At the end of a grueling workout, the thought of soaking in a Jacuzzi or a hot bath may seem ideal. You deserve it, after all. But you may not be doing your body any favors by doing so, according to Liz Letchford, MS, ATC, PhD candidate, athletic trainer, and injury-prevention expert. “Being in a warm environment or otherwise applying heat to your body after exercise can decrease your body’s ability to attain parasympathetic activation in order to recover effectively," Letchford told POPSUGAR.
"Your body gets stronger during recovery, not during the workout, so it is very important to optimize your recovery time." A hot soak can, however, be beneficial after your workout if you’re training for a race in the middle of Summer and need to acclimate your body to heat.
Just because a hot soak isn’t best for your tired muscles doesn’t necessarily imply that a cold one is any better. There has been conflicting research on the benefits of cold water immersion postexercise. According to Letchford, "Studies that have found that cold water immersion increases the expression of genes involved in increasing blood flow and mitochondria in exercised muscles," while it’s also been "reported to reduce the overall training effects of a three-month strength-training program."
Additionally, cold water immersion after a workout is often used to reduce inflammation for postexercise recovery. But Letchford explained how the inflammation that occurs in response to training is actually essential for tissue adaptation and that it doesn’t need to be suppressed as it’s widely assumed. She also continued to say that a cold soak may seem like it’s improving pain and fatigue post-workout, "but this is likely a psychological response and not a result of anything significant happening at the muscular level."
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It’s difficult to pinpoint the best recovery routine because there are still so many unknown causes of muscle soreness. Several theories include lactic acid, muscle spasms, connective tissue damage, muscle damage, inflammation, and enzyme efflux, but Letchford shared how it’s likely a combination of the aforementioned that’s responsible for your pain.
"Currently, stretching, homeopathy, ultrasound, and electric current modalities have had no effect on alleviation of soreness," she said. "Exercise is the most effective means of reducing muscle soreness, although the relief is temporary."
Immediately after an intense workout, Letchford recommends engaging in some form of active recovery exercise. Interestingly, a higher-intensity active recovery that gets your heart rate up may be more effective post-cardiovascular-exercise than a more gentle recovery. She also recommends taking it easy in terms of intensity and duration for a day or two afterward.