A woman soaking herself in the water to soothe herself.

Soothing Soak: Benefits of Warm Baths for Muscle Recovery

This article was written by Chris Marshall

When we move around or exercise, our bodies need to work against gravity. Everything we do uses our limbs, muscles, and body systems to different extents. This  depends on the type, intensity, and duration of the movement and exercise we perform. 

Our bodies use a network of amazing systems and processes to ensure this happens efficiently. To fuel this, we ingest food and drink that provides us with the energy needed to keep our bodies running. 

However, like anything, we can only keep this up for so long. We need to let our systems recover and adapt before the next movement or exercise takes place. Many methods of recovery have been proposed throughout the years, with warm water immersion being proposed as one of them.

In this article, we’ve discussed the benefits of warm baths for muscle recovery to see if this time-tested way still works. We’ve also looked at ways in which you can get the most out of your warm bath and additional methods to help speed up muscle recovery. 

So, do hot tubs help muscle recovery? Let’s take a look below! 

 

How does muscle recovery work?

 
Image of a man showing his muscles showing his muscles if fully recovered.

Image source

Before we look at different recovery methods, we should know how muscle recovery works. This allows us to get a better understanding of how the different methods can help our body when we use them as part of our recovery process.

Exercise is crucial to our overall health and well-being. Alongside helping to maintain our health, it plays a crucial role in the maintenance and development of our muscles and body systems. 

When we exercise, our body’s natural balance is disturbed. In scientific terms, this is known as homeostasis. We feel some of these changes during exercise whilst others are felt after. An example would be our breathing increasing during high-intensity activity. 

Our circulatory system transports oxygen and nutrients to our working muscles whilst disposing of waste products such as carbon dioxide. It does this during exercise by increasing our heart rate.

The mitochondria in our cells, also known as the energy powerhouses, produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that we use for muscle contraction and system function. 

During exercise, we increase our breathing to ensure we have enough energy for our muscle's demands. If we don’t have enough, we use anaerobic processes that don’t use oxygen. This produces lactic acid, which causes the distinct feelings or soreness that we often experience following an exercise bout. 

Exercise forces our muscles to contract and stretch. As part of this, small muscle tears occur as part of our body's adaptive process. 

As we finish exercise, we gradually return to a state of balance and resume normal body functioning. During the recovery period, satellite cells repair these microscopic tears caused by exercise and clear the lactic acid from our system, helping our body to adapt for the next exercise bout. 

Recovery is therefore a period where our muscle fibers are rebuilt and our lactic acid is removed from our system so we can begin the next bout of exercise. This rest period causes our bodies to be bigger and stronger than before! 

 

What's better for muscle recovery, hot or cold?


A man having cold bath and a woman having hath bath.

If you’ve performed exercise at any sort of level, you’ll know that cold water immersion has typically been recommended as a way to recover after a high-intensity workout. By halting the inflammation process caused as a result of the small tears in our muscle fibers, taking a cold bath or shower is purported to reduce pain and improve our recovery time.

However, some studies have reported little or no benefits on cell function and recovery time following cold water immersion, prompting research to search for alternative means to enhance and improve recovery.

Conversely, warm water immersion was proposed as an alternative and more effective way to improve our recovery process following exercise. The purported mechanisms of warm water immersion are improvements in blood flow, muscle glucose uptake, and mitochondrial function, all of which can improve recovery time. 

In a study to look at the effects of warm water immersion on vascular function and cardiorespiratory fitness when compared to time-matched exercise, researchers found similar increases in both markers between conditions. In addition, a study to examine the effects of warm water immersion on type 2 diabetes risk factors in overweight adults found some amazing results. Just 10 sessions of warm water immersion reduced their fasting glucose and insulin concentrations, suggesting beneficial applications after a very short period.

Collectively, these studies suggest that warm water immersion may be used as a valuable tool to improve markers of recovery and function following exercise.

Since these studies were done, we’ve been using cold and hot water immersion techniques for a number of years. We’ve decided to take a deeper look into these benefits to decide once and for all if warm baths are the way to go in terms of recovery. 

 

The benefits of hot water immersion for sore muscles

 

Besides some of the physical benefits mentioned above, there are many reasons to consider hot water immersion following a strenuous exercise bout. Even when we damage a disk or nerve in our bodies, the muscles surrounding the injured area contract to avoid further damage. Chronic conditions such as arthritis and disease also lead to muscle pain and may benefit from additional recovery techniques such as hot water immersion. 

When we consider the physical effects of exercise and the physical benefits that recovery can have, we often overlook the mental side, which we should view as something that is heavily linked to every aspect of our physical health. 

Simply taking a bath can provide a relaxing environment, reduce our stress levels, and prepare us for the next day ahead. With this, let’s take a look at some of the purported benefits of hot water immersion in more detail.

 

Blood circulation

 
Model of blood circulation in humans.

When we soak in warm water, our blood vessels dilate. In other words,  they get bigger, allowing more blood to get to our recovering muscles. 

With a larger blood flow, we can get more oxygen and essential nutrients to our muscle tissues, helping with recovery and promoting a faster healing process. 

Alongside this, it can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease and stoke by decreasing blood pressure, one of the key risk factors in both of these conditions. 

 

Pain relief


When looking at the effects of warm water immersion on pain, the heat from a warm bath may help to provide temporary relief from pain and discomfort caused by exercise or certain ailments. Taking a bath post exercise can help to reduce muscle cramps, muscle spasms, and general soreness. 

We can view hot water immersion as an effective natural remedy to soothe sore muscles and improve function following exercise. 

 

Relaxing sore muscles


We’ve all sat down after a high-intensity exercise bout and struggled to get up from our chair or bed upon waking. This muscle soreness can affect us for some time following exercise if we don’t properly address it.

Hot water immersion can help to loosen and relax right muscles, relieving muscle tension, reducing stiffness, and decreasing soreness following exercise. 

The heat of the water also promotes the release of endorphins. These are natural pain relieving and cognitive boosting chemicals that help us to feel more relaxed and improve our overall well being. 

 

Sleep Quality 


The benefits of warm water immersion extend beyond the physical ones that we typically associate with activity and exercise. 

Soaking in warm water before sleep can help us to regulate our body temperature, promoting a deeper, higher-quality sleep. In terms of muscle recovery, quality sleep is essential. It allows the tissues in our body to repair and regenerate as we sleep. 

 

Stress Reduction 


Whatever we do, there’s no denying that sitting in a warm bath with our favorite book or glass of wine isn’t a great way to take a break from life and reduce our stress levels.

A warm bath creates a calm and tranquil environment, encouraging us to relax and de-stress. After a physically demanding day, this can help us to unwind and reset for the next day ahead. 

Raising our core body temperature using warm water immersion may increase mood-regulating hormones such as serotonin, our body's natural feel good hormone. Therefore, positive effects may be seen on mood and chronic mental health conditions such as depression with regular warm water immersion. 

 
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How to get the most from your warm bath

 

With these benefits discussed above, is a hot tub good for  muscle recovery? How do we get the most out of the hot tub or warm bath when we utilize them? 

Turning on the tub or running a warm bath is a good start. However, we can do certain things to ensure we get the most out of it. Let’s take a look at three of the best things we can do.  

 

Soak long enough

 

If you have a hot tub at home, many of you may be wondering how long to stay in a hot tub for recovery? Well, aim to soak in a hot tub or warm bath for around 15 to 20 minutes. This gives you enough time to absorb the warmth and get the therapeutic benefits discussed above. 

 

Find the best temperature

 

The temperature of the bath should be warm but not too hot. Aim for a temperature range of between 92°F (33°C) to 100°F (38°C). This is a below normal body temperature, making it a good range to provide the muscle recovery effects discussed above without causing discomfort.  

 

Epsom salt

 

Epsom salts contain magnesium sulfate. Adding these to a warm bath helps to increase our intracellular magnesium content, reducing the production and release of inflammatory cytokines

Essential oils such as eucalyptus, lavender, and chamomile can be added to provide additional relaxation and pain-relieving effects. 

 

How can you speed up the muscle recovery process?

 

Alongside using warm water immersion, other methods can be used to speed up the muscle recovery process. We’ve discussed some of the most popular ones below. 

 

Red light therapy


A man wearing a rd light therapy device from Kineon.

Red light therapy exposes our bodies to low levels of red light. Once it penetrates our skin, it’s absorbed by our body’s cells, triggering serveral beneficial reactions. These include increased cell function and tissue repair. 

Unlike classical recovery techniques, red light therapy works at a cellular level, making it a safe and painless treatment option for several acute and chronic injuries. This includes as an important recovery aid following a strenuous exercise session or to treat symptoms of injury and muscle dysfunction. 

When managing the pain and soreness following an exercise bout, red light therapy can offer several benefits that help to speed up the muscle recovery process. These include reductions in inflammation, improved blood circulation, and pain reduction in joints and muscles. 

Research into red light therapy has shown promising applications as a non-invasive and affordable treatment option that we can use alongside warm water immersion techniques to improve recovery time

 

 

The importance of hydration 


As we mentioned above, exercise causes tiny tears in our muscle fibers. During recovery, our bodies adapt to the exercise stimulus by building them bigger and stronger for the next exercise bout. This is known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS).

For muscle protein synthesis to function efficiently, our muscles need to be hydrated. When this doesn’t happen, our recovery process slows down and the muscle rebuilding process stops. 

Alongside this, optimal hydration levels can help to reduce inflammation following an injury and improve blood flow, helping to bring vital nutrients and oxygen to the damaged areas. 

 

Foam Rolling 


Foam rolling is a form of myofascial release. This is a process that stretches and loosens the fascia in our muscles. 

It involves using our body weight alongside a foam roller to apply pressure to certain points in our muscles, relieving stress and tension. 

The recovery benefits of foam rolling include reduced muscle soreness, increased mobility, and quicker recovery for the next exercise bout. 

 

To bathe or not to bathe? 

 

Running a warm bath following a strenuous exercise bout can help to improve our circulation, soothe our painful muscles, and help us to de-stress, improving our sleep quality. With research backing up these benefits, warm water immersion should be used as a recovery method following exercise 

Alternative recovery methods such as red light therapy and foam rolling are both great ways to speed up our recovery time and improve our quality of life. 


References 

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Chris Marshall

Chris Marshall

Job Title: Health and Fitness Content Writer
Location: United Kingdom
Bio: Chris Marshall is an experienced health and fitness writer with a passion to empower others to achieve better health and well-being through meaningful lifestyle changes.

With a background in nutrition and fitness, Chris aims to deliver science-based, informative content to educate others.

Alongside health and fitness writing, he also works with private online clients to build positive lifestyle habits and improve their overall well-being.

About Kineon

Bringing the latest advancements in enhanced red light therapy for home use. Our mission is to get you back on your feet and moving pain-free.

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