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  • Writer's pictureCompression Athlete

The Complete Guide to Heat Therapy for Athletes

Here’s how heat therapy can relieve pain and boost muscle recovery.

Athletes utilizing heat therapy treatment.

No matter your sport or skill level, if you’re an athlete that gives 100% and is always pushing toward your goals then you know sore muscles and stiff joints well.


And while there’s no escaping this painful reality of human physiology, there are ways to speed up muscle recovery that will get you back in action faster and performing at a higher level.


Some of the best muscle recovery tools available today pair tried-and-true recovery methods with new advancements in science and technology.


And of these muscle recovery tools, heat therapy is one of the most popular, long-standing methods available.


Through exposure to warm temperatures, heat therapy increases blood flow in the applied area to soothe and relax muscles and joints while boosting flexibility, mobility, and recovery.


Here, we’ve put together the complete guide on heat therapy for athletes with everything you need to know about incorporating it into your training routine and daily life.



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What Is Heat Therapy for Athletes?


If you’ve ever strained or pulled a muscle, felt pain in your back or neck that limited your mobility, there’s a good chance your immediate response was to apply heat to the area.


And for good reason too. Any athlete that has used heat therapy knows just how soothing and relaxing it can feel on your muscles while also going a long way in relieving pain.


Using a heating pad on a specific part of the body to relieve muscle pain is one of the most common applications of heat therapy in both athletics and everyday matters.


Athlete enjoying hot tub heat therapy.

Another very common method of heat therapy for athletes can be carried out by simply soaking in a warm bath or hot tub for several minutes at a time.


In recent years, however, the use of heat therapy among athletes has evolved into a more dynamic means of muscle recovery with the adoption of new techniques and equipment.


One that is enjoying a huge surge in popularity is the home sauna that allows athletes a full-body dry heat immersion, which can be carried out in easy and efficient sessions.


In this guide, we’ll focus on each of these heat therapy methods and how athletes can utilize them to impact muscle recovery.



How Does Heat Therapy Work for Athletes?


If you follow any of your favorite professional athletes on social media, there’s a good chance you’ve seen them comfortably relaxing in a hut tub or sweating it out in a sauna at some point, mentioning the importance of recovery.


But these hot tubs and saunas aren’t just for professional athletes and health clubs anywhere.


Athletes and active individuals of any stripe and sport can benefit from incorporating heat therapy into their muscle recovery routines.


Here’s how the heat therapy process typically works for athletes.


After physical activity, whether training or competition, expose the designated area of your body to warm temperatures by means of heating pad or heated sleeve that’s localized to a specific spot or by immersing your full body in warm water or a sauna.


Once the warmth is applied to your body, you’ll notice immediate relief to any tightness, cramping, or pain in your muscles.


Athletes uses sauna for heat therapy.

Many athletes like utilizing a hot tub or sauna as it allows you to hit every muscle group at the same time, providing a quick and effective recovery treatment.


Once finished, the vasodilation (expanding) of your blood vessels will be noticeable.


Your limbs and muscles will feel looser and more flexible (i.e. not constricted like if cold had been applied).


This vasodilation of your blood vessels allows nutrient-rich blood to flow into your tissue, flush out muscle soreness by removing lactic acid buildup, and improve muscle recovery conditions.


In other words, that dreaded muscle pain and stiffness that sets in a day or two after pushing your body won’t be as bad and won’t stick around for as long.


Not only does heat therapy help alleviate the muscle soreness from your workout but it can also warm-up your muscles better prior to workouts, allowing you to perform at a higher level.



Where Can Heat Therapy Be Applied on Your Body?


One of the most widely used forms of heat therapy, one that may have already tried yourself at some point or another, is a heating pad or heated compression sleeve.


Not only are these affordable and easy to use but a heating pad can be applied to practically any muscle on the body that’s experiencing tightness, soreness, or pain.


For example, if an athlete experiences back pain after workouts or competition, it’s common practice to apply heat afterwards to manage pain, release muscle tension, and ensure you’re better prepared for the next one.


Additionally, there are varieties of compression sleeves and braces with built-in heat pack designs that allow for comfortable, flexible, and secure heat therapy treatment for your limbs and joints.


Athlete using heat brace for back pain.

Beyond wearables and other direct application options, hot/cold plunges have become increasingly popular among athletes thanks to their efficiency and effectiveness.


These baths allow you to submerge your entire body at once for treatment to all the muscles you work the hardest during physical activity.


Another popular option for full-body immersion is a sauna, which allows you to relax your body in dry heat conditions for quick and effective sessions.


Which method of heat therapy treatment you choose can depend on your personal preferences, treatment goals, or area of focus on your body.



What Are the Benefits of Heat Therapy for Athletes?


Simple to use and easy to customize, heat therapy is a great muscle recovery tool that any athlete can incorporate into their routine.


One aspect that’s so great about heat therapy is that users can feel immediate relief while enjoying longer-term benefits, as well.


By increasing blood flow and oxygen-rich blood to the applied area, heat therapy relaxes and soothes muscles that are tight, stiff, cramping, or sore.


The key aspect from which all heat therapy benefits derive is the way in which your blood vessels expand (vasodilate) when exposed to warm temperatures.


This improves circulation and allows for more nutrient-rich blood to be delivered to your muscles, which in turn improves the conditions under which your muscles are healed and restored.


The boost in nutrient-rich blood flowing back into your muscle tissue also helps to flush out lactic acid and metabolic waste.


Athlete using sauna for muscle recovery.

And if you’re currently experiencing tight or sore muscles, heat therapy is also a great way to prepare for activity, as warm muscles are more flexible and allow a greater range of motion.


So, while the benefits of heat therapy for athletes are very clear, remember that heat therapy isn’t strictly reserved for athletes.


Any individual can benefit from incorporating warm baths, sauna sessions, and other heat therapy treatments into their daily routine.


For example, heat therapy can help those with arthritis by helping to relieve joint inflammation and temporarily increase the elasticity of your connective tissues.


Additionally, total body immersion sessions, such as with a bath or sauna, has been shown to reduce stress levels, promote relaxation, and enhance your quality of sleep.


However, it’s important to note that if you’re looking to use heat therapy to treat pain or address a medical condition not related to physical activity, always consult your doctor first.



Is There Science to Back Up Heat Therapy?


For starters, you’ll want to keep in mind that there isn’t a silver bullet currently available today that solves the problem of muscle pain, soreness, and stiffness.


When you physically exert your body, whether training hard, practicing hard, or competing hard, it’s going to take a toll.


So, of course, utilizing heat therapy won’t magically melt away your muscle soreness.


But heat therapy treatments have been around for a very long time and have proved effective for athletes looking to improve their recovery process.


Athlete using targeted heat therapy.

And the heat therapy methods and equipment available today from high-quality brands are designed, tested, and scientifically backed to increase circulation, reduce lactic acid build-up, and provide restorative healing to your muscles.


From heating pads and heated sleeves that provide targeted relief to hot tubs and saunas for your entire body, heat therapy helps to relieve stiffness and soreness from over-exerted muscles by improving blood flow and promoting muscle recovery.


While your body naturally maintains a complex system of recovery that includes rest, rehydration, nutrition, repair, and resynthesis, heat therapy gives your body a helpful boost.


Because this recovery process in the body is well-established and because these heat therapy methods are widely accepted to improve the conditions under which it occurs, heat therapy is considered a science-backed method for muscle recovery.



Do Athletes Actually Notice a Difference From Heat Therapy?


So, the various devices and equipment look impressive and the science behind heat therapy is sound, but you may still be wondering on a more basic level: Do athletes actually notice a difference from using heat therapy?


While it’s true that results can always vary from one individual to the next, athletes overwhelming report noticing a substantial difference in both pain relief and muscle recovery from using heat therapy.


It’s important to note that heat therapy is not introducing some farfetched, unproven recovery method to your body, but merely giving a boost to your natural recovery process.


NBA basketball player using heat therapy.

The majority of athletes that incorporate heat therapy into their muscle recovery routines feel fresher from one workout or competition to the next, while also noticing a reduction in muscle aches, soreness, and pain.


If you’re an athlete looking to incorporate heat therapy into your routine, remember that heat therapy should not be used as a replacement for any muscle recovery basics: rest, sleep, hydration, nutrition, etc.


Think of heat therapy as an effective tool you can add to your muscle recovery toolkit.



How Often Should Athletes Use Heat Therapy?


Once you’ve tried heat therapy for the first time and felt the positive effects, the natural next question most athletes have is how often they can use heat therapy.


There aren’t necessarily strict guidelines for heat therapy that suggest a right or wrong amount but there are generally agreed upon best practices aimed at providing the best results.


How often you use heat therapy may also hinge on your level of physical activity, training goals, personal preferences, and so on.


If you’re applying a heating pad or heated compression sleeve to address muscle pain or tightness, it’s generally recommended to apply the treatment for a duration of 20 minutes, several times a day.


Always make sure that you have proper insulation between your skin and the heating source and avoid excessive heat that could lead to burns and tissue damage.


Athletes using hot tub for heat therapy treatment.

Warm baths and hot tubs allow for full body immersion and can be used for a duration of 20 to 30 minutes.


Keep in mind that the water must be warm enough for effective heat therapy, typically between 92°F and 100°F, but should never feel uncomfortably hot, as warmer temperatures do not equal better benefits.


Similarly, saunas offer full body immersive heat therapy and can be used for a duration of 15 to 20 minutes.


Be sure to follow any operating guidelines associated with your sauna and stay well-hydrated to avoid overheating.


Remember, even though you’re an athlete, heat therapy isn’t another arena in which to compete and push your body. It’s a tool for recovery, relaxation, and wellness.


So, always listen to your body, be prudent in your execution, stay hydrated, and focus on recovery.



What Is Contrast Therapy?


The contrast in the term contrast therapy refers to the combination of both cold therapy and heat therapy, following one quickly after the other.


Contrast therapy is typically conducted in the form of hydrotherapy where athletes soak their muscles in hot water then plunge them into cold water (often back and forth a few times).


Note, however, that the heat therapy portion can also be achieved through use of a sauna.


And depending on the time of year or the climate you live in, a plunge into snow is sometimes used instead of cold water.


Athlete using sauna for contrast therapy.

Switching between hot and cold causes the widening (heat) and narrowing (cold) of your blood vessels, which increases and reduces blood flow to the applied area.


Going from the narrowing of your blood vessels (also known as vasoconstriction) to the widening of your blood vessels (also known as vasodilation) creates a pump effect in your muscles and helps to flush out waste.


Contrast therapy has proven to be most effective at achieving benefits when utilized within an hour of physical activity.


These benefits mostly stem from improvement in circulation, which can help to decrease inflammation, swelling, edema, and reduce overall muscle soreness.


Additionally, contrast therapy has been shown to be effective at boosting your immune system against common illnesses, as well as elevating your energy levels, alertness, and overall mood.



For a look at other great muscle recovery tools you can add to your toolkit, check out our top picks for 2024.


Discover all of the best treatments and techniques that help athletes RECOVER.

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