I take a hot bath at the end of nearly every day – to aid the recovery of my muscles after intense activity. I exercise 5-6 days a week, alternating running, swimming, and biking, as well as gardening on an acre, chicken care, and energetic housework. I do NOT take an ice bath. Ever. I believe I have sound physiological reasons for this.
The most common reason I hear for an ice bath is “keeping the inflammation down” after running. This sounds to me like telling your body to be quiet and stop working on things because it is inconvenient. Inflammation is not a problem. It is a symptom. It is a mechanism that the body uses to heal itself. If the body is responding to stimuli with inflammation, in most cases it is doing the right thing to repair a section. It is increasing blood flow to an area that needs extra resources.
When the body is trying to do a helpful thing, you should work with it, not against it. A hot bath (not scalding, but providing heat in a soothing way) does just that. It increases general circulation. It is pretty easy to make sure that legs get immersed. Depending on the size of your bathtub compared to your body size, other muscles can get warmed nicely from some sort of maneuvering. This heat helps the body move the cells and chemicals to and from the muscles that need the attention.
It also help relax points of tension in the musculoskeletal frame. This makes a little self-massage or trigger point therapy very effective (I highly recommend your follow this link to read more about it) . With all this relaxing from the gentle heat, you can press on the most worked muscles, and any point that you feel needs it, to help bring about more complete relief. With the muscles already partially relaxed, further pressure to the areas can be done with more comfort and be done more thoroughly. The pressure does not need to be vigorous or for more than a few minutes. Besides releasing tension in the muscle fibers and related connections, this massaging helps circulation to that area, too. Much like just walking pushes blood through the veins to return it to the heart, pushing on the muscles moves the fluids out, taking away waster products and making room for more clean blood to flow in.
Think of it in terms of pain. If something hurts from running, taking a pain killer might mask the pain, but it could lead to further damage because you are not letting the body respond to the warning signals. Sometimes a body does well with pain killers when pain is overwhelming or inhibiting sleep (like after surgery), but the long term plan should be to only use it as much as necessary. It is a matter of safety to know if something is feeling pain.
Pain often accompanies inflammation, due to the basic injury itself and the pressure that the extra fluids put on the surrounding tissue. But again, this is not a disease reaction. It is a healing reaction. Only if the inflammation results in processes that are causing other worse damage, or too much discomfort, should it be inhibited some.
Let me clarify that inflammation is NOT synonymous with infection. The two frequently occur at the same time, since inflammation is also part of the response to infection. An infection needs to be dealt with, but the inflammation is not what is bad. It is just a sign that the infection is present. The inflammation that is seen with an infection usually looks different than an inflammation ‘simply’ due to mechanical damage. A fever could be thought of as inflammation of the whole body trying to fight off an invader. The inflammation is a major part of the battle strategy. Fight the organism causing the infection, but don’t fight the body’s response to fighting off the organism.
And so, I work with inflammation, easing it along, encouraging circulation to the affected areas. And in doing this, I rarely have trouble with inflammation. With this approach, I don’t often have prolonged muscle soreness or aches from vigorous activity, unless I have increased my efforts too quickly. Even then, a hot bath does wonders. Sounds better all around than an ice bath, doesn’t it?