“Muscles recover more quickly if I sit in a tub of hot water, right?”

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Although we will not deny that it feels wonderful to sink into a hot bath after a hard workout, especially on a cold winter’s day, we have to tell you that “feeling wonderful” is about the limit of the benefit. External heat is comforting and relaxing, but to facilitate muscle recovery, you need a little more. When your muscles have been active, they already have been heated up. 

Cold reduces swelling and initially restricts blood flow, providing a natural compress on the microscopic tears in the tissue that are leaking blood into the traumatized area. Shortly, the body will recruit new blood to the cold area (notice it turns a little red?). The new blood flushes out metabolic wastes and lactic acid—byproducts of heavy muscle activity.

If you have a localized “sore spot,” you can treat it with a homemade ice pack. We recommend that you fill a paper cup with water and keep it in the freezer. When you need an ice pack, simply peel down the rim to expose the surface of the ice. The paper cup, or what’s left of it, serves as a little holder to keep your fingers warm and dry. Gently rub or swirl the ice surface on your injured or traumatized body part. Keep it moving and apply as much pressure as you can stand. For the first minute, it will feel uncomfortable, but this will ease. Treat yourself for five to ten minutes. Watch your skin to make certain that it doesn’t turn white, signaling frostbite. If the area you are treating is a little larger, a bag of frozen peas is a wonderfully pliable ice pack that can be refrozen frequently and reused for a long time. For a full-scale treatment (such as for post-marathon soreness), fill a bathtub with cold water and add five to ten bags of ice. Then sink your entire body into the water (the screaming and cursing will subside within a few minutes, and your body will give you an expression of gratitude the next morning).

By the way, do not rely on topical creams and ointments to help you either to “warm up” before a workout or to recover after one. They feel warm and tingly, but they are not going to help a muscle at either end of your workout. If anything, they will give you the delusion that you have done something good for yourself and will delay action that could actually be more helpful.