talking about is post-workout stretching. If you’re going to stretch it should be done AFTER your activity when your muscles are most elastic. [Side note: dynamic warm-ups/stretching should be employed beforehand].

But there’s still a bit of controversy when it comes to stretching after your workouts. Does it help prevent soreness and does it help your muscles recover faster?

Well, I’m not so sure that it does.

But what I do know is that stretching AFTER your run or game or training session – and on a consistent basis (ie. daily) – can improve your flexibility, and that’s a good thing for improving performance and lessening your risk of injury.

For instance, in a study carried out at James Madison University in Virginia, 12 healthy subjects tried out four different hamstring- stretching protocols:

1. After running at a fast-enough speed so that heart rate stayed above 70 per cent of heart-rate reserve for four minutes or more (heart-rate reserve is simply max heart rate minus resting heart rate),

2. After running at just 60 per cent of heart-rate reserve for three or more minutes,

3. After warming up the hamstring muscles with heating pads,

4. With the muscles in a ‘cold’ state – after no warm-up running or heat-pad application.

The results…

Stretching the hamstrings after vigorous running (at 70 per cent of heart-rate reserve or above) proved to be far superior to the other three methods at promoting hamstring flexibility. In fact, the range of motion at the hip was 5 per cent higher when stretches were carried out after vigorous running, compared to either light running or the application of heating pads. In addition, flexibility was nearly 10 per cent greater after strenuous running, compared with stretching muscles in the ‘cold’ condition.

The stretches carried out by these athletes were the ‘PNF’ (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) type, meaning that stretches of the hamstrings were alternated with contractions of the same muscles. Both the stretch and contraction period lasted for about 10 seconds, and each stretch and contraction of the hamstrings was repeated three times.

The stretch- contractions were carried out one, five, 10 and 15 minutes after exercise or the application of heat pads, but no additional gains in flexibility were made beyond the one-minute period (adding stretches at five-minute intervals after the workout didn’t help unkink the muscles; the key was to carry out the PNF stretching right after the exertion ended).

I’m not a very flexible guy but what I do know with 100% certainty is that when I focus on stretching (at least 3-4 times per week), my body feel 1000 times better!

For example, when I was routinely doing hot yoga anywhere from 2-4 times per week, my body felt incredible. My range of motion (across all joints) improved dramatically, I felt less stiff, and just better – overall.

So eventhough stretching won’t reduce muscle soreness per se, it will improve your performance, how you feel throughout the day, and potentially reduce your risk of injury.

Sounds pretty good to me.

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“You Are Only As Healthy As Your Connective Tissue”…

I remember reading this quote somewhere and I thought it would be something great to leave you with.

And before you go please understand that there will be science for and against ANYTHING! What you have to decide is what works best for you.

Plus, if you THINK something is working, then it probably is.

=> What are your thoughts on these recovery strategies? Let me know in the comments.

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Sources

Vaile, J.; Halson, S.; Gill, N.; Dawson, B., Effect of Hydrotherapy on Recovery from Fatigue. Int’l J. Sports Medicine, July 2008.

Wenos, D. & Konin, J. (2004). Controlled warm-up intensity enhances hip range of motion. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Vol. 18, Issue 3.

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9 Responses to “Workout Recovery Strategies – Ice Baths, Foam Rollers, and Stretching”

  1. Ron says:

    I agree with all of your recovery strategies, except that my best friend is the RumbleRoller (rumbleroller.com). I think it’s a lot more effective for myofascial release than a standard foam roller.

  2. jill says:

    The Pacific Ocean is my ice bath. After a long run, I kick off my shoes and walk in up to my hips and stay for 15 mins. Easy to do in the summer time. My legs always feel refreshed with this method

  3. Yuri says:

    Sounds interesting. Give it a go and let me know how you make out.

  4. David says:

    i agree with ice baths. they work for me. i have a diploma in sports massage and of course the foam rollers work. they move the muscles around a little and help with drainage of toxin built up from the workout, also it is possible for the roller to aid in helping to realign roped muscle fibres etc. stretching helps with flexibility as mentions so definately worth doing. post stretching seems to help me with recovery also, ie less stiffness.

  5. Yuri says:

    I’m not quite sure but generally as soon as possible is best. Kind of like fuel replenishment.

  6. Maria Makariou says:

    Yuri,
    great article! It all makes sense! I will definitely try the foam roller.

    I just started working out two weeks ago, when I started my cleanse. I tried the your TT demo1 (even that was too much for me) and then the AAS. I was in real pain for two days. I was aching everywhere, but the pain in my legs was the worse. Then I had an IONIC FOOD BATH.

    What can I say! It’s FANTASTIC! My legs were so light, just after the bath! And very soon, all my body was free from soreness and very light.

    I’m still doing the TT demo 1, but it is easier now. I am 48 yrs old and due to the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome I had since a child and my constantly swollen mouth and throat glands I could never run. But now I am NOT RUNNING ALONE, I strongly feel I can do it!

    Thanks!

  7. Jane says:

    I love your ideas and try to incorporate them all. I assume a cold shower isn’t as effective as a bath? I have a much harder time with a bath than a shower. Thanks again!

  8. misha says:

    Hi Yuri
    I started running about 3 months ago now I do 5 days a week interval runs on the tredmill, I just got up to 5 miles in an hour which I know is not great, but I was pleased with it as I couldn’t run for 5 minutes 3 months back. The only problem is I started with this pain in my right leg ,which is in my calf,knee and thigh, it just started I didn’t feel anything pop or rip but its put me back and doesn’t seem to be going. it aches in my calf all the time, but does seem to settle in my thigh and knee untill I start running then it starts again it feels so heavyand sore, I dont know if ive damaged a muscle or not, but its been just over a week now and was wondering would the ice baths and roller still help me? Please forgive my spelling mistakes thanks misha

    • Yuri says:

      They would probably help but you should also see a physio for specific diagnosis and help. Perhaps 5 interval runs a week is too much.


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