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Triathlete - Dear Coach Highlights

Hot Tubs and Whirlpools

Dear triathlon training gods,
My new health club has really nice facilities including hot tub/whirlpools, dry saunas and steam rooms. I enjoy all of them. The whirlpools feel especially good after a workout. But I've heard that the hot tub is precisely the wrong thing for sore muscles, and that I should use ice and stay away from the whirlpool. So, is there a place in a well-designed triathlon program for any or all of these facilities?

-Fred Synk, Troy, Mi.

Dear Fred,

You're absolutely correct. Hot tubs or whirlpools are not the best way to speed recovery after a long and hard training session (especially a run). After one of these sessions your body tends to be battling inflammation or swelling of joints and muscles and, while it's tempting to immerse your sore and tired body into the club's hot tub with a beer, that's not the best way to enhance recovery.

A better option, though less inviting, would be to soak those legs in cold water. For example, after our local Tuesday run in San Diego, many of the triathletes drive down to the beach for a 10-to 15 minute leg soaking in the 58- to 65- degree water. It's not the most comfortable thing to do, but the results (immediately after and especially the next day) are well worth it. Not only is there an immediate decreased level of soreness but, the next day, athletes find they're better able to perform a given workout.

We don't know any significant drawbacks to cold water therapy, although the initial shock and discomfort can be significant. So here are a few suggestions for how you can best use your new gym:

  1. Never fully submerge your head in the hot tub. Though the filtration and chlorination should prevent any problems, you never know what's growing in that warm water.
  2. If you absolutely can't resist the soothing warm bubbles, try to wait 36 to 48 hours after a difficult training session before taking the soupy plunge.
  3. If you're training in the mornings, in particularly cold conditions, or are a bit stiff going into a workout, a short (less than 5 minutes) time in the hot tub, steam room or sauna can help warm you up, or loosen up muscles prior to stretching. That doesn't mean you can use this as your workout-specific warm up and you may need additional hydration as a result.
  4. If you're going to get in the hot tub after a workout, regardless of what we tell you, try to at least cool of in the shower afterward. It may not have a deep impact on your muscles but it will help to close your pores and prevent you from extended post-hot tub sweating.

We don't know anyone who wouldn't rather get into a nice warm hot tub in any situation. There also aren't many people we know who enjoy a nice icy dip after any kind of exertion except, perhaps, Canadians, eh? It's like any workout; that hardest part is getting out the door - or, in this case, in the cold water. While a hot tub offers immediate gratification, the advantages of cold water therapy are much longer lasting.

Paul Huddle