A recent article appeared in Runners World's special edition The Trail titled "Recover the Right Way" by Gordy Megroz. Gordy describes 7 recovery steps to assist with recovering from a long trail run or injury. Step 7 states to avoid Hot Tubs. "A Hot Tub may feel good, but inflamming your muscles more with hot water doesn't actually help your recovery." I am wondering if the same concept applies to using a Far Infrared Sauna for recovery. What does everyone think. Thanks.
Mr. Megroz is a professional writer whose degree is in a non-health related field. He is probably basing his logic and advice on theories and practices involving heat and muscle recovery that are currently popular within the sports community, but not always appropriate. Nevertheless, I partly agree with his conclusion, but for a different reason.
I would completely agree with him if there was a substantial amount of inflammation present, as perhaps in the case of some injuries, but the word "inflammation," as used here, needs to be treated with a bit more diligence. There is inflammation present at almost any time within almost any body, especially among training athletes, so the councel to avoid heat on the basis of inflammation might be somewhat incendiary, so to speak. As you know, inflammation - the means by which tissue is repaired by the body - is essential for muscle recovery. It is accelerated by heat and slowed by cold, but the issue raised needs more precision.
Athletes have been jumping into ice tubs for years as a way to bring down core temperature, which in turn allows more intense competition, or helps them to recover from it. There isn't much time for icing to affect inflammation much, except in the case of swelling (no reasonable athlete would ice to hypothermia). The immune system, in the form of inflammation, will continue to operate around the clock, unless hypothermia brings one close to death. The presence of inflammation itself produces heat, so the theory that more heat is too much heat may seem to hold water at first. However, a reasonable amount of heat by itself, does not prevent muscles from recovering. To the contrary, heat alone, or when used alternately with cold in a contrast bath, is one of the most useful therapies for relaxing hypertonic muscle tissue, delivering benefits not directly related to inflammation at all. The idea that all activity results in a dangerous level of inflammation is not his point, but "a long trail run or injury" could lead to some, in many cases.
To better direct his advice, you may want to avoid plunging yourself into hot water immediately after a sporting event when your breath feels hot, or there is other evidence of high core temperature. Anal thermometers are not necessary, just use common sense. You also want to avoid hot water if there is visual evidence of swelling or sprains, including numbness and obvious bruising. Both cold and heat have their place in sport and recovery, when used strategically, and the writer can be forgiven for at least drawing attention to this.
Far Infrared is just another way of elevating the temperature of target tissue, for generally therapeutic purposes. I would not recommend a whole-body sauna approach after a sporting event that raises core temperature, but it obviously might be helpful after a cold-weather event, especially if glycogen stores have been depleted by a marathon or ironman, in which case the muscles, as the primary source of body heat, would be unable to maintain body temperature. This effect is one reason why thermal blankets are thrown on marathon finishers.
Infrared is also used for spot treatments as a therapy, which might be a way to avoid hyperthermia while targeting tissues that can benefit from heat. Whole-body saunas can help in other ways, by causing the excretion of sweat and waste product. Not sure why an athlete would need to sweat any more, but that is the benefit for the sedentary.
Heat, like ice, must be used appropriately, and I applaud Mr. Megroz for warning us of a potential situation when heat may be inappropriate, no matter how good it may feel at the time.
I wanted to thank you for taking the time to address my question. Your explanation was very in depth and informative. I've been nursing a very sore right hip and quad muscle that I can't seem to recover from. It feels like my leg is jammed into my hip socket and it just needs to be pulled out. I've tried running thru it but to no avail. I've got an adjustment from my Chiropractor thinking my back and hips were just out of balance but that didn't seem to be the case. Massages have indicated very tight and painful muscles everywhere in the leg, especially the hip and glutts. My left leg feels light and great. The decision to ice or apply heat is always my dilemma. That's why I wanted to inquire as to the benefits of these far infrared saunas. Now I have to decide whether to see my Orthopedic doctor which might mean PT. I also do Yoga to help with flexibility due to an old serious piriformis injury from a fall. That might also be the source of what's going on now.