Is the Hot Tub a Good Choice for Recovery?
Most muscle soreness is a sign of a successful workout. Sometimes this soreness can last quite a bit, delaying us from getting back into our training routines with our full strength. It is important for runners to learn the best recovery methods after those hard runs so that their bodies can be ready for those next taxing workouts. Strategies such as muscle rubs, massages, ice baths, foam rolling, and tons of stretching can do wonders to heal those sore spots. Since ice baths and cold packs are more commonly used, many athletes question the benefits of using the opposite—hot tubs and hot packs. It is important to understand when to use each recovery tactic as it can hinder your recovery from helping.
When we exercise, especially to the point of fatigue or with a new activity, our muscles experience tiny microtears. These tiny tears in the fibers are actually necessary in order to build size and strength in the muscles. The reason we develop soreness following exercise is that as these microtears develop, inflammation and decreased blood flow to the area occur as well, which signals nerves to fire a sensation of pain. Most people will think of ice when they hear the word “inflammation”, which is correct as ice is what will help decrease the inflammation. The problem with ice in the case of most muscle soreness is that it constricts blood vessels, limiting blood flow further.
Hot Tub Benefits
Using the hot tub as part of your recovery program feels like it would be a good (and relaxing!) idea. Well, it is if you use it at the right time. As long as you do not dip into the hot tub immediately after an injury, your muscles will thank you. Heat can help relax tensed up muscles as the brain interprets warmth as a sense of comfort. Due to contradicting research, many people believe that heat therapy mainly has a placebo effect, unlike other forms of treatment where physiological changes actually occur. The data that shows these physiological benefits is pretty convincing, though.
Although heat is not going to help the symptom of inflammation, it will dilate blood vessels and increase the blood flow to the muscle. This will help with the removal of lactic acid and other toxins and prevent more from building up in the muscle. This is also the reason why active recovery is a good choice when you are sore. In order for the micro tears in the muscle fibers to heal quickly, oxygen and nutrients need to make their way to the damage, and increased circulation will make this possible. If you leave blood vessels constricted this process can take a long time.
Research has shown that when the body is exposed to high temperatures (over 104 degrees), heat receptors are activated and pain receptors are blocked. This response is similar to the response when using pain medication. Using a hot tub is actually a safer alternative than always relying on those pain pills, anyway.
Following a hard run or workout session, muscles will feel tight along with the soreness. This tightness is brought on by the buildup of the lactic acid mentioned earlier, as well as inflammation in the muscles. Heat therapy increases the elasticity of collagen fibers, which are what improves joint range of motion. This is why it is advised to apply a hot pack to tight muscles before exercising. Heat is also produced during an active warm-up routine, resulting in the same effect. Although this effect of using the hot tub to loosen muscle tension and improve joint motion is temporary, it can make all the difference before exercising.
Improves Heat Tolerance
Submerging in a hot tub is an extremely beneficial method to acclimate the body to hot temperatures. During the summer months, where the temperature and humidity are at an all-time high, runners can give their bodies a head-start on getting used to the weather by spending 15 to 30 minutes a few times per week in the hot tub. This will allow the body to sweat more and sooner, which decreases internal heat in the body, causing a lower workload on the heart. Some studies have also shown that using the hot tub for heat acclimatization before racing in hot and humid temperatures can help improve performance come race day.
The absolute wrong time to use any form of heat on the body is immediately following an injury or trauma. This vasodilation will promote increased bleeding to the damaged area and the damage, in this case, is not the “good damage” that muscles go through during exercise. The heat can also increase inflammation, which is the opposite of what you want during this time. The same goes for applying heat to open wounds. It is best to wait until several weeks after injuries to use a hot tub in order to be entirely out of the acute phase and inflammation is no longer an issue.