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  • Writer's pictureCompression Athlete

The Complete Guide to Cold Therapy for Athletes

Here’s how cold therapy can relieve pain and boost muscle recovery.

Athlete using cold therapy for muscle recovery.

No matter your sport or skill level, if you’re an athlete that gives 100% and is always pushing toward your goals then you know sore muscles and stiff joints well.


And while there’s no escaping this painful reality of human physiology, there are ways to speed up muscle recovery that will get you back in action faster and performing at a higher level.


Some of the best muscle recovery tools available today pair tried-and-true recovery methods with new advancements in science and technology.


And of these muscle recovery tools, cold therapy is one of the most popular, long-standing methods available.


Through exposure to cold temperatures, cold therapy constricts your blood vessels in the applied area to relieve pain and reduce swelling and inflammation.


Here, we’ve put together the complete guide on cold therapy for athletes with everything you need to know about incorporating it into your training routine and daily life.



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What Is Cold Therapy for Athletes?


Put some ice on it.


It’s probably the first thought that pops into your head for treating any pain or injury.


Using an ice pack or cold wrap on a specific part of the body to reduce swelling, inflammation, or muscle pain is the most common application of cold therapy in both athletics and everyday matters.


Another method of cold therapy for athletes can simply be carried out with a cold shower where the water temperature is lowered below 60 degrees Fahrenheit for a few minutes at a time.


Athlete performing cold therapy in ice bath.

In recent years, however, the use of cold therapy among athletes has evolved into a more dynamic means of muscle recovery with the adoption of new techniques and equipment.


The most popular of these are cold water baths or ice baths in which you submerge your entire body (save for your head and neck) for several minutes.


In this guide, we’ll focus on each of these cold therapy methods and how athletes can utilize them to impact muscle recovery.



How Does Cold Therapy Work for Athletes?


If you follow any of your favorite professional athletes on social media, there’s a good chance you’ve seen them soaking in an ice bath at some point, typically post-game, mentioning the importance of recovery.


But these ice baths aren’t just for professional athletes and locker rooms anywhere.


Athletes and active individuals of any stripe and sport can benefit from incorporating cold therapy into their muscle recovery routines.


Here’s how the cold therapy process typically works for athletes.


After physical activity, whether training or competition, expose the designated area of your body to cold temperatures by means of an ice pack that’s localized to a specific spot or by immersing your body in cold water and ice.


Athlete applying ice pack to elbow.

Once the cold is applied to your body, you’ll notice immediate relief to any soreness, aching, or pain in your muscles.


Of course, you’ll also notice a very cold sensation, which in certain cases may seem unbearable.


So, if you’re applying an ice pack, you may need to wrap the ice in a layer of cloth to create a barrier between the cold and your skin while only applying for up to 20 minutes at a time.


Likewise, if you’re submerging your body in an ice bath, it’s important that you limit your exposure to no more than 15 minutes (and note that anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes should suffice).


Many athletes like utilizing the ice bath or cold water plunge as it allows you to hit every muscle group at the same time, providing a quick and effective recovery treatment.


Athlete dipping into ice bath.

But you may also find that it takes some time building up a comfort level to stay submerged in the frigid water.


Once finished, the vasoconstriction (narrowing) of your blood vessels will be noticeable.


Your limbs and muscles will feel a bit more constricted and less mobile (i.e. not loose and limber like if heat were applied).


This is fine, though, as the vasoconstriction will quickly wear off and make way for the vasodilation (widening) of your blood vessels, allowing nutrient-rich blood to flow into your tissue and flush out muscle soreness.


In other words, that dreaded muscle pain and stiffness that sets in a day or two after pushing your body won’t be as bad and won’t stick around for as long.


Not only does cold therapy help alleviate the muscle soreness from your workout but it better prepares you for your next one faster and will allow you to perform at a higher level.



Where Can Cold Therapy Be Applied on Your Body?


The most widely recognizable form of cold therapy, one you’ve most likely already used yourself at some point or another, is an ice pack or cold wrap.


Not only are these affordable and easy to use but an ice pack can be applied practically anywhere on the body that’s experiencing pain, swelling, or inflammation.


For example, if an athlete experiences knee pain after workouts or competition, it’s common practice to ice them down afterwards to manage pain, reduce inflammation, and ensure you’re better prepared for the next one.


Athlete applying cold therapy with brace on back.

Additionally, there are varieties of compression sleeves and braces with built-in ice pack designs that allow for comfortable, flexible, and secure cold therapy treatment for your limbs and joints.


Beyond wearables and other direct application options, ice baths have become increasingly popular among athletes thanks to their efficiency and effectiveness.


Ice baths allow you to submerge your entire body (except for your head and neck) at once, allowing you to receive treatment to all the muscles you work the hardest during physical activity and do so in few quick minutes.


Which method of cold therapy treatment you choose can depend on your personal preferences, treatment goals, or area of focus on your body.



What Are the Benefits of Cold Therapy for Athletes?


Simple to use and easy to customize, cold therapy is a great muscle recovery tool that any athlete can incorporate into their routine.


One aspect that’s so great about cold therapy is that users can feel immediate relief while enjoying longer-term benefits, as well.


Not only does the exposure to cold temperature help to reduce inflammation and swelling but it reduces the nerve transmission of pain sent to your brain, numbing your perception of pain.


The key aspect from which all cold therapy benefits derive is the way in which your blood vessels narrow (vasoconstrict) when exposed to cold temperatures.


When this occurs, the blood in your body moves toward your core and vital organs, replenishing with oxygen and nutrients.


Meanwhile, your body works hard to maintain its core temperature (especially when undergoing a cold water plunge or ice bath), stimulating the body to increase its circulation.


Athlete receiving cold therapy in ice tub.

So, when you emerge from the cold exposure, your body heats back up and your blood vessels expand (vasodilate).


And the now nutrient-rich blood flows back into your muscle tissue, helping to flush out lactic acid and metabolic waste.


Not only does this help your muscles recover faster and reduce muscle soreness and delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), but over time this process can improve the efficiency of your body’s circulatory system.


Reducing inflammation and other pain symptoms help athletes enjoy faster muscle recovery times from one workout or competition to the next, allowing for greater consistency and development.


So, while the benefits of cold therapy for athletes are very clear, remember that cold therapy isn’t strictly reserved for athletes.


Any individual can benefit from incorporating cold showers, ice baths, and other cold therapy treatments into their daily routine.


However, it’s important to note that if you’re looking to use cold therapy to address a medical condition or treat swelling and soreness not related to physical activity, always consult your doctor first.



Is There Science to Back Up Cold Therapy?


For starters, it’s important to note that there isn’t a silver bullet currently available today that solves the problem of muscle pain, soreness, and stiffness.


When you physically exert your body, whether training hard, practicing hard, or competing hard, it’s going to take a toll.


So, of course, utilizing cold therapy won’t magically melt away your muscle soreness.


But cold therapy treatments have been around for a very long time and have proved effective for athletes looking to improve their recovery process.


Athlete soaking in cold water tub.

And the cold therapy methods and equipment available today from high-quality brands are designed, tested, and scientifically backed to reduce muscle pain, swelling, and inflammation and provide restorative healing to your muscles.


From ice packs and cold wraps that provide targeted relief to ice baths and cold water plunges for your entire body, cold therapy helps to reduce your perception of fatigue and pain, while also reducing inflammation and muscle soreness.


While your body naturally maintains a complex system of recovery that includes rest, rehydration, nutrition, repair, and resynthesis, cold therapy gives your body a helpful boost.


Because this recovery process in the body is well-established and because these cold therapy methods are widely accepted to improve the conditions under which it occurs, cold therapy is considered a science-backed method for muscle recovery.



Do Athletes Actually Notice a Difference From Cold Therapy?


So, the various devices and equipment look impressive and the science behind cold therapy is sound, but you may still be wondering on a more basic level: Do athletes actually notice a difference from using cold therapy?


While it’s true that results can always vary from one individual to the next, athletes overwhelming report noticing a substantial difference in both pain relief and muscle recovery from using cold therapy.


It’s important to note that cold therapy is not introducing some farfetched, unproven recovery method to your body, but merely giving a boost to your natural recovery process.


Athlete applying ice pack to shoulder.

The majority of athletes that incorporate cold therapy into their muscle recovery routines feel fresher from one workout or competition to the next, while also noticing a reduction in muscle aches, soreness, and pain.


If you’re an athlete looking to incorporate cold therapy into your routine, remember that cold therapy should not be used as a replacement for any muscle recovery basics: rest, sleep, hydration, nutrition, etc.


Think of cold therapy as an effective tool you can add to your muscle recovery toolkit.



How Often Should Athletes Use Cold Therapy?


Once you’ve tried cold therapy for the first time and felt the positive effects, the natural next question most athletes have is how often they can use cold therapy.


There aren’t necessarily strict guidelines for cold therapy that suggest a right or wrong amount but there are generally agreed upon best practices aimed at providing the best results.


How often you use cold therapy may also hinge on your level of physical activity, training goals, personal preferences, and so on.


If you’re apply an ice pack or cold wrap to reduce swelling or inflammation, it’s generally recommended to apply the treatment for a duration of 10-20 minutes, several times a day.


Cold showers, cold water plunges, and ice baths are typically used following physical activity, such as a workout or competition.


If you’re just starting out with ice baths, consider beginning at roughly 2 to 3 times a week for only a few minutes at a time.


Additionally, you may also want to consider going easy on the water temperature to start, as well.


Ideally, your ice bath should be below 60 degrees Fahrenheit for effectiveness, but you can begin at a warmer temperature and slowly work your way down.


Athlete recovering in ice bath.

If you’re an athlete that works out every day, it’s okay to take an ice bath afterwards every day.

An effective ice bath duration can last anywhere between 2 to 10 minutes and should not exceed 15 minutes, as there are no additional benefits gained from prolonged exposure.


Keep in mind, however, that exposing your body to very cold temperatures is creating a stress on your body that could have negative effects to your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.


So, while ice baths do not pose any health threats for the vast majority of healthy people, if you have heart disease or any heart condition, check with your physician before using cold therapy.


Remember, even though you’re an athlete, cold therapy isn’t another arena in which to compete and push your body. It’s a tool for recovery, replenishment, and wellness.


Pushing yourself too hard (i.e. staying in too long or going too low with the temperature) could lead to cold exposure risks like frostbite, arrhythmias, and anaphylactic shock.


So, always listen to your body, be prudent in your execution, and focus on recovery.


And whichever way you choose to incorporate cold therapy into your muscle recovery process, doing so on a regular schedule will help to maximize its effectiveness.



What Is Contrast Therapy?


The contrast in the term contrast therapy refers to the combination of both cold therapy and heat therapy, following one quickly after the other.


Contrast therapy is typically conducted in the form of hydrotherapy where athletes soak their muscles in hot water then plunge them into cold water (often back and forth a few times).


Note, however, that the heat therapy portion can also be achieved through use of a sauna.


And depending on the time of year or the climate you live in, a plunge into snow is sometimes used instead of cold water.


Athlete performing cold water plunge for contrast therapy.

Switching between hot and cold causes the widening (heat) and narrowing (cold) of your blood vessels, which increases and reduces blood flow to the applied area.


Going from the narrowing of your blood vessels (also known as vasoconstriction) to the widening of your blood vessels (also known as vasodilation) creates a pump effect in your muscles and helps to flush out waste.


Contrast therapy has proven to be most effective at achieving benefits when utilized within an hour of physical activity.


These benefits mostly stem from improvement in circulation, which can help to decrease inflammation, swelling, edema, and reduce overall muscle soreness.


Additionally, contrast therapy has been shown to be effective at boosting your immune system against common illnesses, as well as elevating your energy levels, alertness, and overall mood.



For a look at other great muscle recovery tools you can add to your recovery toolkit, check out our top picks for 2024.


Discover all of the best treatments and techniques that help athletes RECOVER.

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