You May Be Getting Your Post-Workout Soak All Wrong

Apparently, we may have been getting our post-workout game all wrong.

For as long as any of us have been working out or involved in hard-core physical activity, the common approach to the recovery process was the post-workout ice bath.

But – in news that especially applies to those who brave the Canadian winter – a new study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports (as reported earlier by The Globe and Mail) suggests that swapping the (somewhat torturous) ice bath soak for a hot, soothing bath may be the way to go.

The bath, the study finds, can stimulate performance-boosting adaptations that mimic how the body adjusts to hot weather (once it finally rolls around).

Apparently, this is an especially useful finding for the ambitious set who trains outdoors through colder conditions (see: a frigid Canadian winter) for a marathon in May or June, when the temperature is much warmer.

The research into the performance-enhancing benefits of a hot bath comes from recent research into heat adaptation. After a few weeks of exercising in hot conditions (like a sauna or a heat-controlled treadmill), your core temperature will drop, your sweat rate will increase, and your body will produce a greater volume of blood plasma. All three things, according to researchers, enhance your ability to perform in the heat.

Recognizing that not everyone has access to a sauna or heat-controlled piece of exercise equipment, Neil Walsh, director of the Extremes Research Group at the Bangor University in Wales and the senior author of the study, wanted to see whether a hot bath could offer similar benefits. To do this, they recruited 17 “lucky” volunteers to run for 40 minutes on a treadmill for six straight days, followed each time by a 40-minute bath where they were submerged up to the neck.

Ten of the volunteers were assigned to hot baths at 40 degrees Celsius while the other seven took “thermoneutral” baths at 34 degrees Celsius. By the end of the study, the group who took the hot baths experienced a lower resting rectal temperature by an average of 0.27 C, their temperature stayed lower during exercise, and they began to sweat sooner.

Furthermore, their performance in a five-kilometre trail improved by 5 per cent in hot conditions (33°C), though it didn’t change in cool conditions.

It should be mentioned, however, that the baths were pretty intense; so much so that only four of the 10 volunteers were able to complete the full 40 minutes on the first day. Nine, however, were able to complete it by the fifth day.

Walsh and his colleagues hope to test more efficient protocols moving forward. Though he says that as little as 20 minutes in a hot tub may be necessary to provide heat acclimation, he acknowledges that this needs confirmation.

Though firm conclusions are not yet made, if you’re currently training for a summer marathon, a few hot baths post-training session can’t hurt.

Not to mention, aside from the physical benefits, hot baths actually feel a lot better on the body after a killer winter workout.