Heat Therapy Could Be The Answer To Better Athletic Performance
Ice baths have long been the staple in many an athlete’s locker room. But the torture device that sees one emerge from the tub in a flourish of expletives might not be the answer when it comes to improved athletic performance. Perhaps Megan Thee Stallion was onto something when she pronounced it a “#hotgirlsummer” as researchers now believe heat training to be the answer to better muscle repair and recovery, as well as a tool to fight heart disease.
It’s certainly a deviation from what we’ve previously heard about heat and training. As many runners will inform you, training in the heat can pose risks to health. It’s partly the reason why the summer months tend to drive runners onto the streets at dawn or late in the evening, seeking the refuge of shade and cooler temperatures. But it isn’t as dangerous as people think. Simply staying hydrated is crucial, and even decreasing speed can make heat training tolerable.
Aside from just being tolerable though, heat training can also have its advantages. It might not feel like it at the time of training, but as the body gradually adapts to heat, there are certain trade-offs.
Research published in 2010 sought to study the effects of heat training on performance, examining 20 cyclists who were put through 10 days of training in 40-degree heat. The results found that the heat boosted their VO2 max performance by 6 per cent, even when the testing room was kept at a chilly 12 degrees. Not surprisingly, when the article was published and eventually did the rounds on various fitness platforms and publications, hot rooms because the go-to option for those seeking altitude training on a budget.
The science suggests that heat training increases the volume of blood plasma required to ferry red blood cells to your muscles. Whether that plasma results in improved athletic performance is something researchers still contest. But it is thought that the resulting dilution of blood might trigger a natural EPO response to produce new red blood cells, a response similar to altitude training.
Heat also results in a psychological resilience and altered perception of high temperatures, factors that are incredibly useful when incorporated in an athlete’s arsenal.
It’s a tool that’s been used by some of sport’s best teams and individual athletes. In 2014, the Canadian women’s football team famously trained for 90 minutes in a room kept at a toasty 35 degrees. And this was no bikram yoga session – it was a gruelling 90 minutes of circuit-training. According to the team’s head sports scientist Cesar Meylan, the heat was crucial for improved athletic performance. Each player was given an ingestible sensor that allowed Meylan to monitor their core temperature in real time – the goal of which was 38.5 degrees Celsius – a fever-like temperature which, as Meylan told Outside magazine, “is the driving factor for adaptation.”
Chris Minson, a physiologist at the University of Oregon, sought to explore the health benefits of heat training while helping marathoner Dathan Ritzenheim prepare for what was expected to be an incredibly hot summer in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. Ritzenheim was exposed to heat through a program of heat-acclimation, involving a week or two of sweaty workouts that helped to establish triggering adaptations.
But Minson also discovered more than that. Eight weeks of hot-tubbing was found to produce “profound changes” in markers of cardiovascular health, like blood pressure and artery stiffness, something he claimed was due to increased blood flow when hot. Further research from a study of 2,300 Finnish men also found that those who hit the sauna four or more times a week were only a third as likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s compared with those who took just one sauna a week.
And when it comes to muscle repair and athletic performance, you need only look at a 2017 study from Qatar. After 11 days of sitting in a heat chamber at 48 degrees for an hour at a time, participants showed a 17 per cent boost in muscle strength.
The verdict is in. Ditch the ice bath for a hot tub. When it comes to heat therapy options, there are saunas (some of which include the infrared sauna), electric heating pads, hot baths, and then there's the option of simply cranking up the thermostat and sweating it out. Given the temperature predictions for the summer ahead, you might be able to forgo the latter and just set up a deck chair outside.