We at HTBM like whole grains as much as the next person, but you shouldn’t always be thinking about your stomach when you think about RICE. In fitness, this is an acronym that stands for Rest, Ice, Compress, and Elevate. It can come in handy for soothing muscle soreness as well as preventing further injury.
This article will detail how to properly apply RICE for muscle soreness, as well as when to use RICE and when to do something a little more serious.
What, When, and How to Apply RICE for Muscle Soreness
RICE, or “Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate” is a tried and true method of pain relief as well as a helpful measure to make sure that mild wear-and-tear on your muscles doesn’t become something more serious.
There are products on the market that ice and compress sore areas – even if rest and elevation are things that you have to do yourself. While it can be handy to invest in hot-and-cold packs, compression tapes and braces, and other handy aids, you can RICE with things that you already have at home or that should be around any gym or fitness center.
If you’re thinking ahead, try to stock store-bought hot and cold compresses or have one or more of the following items on hand to make your own:
- Cloth bandages
- Medical tape
- Cohesive tape bandages or “Vet Wrap”
- Plastic wrap
- Commercial cold packs (like you put in your lunch when you were a kid)
- Sandwich bags full of ice cubes
- cloth bags full of rice (keep in freezer for cold pack or microwave for heat pad)
- A bag of frozen vegetables
In RICE, “R” stands for “Rest.” This means resting the area that feels discomfort, not necessarily throwing in the towel on your whole workout. If you notice pain in your forearm doing preacher curls, it’s okay to change to squats and see how your arm feels in a few minutes.
If you think about RICE a lot, you should probably think about R a lot more. A lot of injuries and muscle soreness can be prevented by just giving your muscles time to recover. We’re not saying that you can’t work out every day, we’re just saying that your workoutine routine should be varied enough that you’re not blasting the same muscle groups every time that you work out.
The “I” in “RICE” stands for “Ice” but this could be misleading. It really just means “cool.” You can use ice cubes in a plastic bag or a reusable cold pack, but don’t apply whatever you use directly to your skin, as this can cause irritation.
Icing the area may feel good, but it also helps to prevent swelling. Swelling can be the result of blood rushing to the area to repair any damage. That’s a good thing, but too much swelling can also cause discomfort and further tissue damage.
Don’t use something so cold that it causes discomfort. Only keep it on the area for half-an-hour at a time, max. Some people like to alternate hot and cold for muscle soreness. If that’s the case for you, try something warm – but again, not too hot and not directly on your skin – for five or ten minutes before you go back to icing the area.
Repeat the 20-30 minutes on and 5-10 minutes off cycle until you feel better or for the rest of the day. The next day, if the area is still sore but feels better, consider using gentle heat instead of cold. If the area still hurts or feels worse the next day, think about calling a personal trainer, physical therapist, or even your physician.
In “RICE” the “C” stands for “Compress.” The idea is to use a bandage that will apply gentle pressure. You want to be able to feel that the compression is being applied – it shouldn’t be loose – but you also don’t want to cut off circulation or immobilize the joint.
As was the case with applying ice, compression is meant to control rather than prevent swelling. If you try to prevent swelling all together, you can prevent the area from healing properly and even damage areas of your body that weren’t affected by the injury.
Further, while exercising the area might not be a good idea right now, moving it slowly and gently as you are able can prevent muscle soreness later. If you avoid moving the area at all while it recovers, it may take longer to recover or not recover properly.
Perhaps more importantly, if the area hurts so much that you don’t want to move it at all that can be a sign that something more serious than run-of-the-mill muscle soreness is going on.
So, how tight is too tight? A good rule of thumb comes from using a “makeshift” cold compress out of bandages and ice or a cold pack as discussed above. You want your bandage to be just tight enough that whatever you’re using to apply cold is held in place. You don’t want it to be loose or sliding out of place, but you don’t want it pressing hard into your skin either.
The time frame for compression is similar to that for Ice. Try to loosen or remove the bandage for 5-10 minutes every 20-30 minutes that you have it on. Wear it for as long as you need it for muscle soreness but if you need it for more than two or three days, consider talking to a therapist, trainer, or physician.
The “E” in “RICE” stands for “Elevate.” That is, keeping the area raised ideally at or above the level of the heart. This is another measure to improve circulation and prevent swelling.
Of course, this will be easier for some areas of the body than others. It doesn’t have to be a thing that you do constantly for the regular 20-30 and 5-10 intervals that this article recommends for icing and compression. However, you should think about elevation any time that you’re sitting or laying down.
When to RICE and When to Call Someone
You can apply RICE to any area for any reason – it doesn’t cost anything and it won’t do any damage. It might feel good and not be a bad idea after any workout particularly if you have an old injury that “acts up” when you work that area. However, there are certain times when RICE might be a particularly good idea.
If you ever feel particularly sore after a new workout, or if you had to stop a workout short of your intended reps because of muscle soreness, it might be a good idea to apply RICE. If you have muscle soreness in the day or days after a workout, it might be a good idea to apply RICE as well.
If you feel a sudden sharp pain during a workout, or your pain during a workout is so severe that you have to stop your workout session or skip the next session all together, RICE might not be enough. If you try RICE for more than a few days and muscle soreness still isn’t going away or you notice redness or bruising around the area, schedule an appointment.
The difference between RICE and talking to your doctor, trainer, or physical therapist is the difference between muscle soreness and muscle injury.
RICE – Effective, Easy, and Free
RICE is a handy tool that you can use to soothe away muscle soreness or to stop a potential problem before it gets worse. These articles are pretty soft when it comes to advising when to use RICE and when to talk to a specialist because we don’t want you to hurt yourself. But you know your body better than we do.
Use RICE as a general guide for when you don’t know what to do about mild muscle soreness and keep an eye on those sore areas just in case. Dust off these tools enough times and you’ll have a better understanding of what your body needs and when it needs more help.