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Does heat after exercise help recovery?

Yes – it can. Regular heat application after exercise can speed up the recovery of fatigue resistance and reduce muscle soreness and DOMS.

We consider a paper titled Impact of heat therapy on recovery after eccentric exercise in humans by Kim et al. It was first published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2019.

The objective of the study was to consider how heat therapy effects recovery by looking at functional performance, perceptions of soreness and muscle biopsies after a bout of exercise intense enough to induce muscle damage. In the aftermath of extensive, strenuous, or unfamiliar exercise muscle function can be impaired. In some cases, there might be a 40-50% strength loss which could take more than three weeks to recover from. (Mackey et al, 2004)

The study consisted of 11 participants, 9 male and 2 female, between the age of 21-24yrs.

A base line was established through a health screening questionnaire followed by muscle biopsy to measure the proteins in the muscle. These were then frozen and used for comparison with biopsies at the end of the study.

After undertaking the damaging exercise protocol (of 300 eccentric quad contractions), each subject had one leg selected at random that was subjected to 90 minutes of heat therapy using a medical device that circulated warm water around the muscle at 39.5-40C. The other leg received the same water treatment but at a temperature of 32-33C

This was repeated daily for the following four days.

Relevant Findings for Athletes:

Exposure to heat therapy immediately after a bout of intense exercise, and again over subsequent days speeds up the recovery of fatigue resistance and reduces muscle soreness. And thus, should be considered for recovery after non-injurious exercise.

The researchers propose future work considers the role heat therapy might play to amplify muscle adaptation after exercise.

Study Limitations:

Not possible to blind to the exposure of heat so there is a potential placebo response. The influence of a placebo effect in some recovery modalities is known to be important.

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