It is normal to experience some amount of muscle soreness after a good workout. How sore your muscles after working out will depend on whether your body is accustomed to the level of intensity and the specific exercises performed. If you are a beginner, the chances are you will experience delayed muscle soreness (DOMS).
DOMS is the pain and stiffness felt in muscles in the hours or days after working out. Typically, this lasts between 24-72 hours for the peak duration of discomfort. This occurs due to micro-tears in the muscle groups worked during eccentric lengthening of the muscle while exercising.
Cold and heat are both century-old therapies for a variety of aliments including post exercise DOMS and general muscle aches. Although cold is used more often by athletes, there is limited evidence regarding how it works. The most widely accepted theory is that it reduces edema and inflammation, numbs pain receptors and reduces pain.
The theoretical benefits of heat are that it relaxes the muscles and increases metabolism which improves healing and reduces pain. So, which is superior – Cold or Heat?
In a recent research study to shed some light on this topic, 100 college-aged subjects performed squats for 15 minutes after which heat & cold therapies were tried immediately after working out and then again 24 hours after exercise. Muscle recovery was measured based on strength, force required to passively move the knee, a subjective pain scale, and blood myoglobin levels.
For strength recovery, heat application was superior immediately after exercise while cold application was superior after 24 hours. Heat was slightly better to prevent elastic tissue damage after exercise. For reducing muscle damage, heat application was superior immediately after exercise and cold was superior at 24 hours. For pain reduction, cold therapy was superior immediately after exercise and at 24 hours as well.
It is interesting to note that subjects that received either heat or cold therapy after exercise experienced only 4% strength loss, while subjects that did not receive any kind of therapy experienced 24% loss of strength.
In conclusion, cold and heat therapies are both effective for enhancing muscle recovery and reducing muscle damage with heat being superior immediately after exercise and cold at 24 hours after exercise. Cold is superior for pain relief immediately after exercise and at 24 hours.
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