As young people, we often push ourselves to our limits without worrying about the ramifications that are sure to come. I often tested my own limits without practicing smart exercising methods that would allow me to recover properly. As a result, I suffered from tendonitis, muscle tears, and chronic joint pain caused by inflammation. These were all symptoms of poor recovery techniques that, for me, were a result of laziness, confidence in my body to heal itself without assistance, and a poor understanding of how the human body deals with physical stress and injury.
Of course, it was only after I sustained these injuries that I decided to do my research. The four elements of RICE, that is, Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation, were techniques that I seldom used and didn’t thoroughly understand at the time.
Rest is probably the most important of the four. I learned this after reading Body by Science by Dr. Doug McGuff. After performing a hard workout of any kind, the muscle fibers do become damaged. After repairing themselves, muscles gradually see an increase in mass. The important part of gaining muscle, however, it to allow the damaged muscles to heal completely. This might seem like common knowledge, but the average person isn’t likely to take 57 days off before exercising again. This duration of time is essential to not only promote muscle repair (and growth), but to reduce the rate of inflammation in the body. As I stated in earlier posts, inflammation is a natural response to an injury. Blood floods the area, initiating tissue repair, etc. When we damage a muscle from exercising, the same thing happens. When we continue to exercise before the muscles have had a chance to heal, however, we are only promoting inflammation to continue in those areas.
Many people exercise several times a week, despite having sore muscles from previous workouts. According to Dr. Doug Mcguff, exercise should continue only after this soreness has subsided. This soreness is an indication that the muscles are still damaged, and by not allowing adequate healing time, we are essentially poking an open wound. Think about the average time it takes for a simple burn to heal. A burn is mere skin damage, and yet it takes days before healing completely. Now think about muscle tissue. Muscles are far more dense and complex than skin, thus they require a much longer recovery time. For most people, this takes 57 days.
Ice is the second factor in muscle recovery, having mixed results for many people. Icing an area is intended for reducing inflammation, however some inflammation is required for the healing process. I tend to use ice when experiencing chronic inflammation or swelling in an area or pain, but some people consider compression to work just as well. For the sake of healing properly and efficiently, I would only recommend ice for the intention of dulling pain rather than addressing acute inflammation, as it tends to interrupt other important physiological functions that are a natural response to injury.
Elevation and Compression, our two remaining factors, are the preferred methods of accomplishing an even reduction of swelling an byproducts from the injury without disrupting other essential functions. While the pairing of elevation and compression should be implemented occasionally, often while the injured area is immobilized, compression can used to help stabilize an area during mobilization. It should not be relied on heavily, especially after swelling has subsided.
Mobilization and blood flow are also positive ways to promote healing after initiating some aspects of RICE, but exercise should still be reduced until the area has healed properly.
Ensuring proper salt intake can help replenish electrolytes (see my article on The Importance of Salt), and reduce muscle cramps, dehydration, and weakness after a workout. Salt also helps cells maintain proper fluid balance within the system, which can play an important role when lymph and blood are involved. Blood is always delivered to an injured area, and lymph is there to remove any byproducts of the injury. If these fluids are lacking at all, then the recovery time for an injury might be prolonged. Salt will also increase thirst and thus the intake of liquids, which is also vital after a hard workout.
Other methods for decreasing recovery time include protein and fat ingestion after a workout. Having a good supply of protein and fat provides muscles with the tools they need to repair. Adequate sleep is also important, as your body repairs itself during rest. By ingesting some protein before bed, you can encourage muscle repair once more.
In summary, not all of the elements of RICE are necessary, or even useful. The most important thing to remember when focusing on muscle repair, is patience. It will take time for muscles to heal, and by working out before they are completely healed, you are most likely doing more harm than good. Ways to encourage a faster recovery are to allow the body to “do its thing.” This includes allowing inflammation, swelling, and immobilization to occur without trying to interrupt the process too much. Compression and elevation are OK temporarily, and ice should only be used in cases of pain and prolonged swelling or inflammation. In the case of prolonged swelling and/or inflammation, consult a physician. Eat properly, and ingest salt and water often. All of these techniques are important for preventing longterm injuries like tendonitis, arthritis, and for treating chronic inflammation caused by inadequate recovery. Hopefully you will see a difference in the way you feel, and how completely you heal the next time you exercise.
Note: I am not a physician. The statements above are based on information I gathered from research and personal experience. They are not meant to be used as rehabilitation methods. For serious physical issues and injuries, always consult a physician. Thank you.