Hot tub, not ice bath, for weary bodies

Hot tub, not ice bath, for weary bodies

Muscles recover better after exhausting exercise if they are warmed than if they are chilled, a helpful new study finds. The results should bring succour to partici pants in Sunday's New York City Marathon and other stre nuous events this fall who, like me, would rather ease afterward into a sybaritic hot tub than an ice bath. Science is with us.

Athletes and others involved in sports training have long debated how best to help tired muscles recover after draining workouts and competitions. Some experts tout icing. Others prefer ibuprofen tablets. Still others swear by TENS machi nes, which use a mild electrical current to stimulate nerves and supposedly reduce soreness.

Little, if any, scientific evidence supports these methods, however. Other research has shown that icing, which remains the most popular way to treat overworked muscles, does not reduce inflammation in the tired tissues, although it remains a popular choice for many athletes.

Faced with these largely disappointing experimental results, researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and other universities began to wonder recently about heat. Might warming muscles after hard exercise help them to regain strength and power?

To find out, they invited five fit, young men and women to a human performance lab and sat them in front of arm-pedalling machines. Then they asked each volunteer to spin the pedals through a series of brief but gruelling intervals, followed by 20 minutes of easier but almost nonstop exercise, while the researchers tracked their heart rates and power output.

This routine was designed to exhaust the volunteers' arm muscles. Many processes are involved in muscular exhaustion, but the one that is best understood is the depletion of the muscles' glycogen, which is their stored carbohydrates. Once the muscles burn through most of this fuel source, they become weak, tired and cranky, like toddlers in need of a snack.

The Swedish scientists suspected that finding ways to rapidly replenish these stores might help the muscles to recover relatively rapidly from their fatigue. So they asked their volunteers to consume large amounts of carbohydrates in the two hours after their session of hard pedalling but not to otherwise coddle their muscles.

Then on subsequent visits to the lab, they had the young people repeat the pedalling workout twice more, and immediately afterward, slip long cuffs over their arms that could be heated or chilled with water coils. The cuffs were warmed during one session to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and chilled during another to about 5 degrees. The volunteers wore the cuffs for two hours while also downing carbohydrates.

Warm and stronger

Finally, at the end of each session, the men and women repeated the interval portion of their original pedalling, since it was the most tiring. And each of them could pedal hardest at that point if their arm muscles had been warmed beforehand.

Their power output then was "markedly better" than after the other two sessions, the scientists write in their paper, suggesting that their muscles had better regained strength. Their power was worst after their muscles had been cooled.

The inquisitive scientists next turned to individual leg-muscle fibres obtained from mice. They attached the fibres to a mechanism that could record the strength of contractions and then zapped the fibres with electricity so that they contracted, over and over.

Researchers noted when the contractions slowed, indicating the fibres had grown pooped. They then tired other fibres before dousing some of them with glycogen and subsequently warming or cooling all of the fibres and restimulating them a final time. They also examined whether warming or cooling had affected how much glycogen the muscle tissue absorbed.

The muscle fibres turned out to have recovered best after being heated - but only if they also had been exposed to glycogen. When the fibres had not received any refuelling after their exercise, they did not regain their original power, even after pleasant warming.

The lesson of these findings, published in the Journal of Physiology, seems to be that "warming muscles probably aids in recovery by augmenting the muscles' uptake of carbohydrates," said Arthur Cheng, a researcher at the Karolinska Institute, who led the study.

This study looked only at one aspect of recovery after exercise, however, concentrating on how tired muscles might best regain their ability to generate power. But the study does provide a rationale for filling your bathtub with warm water after a marathon or other hard exertion, grabbing a sports bar or chocolate milk to replace lost carbohydrates, and settling in for a long, revivifying soak.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox