Should You Soak in Cold or Hot Water After a Marathon?
Aug 27, 2021 By Amy Elder
Running a marathon is quite an accomplishment. The training for endurance athletes and the marathon itself consists of grueling workouts and do a number on your body. This article will discuss elements of a good recovery plan specifically related to long-distance running. It will detail ways to optimize recovery by explaining how you can use the principles of vasoconstriction and vasodilation to your advantage, the use of Epsom salts, and reducing DOMS.
Vasodilation vs. vasoconstriction: using these principles to your advantage
Vasodilation is an effect on blood vessels that consists of them increasing in size. For distance athletes, this is what happens to your blood vessels as your body becomes warm through exercise. Vasodilation of blood vessels is a great enhancer of performance during running; leading to the benefit of more oxygen and other nutrient delivery to a muscle.
A study from 2017 that researched marathon runners concluded that vasodilation after a marathon will remain for a period of time. The study goes on to say that “if left unchecked, these adjustments can progress to cardiovascular instability. The future likely will include training methods that take advantage of the processes present in the cardiovascular system after exercise, and it may yet provide a window into recovery and readiness for training stress.”
One way to take advantage of these processes and keep them in check is to purposefully introduce vasoconstriction after your training regimes and marathons by using ice baths. As vasodilation happens due to the warming of the blood vessels, vasoconstriction occurs after the cooling of blood vessels. It is the effect of a blood vessel becoming smaller in size; decreasing in diameter and limiting blood flow. When applied immediately following an intense workout for a short time- no longer than 15 minutes; vasoconstriction is ultimately why cold water immersion is so effective for pain control and decreased edema from muscle damage following a training session.
This study from the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that “colder temperatures may be associated with reduced muscle blood flow, which could provide an explanation for the benefits of cold water immersion in alleviating exercise-induced muscle damage in sports and athletic contexts.” Furthermore, this study suggests that after the initial vasoconstriction from cold water immersion, the body will respond by increasing vasodilation and blood flow by way of stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system.
After running a marathon: is cold or hot bathing best?
In a word: cold. This is directly after your marathon and the many training sessions leading up to it. According to an article in Runner’s World, cold water is your best bet after a grueling run. A physical therapist, running medical expert, and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association mentioned in the article, who runs marathons himself, stated that when comparing heat to cold after running, “Cold wins out here. At the end of the day, we’re trying to prepare our body for the next workout, and cold is another brick in rebuilding after recovery with sleep, diet, hydration, stretching, and more.”
He suggests soaking for 10-15 minutes max.
Bathing with Epsom salts
Bathing in Epsom salts may be beneficial for you after a marathon. Epsom salt is a form of magnesium. Magnesium has an incredibly relaxing effect on muscles and promotes muscle recovery. Epsom salts are generally added to warm water, but when adding Epsom salts to your ice bath after a run, it is possible to double the benefits to your aching muscles.
As it says on our website, the best method is to test it out and see how your body responds. Scientific evidence on bathing with Epsom salts is minimal. That said, the method has been used for centuries to relieve stress and promote muscle recovery after a grueling workout. This modality is promoted on many running and alternative health websites as a beneficial treatment for recovery after a workout.
Here are some sources promoting the benefits of bathing in Epsom salts:
- An article from Runner’s World promoting Epsom Salt baths: This article discusses the potential benefits for runners of soaking with Epsom salts in a hot or cold bath to “increase relaxation, reduce inflammation, and aid in muscle and nerve function.”
- Epsom salt uses for training and recovery | Epsom Salt Council: This article discusses how Epsom salt baths help with training and muscle recovery.
- Report on Absorption of magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts) across the skin (epsomsaltcouncil.org): A study showing that bathing with Epsom Salts does raise levels of magnesium in the blood, as it has been previously reported that the magnesium cannot be effective by transdermal means.
- Canadian running magazine promotes bathing in Epsom Salts: An article that discusses the properties of Epsom salt and how they are beneficial for runners.
Is contrast therapy the best approach after running a marathon?
Contrast water therapy (CWT) has limited research to suggest that it is beneficial. Results from this study performed in 2013 comparing the benefits of CWT vs. cold-water immersion therapy found a clear advantage to using cold water immersion post-exercise.
CWT requires more research that is being conducted to fully understand if there are benefits to this technique.
Using Ice Barrel for ice baths after a run or marathon
Our Ice Barrel can easily provide all of these benefits in your home. This is superior to cryotherapy chambers that produce only cold air and are only available in a medical setting. Also, with only using a cold air chamber, you will not be getting the benefit of compression from the hydrostatic pressure of the water itself as in our ice barrels. The Ice Barrel provides a simple way to take advantage of these benefits and optimize recovery after accomplishing the feat of training for and running a marathon.
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