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Hot vs Ice Bath: What’s Better for Recovery?

Proper recovery is crucial to training for any physical activity. This is something that I’ve posted about on Geek Fitness before. And when it comes to recovery, runners and fitness experts often have conflicting opinions on which is better. Should you jump into an icy lake or spend some time in a hot spring water bath? Well, let’s take a closer look at what each of these options does for the recovering athlete’s body.

Hot Bath Benefits

Japanese onsen, traditional hot spring bath for relaxation

Taking a hot shower or a long dip in the local hot springs leads to vasodilation. This refers to the widening of the blood vessels, which leads to increased blood flow and a feeling of overall relaxation. In ExpatBets’ guide to onsens, which are known more generally as traditional Japanese baths, hot springs are a popular and therapeutic way of relaxing both the body and the mind. The United States places with similarly volcanic geographies offer similar facilities. In states like California and Colorado, hot spring water baths and even local versions of traditional Japanese onsens are great options for recovering athletes badly in need of a relaxing hot bath.

Apart from the well-known effects, a study cited by The New York Times points to evidence that hot baths are better for ice baths for muscle recovery. Specifically, researchers found that warming the muscles aids in their uptake or absorption or carbohydrates, leading to better future performance.

Ice Bath Benefits

Meanwhile, cold showers or outright ice baths result in vasoconstriction. This refers to the tightening of the blood vessels or the restriction of blood flow. Traditionally, professionals have recommended ice baths for post-workout sessions. This helps to decrease inflammation and aid in recovery from the microtearing that comes with physical exertion. This is why ice baths are popular among not just runners, but MMA fighters and other professional athletes.

In a guide to cold water immersion by Men’s Health,they note that although this option is much less comfortable than hot baths, evidence suggests that ice baths do aid in reducing delayed onset muscle soreness as well as perceived fatigue. Additionally, combining ice baths and hot baths can be more effective for recovery than either alone.

Contrasting Hot and Cold Treatments

According to Third Base personal trainer Lucie Cowan, the ideal post-race recovery treatment is a combination of both hot and cold water treatments.

“The cold water causes vasoconstriction of the blood vessels in your legs, and the hot water causes vasodilation, and it’s this oscillation between the vessels closing and opening which may aid the rush of oxygen-rich blood to your legs to promote recovery a hot bath too soon after the race may increase inflammation, however it is now thought that an ice bath may go the other way and hinder recovery.”

In short, there’s no harm in lounging in the hot spring waters of an onsen. Just don’t do it immediately after a race. And make sure to follow it up with a cold shower or a dip in the cold pool.

Likewise, while soaking in an ice bath may be uncomfortable. But it could greatly aid in muscle recovery when used in conjunction with a hot shower or warm bath. While either treatment has potential to harm recovery on their own, combining hot and cold water treatments is the key to faster recovery.

Which do you think is better? Scalding hot or ice bath recovery?

B.J. Keeton

B.J. Keeton

B.J. is a geek, gamer, podcaster, and livestreamer. He has been the co-host of the Geek to Geek podcast since 2016, and he helped start the Geek to Geek Media Network. His biggest pet peeve is when someone spells Wookiee with only one E. One time, he told his friends he liked vegetables maybe more than he did Star Wars, and they made him put a dollar in the jar. That should tell you everything you need to know about him. Find him on Twitter as @professorbeej or on Discord as @professorbeej#1337.

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