Ultrarunning: Everything You Needed to Know About Cold Therapy

May 22, 2012

This article is part of Endurance Planet’s ultrarunning article series. If you have questions, comments or feedback about “Everything You Needed to Know About Cold Therapy”, please leave it below in the comments section…

Feeling sore all over is quite common after going through long training runs or a grueling ultrarunning event. Sure, these aches are a testament to the ultrarunner’s achievements. But after grinning and bearing the pains, one should immediately see to one’s soreness and swelling. And the first line of defense against further injury should be the application of cold therapy.

Just what exactly is cold therapy?

Much like its name suggests, cold therapy is the use of controlled low temperatures to arrest damage to injured tissues. Cold therapy works by effectively lowering the temperature of the injured tissues so that the blood vessels surrounding them shrink. When this happens, internal bleeding is arrested and swelling almost instantaneously recedes, providing a more favorable environment for the injured tissues to survive and recuperate.

How early should I implement cold therapy?

While cold therapy has long been in use, there’s still so much confusion surrounding the specifics of the treatment. Professionals recommend that cold therapy be applied as soon as soon as one suffers an acute injury. For ultrarunners, one miscalculated step can result to a sprained ankle. And sprained ankles are no laughing matter among these elite athletes. This seemingly easy to cure injury could break one’s chance of running that long prepared for ultramarathon. So as soon as injury is sustained, the affected spot should immediately be treated with cold therapy for the following 2 to 3 days.

What are the effective cold therapy tools?

Cold therapy may have such a fancy name, but the tools required for its application are in fact very easily available at home. Ice in a bag is of course the most commonly used, although those that don’t have these ready can go for frozen vegetables such as peas or corn kernels contained in sturdy packages. Some also rig their own bendable ice packs by filling heavy-duty ziplock bags with 3 parts water and 1 part isopropyl alcohol and putting the contraption in the freezer for at least an hour until the contents turn into a hard slush. Ice baths are another popular route and preferred by ultrarunners who get especially sore all over.

Just how cold should cold therapy be?

Caution is of course required when utilizing cold therapy. One can easily end up with frostbitten body parts if one isn’t careful. Use a towel to wrap the ice pack before you apply it to the injured spot. This is especially true if the part you’ll be treating doesn’t have much fat in it, such as your ankle, for example.

Also, ice baths should be no more than 60 degrees Fahrenheit cold. Opt to have a thermometer handy when having your ice bath so that you get to monitor the water’s temperature. Each cold therapy session should not exceed 30 minutes as well. And while you can repeat the treatment several times throughout the day, you need to ensure that the skin around the injured spot has fully recovered before you subject it to another go of cold therapy.

Are there contraindications to cold therapy that I should know about?

People who are hypersensitive to cold should not undergo cold therapy. A person who has just recently received a shot of anesthesia may not benefit from this treatment modality as well. Those suffering from Raynaud’s phenomenon should also be careful as exposure to cold may cause symptoms to reappear. Cold therapy is safe when implemented properly. But if you have apprehensions about it, then it would be best to consult with your health provider.

How do I make sure I maximize the benefits of cold therapy?

Applying ice is effective as it is but the therapy should always be accompanied with ample rests so that you don’t end up further aggravating your injuries. Ask your doctor when it would be safe for you to run again, just to be on the safe side. Wrapping the affected area with an elastic band, making sure that it is snug but still allows optimal blood flow, should also be done to aid in reducing the swelling. And elevating the spot must be done as well as it helps guarantee optimal blood flow for quicker rehabilitation of the injury.


Do you have questions about cold therapy, or what you’ve read so far? Do you have any ultrarunning pointers of your own to add? Please leave your feedback, comments and questions below, and we promise we’ll respond.

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