black man holds ice pack at his knee

Recovery is an important part of your exercise routine, which means rest is important; many people believe we can do things to make our recovery more effective and one of those things is icing sore muscles; many swear by this as a way to improve muscle recovery. In this article, we’ll discuss muscle inflammation and examine some techniques and tips that can help you to ice your muscles safely and effectively. So, if you’re wondering what icing muscles does, exactly… then let’s take a look.

What is Muscle Soreness?

Muscle soreness after a workout is a healthy response to exercise from your body and it’s part of the restoration and recovery process. It’s not to be confused with soreness due to damage, infection or injury which are all reasons to see a doctor. Post-exercise soreness, however, is perfectly natural and can even be a sign of a good workout. It’s also referred to as DOMS, or delayed-onset muscle soreness, and is caused by a build-up of lactic acid in the muscle; it most often results after a strenuous workout, or an unfamiliar workout, and requires no medical treatment; there are, however, things that can be done to speed recovery, which we’ll cover below.

Two women doing a kettlebell workout at the gym

What is Muscle Inflammation and What Causes It?

Muscle inflammation is another common way people describe muscle soreness, and can be felt as swelling, weakness or pain; it may be caused by injury, infection, medication side-effects or immune response. It’s also known as ‘myositis’, and if you suspect you’ve got it, you should speak to your doctor. Myositis can also be caused by exercise, resulting perhaps 24 hours after a workout, and post-workout myositis is natural and nothing to worry about.

A Woman Wearing Black Active Wear Holding Her Waist

Benefits of Icing Sore Muscles

Icing sore muscles is a popular way to soothe inflammation and minimise muscle pain for post-exercise soreness. It’s potentially a great way to improve your workout recovery although the scientific response is mixed, so it’s a good idea to find a routine that works well for you. It’s also important to remember that some routines, such as ice baths, are not for everyone, so it may be a good idea to check with your doctor before adding them to a routine.

The immediate benefits of icing sore muscles include easing ache and speeding up workout recovery. Psychological benefits include stress reduction and a general overall mood lift. As well as these, there are long term-benefits such as encouraging healthy circulation and supporting your immune system.

How to Ice Sore Muscles

Some popular methods to ice sore muscles include using an ice towel or a cold compress; some people even go as far as ice baths.

Ice towel method

First, dampen a towel with cold water then fold it and place it in a sealable plastic bag. Put it in the freezer so that it’s cold but not frozen, then take it out and place it on the sore area.

Cold compress method

Put some ice in a sealable, water-tight bag and add water. Squeeze air out of the bag and seal it. Next, wrap the bag in a damp towel and apply to the affected area.

Ice bath method

The methods above are relatively easy but if you’re aiming for something a bit more extreme, you could also try an ice bath. Here’s a method that can help you ice your lower body after leg day:

Fill a bath tub with cold water so that it would reach your waist, and add ice. Check the temperature with a thermometer and aim for water between 45-50 degrees. Next, brace yourself and get in, aiming for a 5-to-10-minute dip.

black man holds ice pack at his knee

Precautions and Risks of Icing Sore Muscles

An important precaution is to know exactly why your muscles are sore. If you think you have sore muscles because of illness or infection, don’t rely on icing and talk to a medical professional for advice instead. There are also a few lifestyle risks that are associated with inflammation such as lack of sleep, excessive alcohol use and poor diet, so don’t use icing as a way to compensate for those.

The risks of icing sore muscles include the idea that the science isn’t decided on just how helpful it is, which is why you should always be body-aware and find a method that suits you. Some people swear by icing, some people don’t ice and others opt for a mixture of cold and heat therapy. Ice baths are also riskier, and you should be careful that your doctor approves of you trying ice baths and that you use them in a controlled manner to avoid hypothermia.

Muscle Icing FAQs

When should you not ice sore muscles?

You shouldn’t ice your muscles immediately before exercise because this has been shown to reduce performance during a workout, and it’s probably not a good idea to ice them within 24 hours after a workout either. Another thing to avoid is icing your muscles for too long, because you don’t want to constrict the blood vessels – ice them in sessions of 5 – 10 minutes.

Is heat or ice better for sore muscles?

There is nothing to stop you alternating between heat or icing, although generally they’re thought to have different benefits. Icing is thought to reduce inflammation whereas heat is thought to relax tight muscles. You may need both, so it might be an option to alternate. If you try alternating, leave time between sessions as it may be counterproductive to try both at once.

Can icing sore muscles cause frostbite?

Generally, icing sore muscles won’t cause frostbite for two reasons – you’re using an ice pack which will warm-up gently with your body heat rather than stay ice cold throughout, and because we strongly recommend limiting your icing time for best results. The best way to avoid any issues is to only ever use a cold compress, or ice and cold water with a protective towel, and to limit the time you spend icing.

Can you ice sore muscles before a workout?

Generally, no. It’s not a good idea to ice before a workout because this can constrict much-needed blood flow and hamper your performance. The best time to ice is after a workout, however, it’s not recommended to do so straight after a workout. Leave 24 hours after a workout before considering ice therapy, which is about the time that DOMS is likely to manifest itself anyway, so it’s a good idea to respond to what your body is telling you.

a woman holds an ice pack on her arm

Icing Sore Muscles for Improved Muscle Recovery

We hope you’ve enjoyed this guide detailing the nature of muscle soreness and how ice therapy might help your recovery; why not try our practical tips for icing sore muscles to find success in your own routine? Also, stay tuned for future articles to help you get a better workout and make the most of your recovery time.