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Cool Runnings

Everyone’s talking about who will come out on top in the great battle between fire and ice… and we’re not just referring to Game of Thrones.

Since the dawn of running time, popular wisdom has been that application of cold – ice packs or baths, or bags of frozen peas from the deepest recesses of your fridge – can aid in muscle recovery. But is cool therapy really as hot as we thought?

Not according to sports medicine guru Gabe Mirkin, MD, who recently released a big, fat ‘my bad over the “I” in his famous RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) recommendation for athletes, initially issued in 1978. Though the acronym has become as much a part of running lexicon as “anaerobic threshold” or “foot-strike” or “oh-God-this-hurts,” newer research indicates icing may be doing more harm than good.

We know that running creates micro tears in the muscles, and this leads to soreness. And we know that ice can numb the area, meaning it dulls pain signals and makes a person feel better. But we also know that the body responds to these micro tears with inflammation, a natural bio-mechanism which speeds healing. Because cold temperatures restrict the blood vessels, magical cells involved in this inflammatory response can’t get where they need to go. In other words, ice may actually slow muscle rehab.

It gets worse. In one study conducted by Australia researchers, athletes completing resistance training regimes gained less strength if utilizing cold therapy post-workout. Lean muscle mass? That suffered, too.

Meanwhile, heat does the opposite -- by increasing circulation, it helps inflammation do its healing thing. Translation: it may be time to trade that ice bath for a jacuzzi.

Still, other experts contend that cold therapy has its place, especially within the first 48 hours post-injury or strenuous workout. Steven Hays, a running coach and 2:52 marathoner, told the Washington Post he soaks in ice religiously after every long run because it’s helped him keep his fitness on track, despite a lack of hard evidence. And some doctors suggest alternating both methods to achieve maximum benefit.

The varied opinions within both the running and medical communities suggest the answer to the great heat-versus-ice debate may be highly individual. What works for one running habit, and one particular ache, may not work for another.

So what’s a sore runner to do? The same as doing battle with a white-walker or fire-breathing dragon: Whatever works.

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