For many years, athletes have been pushing themselves to jump in an ice bath after working out to aid recovery and decrease muscle soreness.
For most people, the idea of sitting in an ice bath for sore muscles is just not worth the potential ice bath benefits, and the prospect of soaking in a warm bath after workouts is much more appealing.
But, does a hot bath help sore muscles, or does it just feel relaxing? What are the benefits of a hot bath for sore muscles? Do you still get recovery benefits with a hot bath vs ice bath after workouts? To that end, do ice baths reduce muscle soreness after exercise?
In this recovery guide, we will discuss the benefits of ice baths for recovery, the benefits of a hot bath for sore muscles, and the differences between an ice bath vs hot bath for muscle soreness to see which is better for sore muscles and recovery from exercise.
We will cover:
- Why Do People Sit In an Ice Bath Or Hot Bath After Workouts?
- Is a Hot or Cold Bath After Working Out Better for Muscle Soreness and Recovery?
- What Are the Benefits of An Ice Bath Vs Hot Bath for Workout Recovery and Pain?
- Is a Hot or Cold Bath After Working Out Better for Muscle Soreness and Recovery?
Let’s get started!
Why Do People Sit In an Ice Bath Or Hot Bath After Workouts?
Both ice baths and hot tub soaks are used by athletes such as runners, endurance cyclists, and weightlifters to reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after a workout, decrease pain from an acute or chronic injury, promote tissue healing from an injury, and aid recovery.
But, the notion of being able to reduce muscle soreness and aid recovery from a workout equally effectively from two polar opposite modalities seems counterintuitive.
So, is an ice bath for recovery from exercise better than a hot bath after workouts? Or is a warm bath for muscle soreness better than an ice bath?
Before we look to compare whether it is better to soak in an ice bath vs hot bath for sore muscles or if a hot vs cold shower for recovery is actually more effective, let’s first look at ice baths and hot baths for muscle soreness and workout recovery independently.
What Are the Benefits of An Ice Bath Vs Hot Bath for Workout Recovery and Pain?
Again, it may seem counterintuitive that both a hot bath after workouts or an ice bath after workouts may be used as a therapeutic modality for muscle soreness or to aid recovery, but both heat therapy (often known as thermotherapy) and cold therapy (termed cryotherapy) have been used by athletes and in physical therapy or rehabilitation settings for years.When you actually think about the effects of applying heat or ice to the body, though the actual effects on circulation are different, both hot therapy and cold therapy alter blood circulation and tissue temperature.
This commonality in the fact that applying hot or cold therapy to muscles and tissues can alter blood flow is ultimately why an ice bath or hot bath after exercise can have an impact on what takes place in your muscles and how your muscles feel as a result.
Benefits of an Ice Tub or Cold Shower After Exercise
Let’s start with the benefits of an ice bath for muscle soreness and workout recovery.
Any form of cryotherapy, which refers to cold therapy—whether from an ice bath, ice pack, ice massage, etc.—causes the temperature of the tissue and blood flow to decrease.
An ice bath is often used to decrease inflammation, swelling, and pain because when you soak in the ice bath, your blood vessels constrict, which limits blood flow to the area, thus decreasing inflammation.
Additionally, ice baths can potentially reduce pain due to sore muscles because the ice temporarily numbs the nerve endings and reduces nerve activity (and some nerves send pain signals to the brain).
This is essentially why people put an ice pack on an acute injury such as an ankle sprain, as it cuts down on the swelling and simultaneously decreases associated pain.
Benefits of a Hot Tub or Hot Shower After Exercise
Much like ice therapy, soaking in a hot tub or taking a hot bath is only one of the potential thermal therapy modalities, as heating pads, warm hot compresses, sitting in a sauna, etc. can also be used.
According to research, the effects of dry heat therapy may last longer, but moist heat, such as sitting in a hot tub after working out, appears to provide the benefits of heat for muscle soreness more rapidly and with up to 25% greater effectiveness.
But, does a hot bath help sore muscles?
In contrast to an ice bath, which decreases circulation and numbs the nerves, soaking in a hot tub increases circulation because heat dilates (opens or widens) blood vessels rather than constricts them.
Because heat increases blood flow to tissues, soaking in a hot tub after workouts is thought to expedite muscle recovery by transporting more oxygen and nutrients to injured tissues and removing more waste products.
Essentially, since the hot bath opens up your blood vessels (such as the little capillaries in and around all of the muscles you used in your workout), your fatigued muscles can get ready access to healing nutrients and some of the metabolic byproducts that cause soreness and inflammation removed more rapidly after hard exercise.
For this reason, some people find that a warm bath eases achy or sore muscles in the way that a cool down or active recovery, like a gentle walk, using a foam roller, or getting a massage, may help decrease muscle soreness.
Ultimately, dry and moist heat therapy (like a warm bath after workout sessions) has been shown to reduce the severity of DOMS to varying degrees.
Although the debate about whether an ice bath vs hot tub for muscle soreness and workout recovery is a “closer race, “ when you look at the research comparing ice bath benefits vs hot bath benefits after workouts, prior to exercise, there was a clearer winner in the hot tub vs ice bath matchup.
Because a warm bath increases circulation and makes your muscles and connective tissues warmer and more pliable, it is generally recommended to soak in a hot bath vs ice bath before exercise if you’re going to use one of these types of treatments.
Is a Hot or Cold Bath After Working Out Better for Muscle Soreness and Recovery?
So, now, onto the more difficult question: Which is better for muscle soreness and workout recovery: an ice bath or hot bath after working out?
While there have been studies that have looked at the pros and cons of ice vs heat for sore muscles and recovery from exercise, most of these studies have looked at applying heat packs vs ice packs on sore muscles rather than soaking in an ice bath vs hot tub after workouts.
Therefore, the research currently available on hot and cold baths for DOMS and exercise is fairly limited.
Furthermore, the results from the few available studies they have tried to compare the ice vs hot bath benefits for muscle soreness tend to be mixed.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t compare the benefits of an ice bath vs warm bath after bath exercise, but it should be noted that the evidence is somewhat limited and mixed in terms of whether an ice bath or hot bath for workout recovery is best.
As discussed, there is evidence to suggest that both ice baths and hot baths can potentially reduce the pain associated with delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise.
One review found that not only can both ice and heat be effective at reducing the severity of muscle soreness after exercise (as long as the cold bath or hot bath occurs within one hour after finishing your workout) but that there was no significant difference between the results for either heat or ice therapy.
Basically, the results from this research review suggest that it’s a wash—there isn’t a “winner” in terms of the ice bath vs hot bath recovery benefits in terms of muscle soreness.
Another study found that the application of a heat wrap to the lower back reduced pain intensity and functional impairment 24 hours after a workout, 138% more effectively than a cold pack.
While this isn’t looking specifically at an ice bath vs warm bath per se, the results are suggestive of the fact that heat therapy may be more effective at reducing muscle soreness after exercise.
Another study confirmed these results, noting that heat improved recovery, whereas ice actually delayed or impeded healing and recovery due to the fact that ice limits healthy inflammation and reduces the metabolic activity of the tissue.
However, there is also some evidence to suggest that ice can be better at reducing actual muscle pain after exercise since ice is a more effective analgesic compared to heat.
Evidence has also found that a hot bath may help you get better sleep, so if you are trying to decide whether to take a cold shower vs hot shower after working out at night, going with the post-workout hot vs cold shower is likely going to be better.
Overall, there seems to be enough scientific evidence to suggest that either an ice bath or warm bath after exercise may have merit in terms of reducing muscle soreness and aiding workout recovery.
Because ice tends to constrict blood vessels, reduce inflammation, and temporarily decrease pain by numbing nerves and decreasing nerve activity, an ice bath may be best when you have an acute injury from a workout or have some swelling going on.
In contrast, because soaking in a hot tub increases circulation, a hot tub may be better when your muscles and tendons feel stiff, or you have muscle tension or even mental stress/tension that you would like to relax with a soothing warm bath after working out.
To this end, if your muscles feel stiff and tight, an ice bath may exacerbate the problem, so you should probably go with a hot tub vs ice bath, while if you have a lot of swelling or active pain (e.g., if you twisted an ankle on your run), soak in an ice bath vs hot bath after exercise.
And, restated again, use a hot tub vs ice bath before exercise to help warm up your muscles, as you don’t want to tighten or reduce blood flow and decrease tissue temperature right before exercising.
Finally, some athletes also find it helpful to do contrast therapy, which means alternating between cold and hot baths for sore muscles after exercise.
Contrast therapy has been shown to potentially decrease muscle soreness after exercise and can help provide the benefits of both post-workout ice baths and warm baths.
There are also on-the-go cryotherapy options or even hot/cold products for athletes, like the Hyperice X, in cases where you can’t actually get in a hot bath or ice bath but want the benefits of both.
For other recovery methods, check out our guide on the benefits of massage for runners.