The Role of Heat in Muscle Recovery

Alissa TaylorMobility, Performance, RecoveryLeave a Comment

Is heat the key to improved performance?

If you’ve recently been feeling stiff post workout, you may be wondering about adding heat therapy to your recovery stack to help soothe your sore muscles. The term heat therapy itself is actually deceptive, because the most effective products for improving athletic performance are actually warm instead of hot! With so many options available on the market, it’s overwhelming to understand how heat therapy works and which products are best for your needs. Research on muscle recovery and tools to help increase performance over the last few decades is helping us to understand the benefits, parameters and timing to maximize the effectiveness of heat therapy.

Benefits of heat

Heat has been studied as an effective treatment to provide relief from soft tissue injuries. Heat therapy works by improving blood flow and circulation to the treatment area which allows for oxidation of the muscles and improved healing times. It is also emerging as a modality that preventatively conditions muscles so they are less susceptible to injury. Heat has been proven to reduce cellular damage following musculoskeletal injury and also can aid in muscle growth through the expression of heat shock proteins (HSPs) . Heat therapy also has been shown to reduce muscle soreness and improve mobility and performance following workouts. While research is still being conducted about the most effective ways for athletes to enjoy heat therapy, it’s important to explore the different types of tools that are currently available to help you reach your fitness and recovery goals.

There has been an explosion of products on the market that claim to help improve performance. Athletes at the top of their game and even some gyms include infrared saunas and swear by them for loosening tight muscles or acclimating to new training environments. While these saunas may feel amazing, there still is a lot of research that needs to be conducted to understand the true benefits of these practices, and if there are other other more affordable options that produce the same results. 

“Heat” therapy should actually be called “Warm” therapy

The term “heat” isn’t very specific, and a lot of products claim to have therapeutic benefits but many actually get too hot for their primary function to be recovery. When you’re looking for the right products, you should aim for warm, not hot (40-50 degrees). This temperature promotes circulation by dilating the blood vessels to the area where it is applied. This helps relax the area, which can be especially helpful as an aid to help deliver treatments such as pulse therapy or scraping. If there is less tension in the area, not only are you soothing sore muscles, but you are also relaxing the area so the treatment itself is more enjoyable. The other benefit to warm instead of hot, is you can still practice awareness with your body and will be more in tune with what feels right to you. This empowers to proceed with other tools or stretches to prevent injury without numbing the area or potentially causing damage to the skin.

If you are using proper heat therapy, you will notice your skin feels warm and flushed. If your tools are too hot, they can cause burns or damage to the skin. The purpose of heat is to deliver blood flow and oxygen to the area to speed up the healing process, so you want to ensure your tools are helping in this process rather than causing damage to the skin! 

Timing is everything.

Just because heat isn’t a new concept, doesn’t mean that it isn’t powerful. This is amazing news for busy people who want to maximize their recovery in the shortest period of time. Saunas and hot tubs have timers for a reason, and when you’re seeking tools that improve your recovery you also want to ensure there’s a time limit. Research indicates that for injuries, you should not keep heat on an area for more than 15-20 minutes. For muscle recovery and proactive prehab, 10 minutes is closer to the ideal timeframe. The benefits of heat can be felt in minutes, and after circulation is delivered to the area. If you are using localized heat therapy, you can use it on multiple areas but it’s still recommended that sessions on each individual area do not exceed 20 minutes.

Time is also a factor when it comes to when to when using products will deliver the best results. If you’ve just suffered from an injury, cryotherapy (cold therapy) is recommended instead of heat for the first 48 hours. Following an injury, the priority is reducing damage to a muscle or area. The goal of cold therapy is to reduce inflammation and tissue trauma. Cold therapy is best used when joints are swollen or inflamed post workout. After 24 to 48 hours, we recommend switching to heat therapy to help to speed the healing process. 

How to choose the right tools

If you are looking to use heat for a specific purpose such as improving athletic performance through improved recovery and healing times, choosing the right tool is crucial. It may seem appealing to pick up a bag of rice or heating pad at the drugstore because of the price point, but if you’re serious about improving athletic performance and recovery, we recommend using specialized products. Getting the right temperature with drug store or homemade items is quite difficult and you are at risk of burns or a product that doesn’t deliver results. These products are not backed by research and are there to deliver the heat benefits associated with relaxation.  They do not make claims regarding muscle recovery, growth or athletic performance. When shopping for the right product, you should be looking for something that is designed specifically to improve muscle soreness and is built with your recovery in mind rather than something that is one size fits all

When you’re building your recovery stack, it’s important to look at different therapies that work for your individual needs. Choose options that are convenient for you to use but deliver effective results. Look for tools that are shaped to help you target difficult to reach areas, and will deliver the heat beyond the first layers of skin. If possible, we recommend you also look for tools that have timers or a variety of settings so you can personalize your experience. While these solutions can be more expensive, they are completely worth it! 


Heat has emerged as an efficacious treatment to reduce soreness, improve circulation and improve healing post workout. The effects of heat are magnified when combined with other treatments including cold, vibration, compression and scraping therapies. We recommend you find the right combination of tools that work best for your needs by selecting products that are backed by research and designed with athletic performance in mind. The tools needed by someone recovering from a workout and looking to increase their power and strength are different from a traditional heating pad that you may have around the house. Ensure you find a tool that is warm, not hot, to maximize results and always remember that when you are using heat as a recovery tool that hydration and rest are equally important!

Have you tried using heat to recover from your workout sessions? 


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Alissa Taylor

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