Friday, February 26, 2016

Warm sense of well-being

In a recent Seems Like Science post about dynamic exercises to do after a run, I mentioned that I very seldom do any static stretching. You know, the kind where you strike a fairly awkward pose and hold it while one or more of your muscles whines in protest.

Hamstrings: "WHAT THE HELL, K?"

In general, I prefer to use dynamic movements to warm up for and cool down from workouts. Static stretching prior to exercise has been shown to have negative effects on performance without any evidence of injury prevention, and stretching after exercise has not shown any mitigating effect on DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), possibly even having a negative effect on blood flow.

For a few years now, many people (including myself) have been intrigued by the possible positive effects of cryotherapy after exercise in the form of ice baths. They were supposed to help flush out metabolic waste, reduce muscle inflammation and breakdown, and generally make your body much happier about whatever ridiculous training session you'd just put it through.

There's a problem, though.

They're really damned unpleasant.

(This was after my very first ultra)

I really hate being cold, and lowering myself into a freezing cold tub of water is just about the last thing I ever want to do. I tried them a couple of times back in 2010, but have never gone to the trouble since. I have partaken of a bit of natural cryotherapy since, but even that only happens under extenuating circumstances.

Running 50 kilometers makes you do weird things.

Recently, however, the effectiveness of cold therapy has been called seriously into question. What's been suggested instead is using a hot bath or sauna after a workout, which totally vindicates a practice I've always felt was beneficial but for which I had no scientific backing. It just felt good.

I try to swim 4 days per week, and not just because my swim times in triathlons are flippin' abominable - I find it's the best form of active recovery when I've been beating my legs up badly through run and bike training. The hydrostatic pressure of the water; the gentle, zero-impact load on my sore leg muscles; the elevated blood flow to remove metabolic wastes from my tissues; they all come together to help patch me up and let me get through another day. I generally try to swim as my last training session of the day, and if there's one available (and I have time after I've got whatever arbitrary yardage in I deemed necessary in the pool) I will always hit the hot tub for a few minutes afterward.


This is the one and only time when I will do some static stretching to try to work on range of motion (which tends to be severely hampered by distance running). My muscles are already nicely warmed up from my swim, and the heat and gentle buffeting of the jet-swirled water seems to keep the blood flowing nicely. I'll take 5-10mins to stretch all the major players: my shoulders (in various ways because my shoulder flexibility is really poor, which doesn't help my swimming at all), hamstrings, calves, quads, piriformis and groin muscles all get a bit of attention, with special emphasis given to any part of me that may be particularly damaged.

Everyone's a damn comedian.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend jumping directly into a hot tub after a long run due to the possibility of heat exhaustion from an already-elevated core temperature and accumulated dehydration, but since I do a cool down in the pool and keep a bike bottle full of water on deck with me (then bring it along to the tub to drink while I stretch), I feel like I'm mitigating the risk factors. Well, and since I'm at a public pool there's generally a lifeguard available to fish me out if I start to sink..

While the experts had been touting the benefits of vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels) through cold therapy to essentially squeeze the blood out of your sore muscles and slow metabolism to prevent inflammation, there's increasing evidence that the best way to build fitness is actually to let the body recover at its own pace because ice baths blunt the muscle growth signals that lead to adaptation. The only way to make a muscle stronger is to damage it and let it rebuild to withstand the increased demand, and I can't think of a better way to encourage that than to promote blood flow to the damaged muscles. If it happens to feel great, too, then why wouldn't you at least give it a try to see if it works for you? I won't even make you stretch if you don't want to - just let the warm, bubbly water wash away your soreness.

It sure beats shivering.

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to my super hot showers after long run or race, the hotter the better, good for me or not. So glad it might be somewhat good 🙂


Go on, have at me!