When To Use Ice vs Heat: A Runner’s Guide to Treating Injuries

One thing you’ll learn about runners is that we’re very good at picking up ankle twists, muscle tweaks and a myriad of small nuisance injuries.

Think of the runner in your life as something of a child, prone to falling over themselves and sustaining several ow-ies (the medical term for injury). And while most runners do everything they can to avoid injuries and strains, the nature of the sport means that we will occasionally end up hurt.

When this happens, it helps to turn to home remedies for treatment.

Luckily, through the effects of the two oldest elements known to man — ice and heat — you can treat several common injuries and optimize your recovery without ever having to leave the house.

The trick, however, is knowing when to use them. Let’s take a look in our runner’s guide to ice vs heat!

Ice vs Heat: For Treating Running Injuries

Ice vs heat for runners

While it’s normally a good idea to visit a doctor after more serious ailments, most injuries – like sprains and strains – can be treated well within the comfort of your home through the gentle application of varying temperatures.

A good rule of thumb is to use ice first and heat later.

Let’s see why…

When To Use Ice

Ice not only enhances your favorite alcoholic beverages, but it also improves the rate at which your injuries may heal. The general thinking is that ice – by virtue of being, well, cold – reduces inflammation. Along with the popular RICE method (rest, ice, compression, elevation) of treating common injuries, this can greatly aid your healing process. 

The best way to use ice is to go old-school with a pack of frozen vegetables. They’re more malleable, allowing you to mold them around the affected area. A pack of veggies a day keeps the doctor away, apparently.

You should apply the ice to the affected area for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, at least four times a day. This will keep the swelling and inflammation down, allowing you to heal much faster.

When To Use Heat

Heat is best used once the state of the injury has reached its peak, normally after three days. Naturally, heat doesn’t do much to prevent inflammation, but it can be used to soothe sore muscles.

However, whereas ice is versatile enough to be useful for pretty much every kind of injury, heat doesn’t really do much for bones and injuries related to joints. Additionally, too much heat can quickly make an injury worse, so it’s recommended that you only use it for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. 

While heat can be applied directly to the source of an injury, you might also want to consider broader heat treatments — like a visit to the sauna (or an infrared blanket). Both are useful ways to boost your circulation and kickstart the healing process.

The RICE Method

The RICE method is a popular method of injury treatment that will be familiar to anybody who has ever spent time with a sports physiotherapist. It is a simple and effective way to reduce pain and swelling in injured areas.

RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.

Together, these four components of the RICE method can help to reduce pain and swelling, prevent further damage, and promote healing.


It goes without saying that when you’ve suffered an injury, it’s usually a good idea to give your body the time it needs to heal and recover. This is easily accomplished by simply sitting your butt down on the couch for a day or two, maybe more, depending on the severity and location of the injury.

Of course, every athletic bone in your body will probably be screaming at you, begging to be exercised. Do your best to block it out and push through this difficult time. 


Gel ice pack on ankle

Ice is great for treating common injuries. After suffering a nasty fall or pushing your muscles through a hard workout, press a pack of ice against the affected area to mitigate the swelling and development of the injury. If you’re short of an ice pack, a pack of frozen vegetables works well – better, in fact!


There is no set way to compress injuries – different injuries require different compression styles or equipment. The goal is to reduce the amount of fluids – like blood – that travel to and around the affected area. This, in turn, reduces inflammation and shortens your recovery time.


Finally, the last step in the RICE method is to raise the affected area higher than your heart.

By keeping the affected area higher than your heart, the amount of blood that flows to it will be lessened, thus preventing inflammation and shortening your recovery time even more. 

Common Injuries And How To Treat Them (Ice or Heat)

Children learn through their mistakes. When your little brother jumps from the top stair and breaks his leg, there’s a good chance he won’t do that again. Unfortunately, runners and other athletes can’t learn from their mistakes because the nature of the activity means every run can result in an injury.

This has led to a fairly extensive list of common injuries for runners.

You’d think that after the first couple of sprains, most athletes find a way to stop spraining themselves, but as we said, it comes with the territory. Luckily, we’ve prepared a list of the three most common injuries and how to treat them so you can get back to what you love.

For each injury, we’ll suggest which element you should use: ice or fire.

Spoiler: it’s both!


Sprains are probably the most common of sports-related injuries. They generally occur in the knees, ankles, and hips. They’re caused when the ligaments are stretched too far. 

Despite the intense pain and discomfort that they can cause, sprains are usually easily treatable at home. In this case, you should employ the RICE method and apply some ice to the affected area to reduce swelling. 

After the first couple of days, a hot water bottle can be used to soothe the affected area and aid the recovery process even more.


While sprains result from stretching the ligaments too far, strains are caused when the tendons are stretched too far. Strains typically occur in the lower back, legs, and shoulders, causing pain and stiffness in these areas. 

With enough rest, strains will usually heal by themselves. However, you can help your muscles by avoiding heat altogether for the first 72 hours to prevent inflammation. Afterward, however, heat can be used to aid the recovery process by increasing the blood flow to the affected area. 

In most cases, a good rule of thumb is to first apply ice to the affected area, then heat once it has already begun to heal. 


Muscle strains and cramps are more or less the same thing. However, strains are usually experienced as a constant, long-lasting ache-like pain, whereas cramps are more severe and intense, lasting much shorter. With this in mind, you can safely use an ice pack to treat the affected area for as long as needed. 

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Thalia Oosthuizen

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Thalia started running during the the pandemic as a way of getting out of the house. The running bug bit, and now much of her life revolves around everything to do with running - videos, podcasts, studies, books, articles, and interviews. She's also done several courses on running nutrition and mechanics to aid in her training and advising others.
Thalia Oosthuizen

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