Are Epsom salts really all they're cracked up to be?

Half Marathon Update #2

As some of you know by now, I've been spending the past month or so training for my first half marathon. We've talked about committing to the race, training plans, and safely increasing your mileage. It's coming up at the end of October, which means my long runs are definitely getting longer and approaching the length of the race itself.

Coming along with pushing my previous limits on my distance running are a heck of a lot of stiff, sore muscles. This is especially true because I have to go for my runs during my lunch breaks at work, which means the rest of the day is spent sitting at my desk, letting my warm muscles cool off and lock up. So it came as no surprise to me when I went for a just-under-10-mile run on Friday and finished the day with some pretty tight leg muscles.

There are a number of ways to help sore muscles post-workout as I'm sure we've discussed in the past. Stretching, continuing muscle use, ice, massage, and the list goes on. My relief method of choice this weekend was a hot Epsom salt bath. I cranked the heat on the bathtub water, let the room fill up with steam, and poured in (probably way too much) some lavender-scented salts from Target. And let me tell you: it was luxurious. As a mother of a 1-year-old, I rarely get time to just sit and relax like that, but she was with her father that morning and I took full advantage. The rest of the day I felt relaxed, emotionally and physically. My muscle soreness was gone!

But I do have to wonder: Did the Epsom salt really help? Or was it the continued muscle use (yes, chasing an on-the-go toddler totally counts as a light workout in my book) or just the extra rest I gave myself over the weekend? Here's what the experts say.

What Are Epsom Salts?

Epsom salt is just what it sounds like: it's a salt-like mineral taken from natural springs in Epsom, England. In your bath, Epsom salt breaks down into the chemical element magnesium and the chemical compound sulfate. 

magnesium

Atomic diagram of magnesium. Courtesy of chemicalelements.com

Sulfate

Chemical diagram of sulfate. Courtesy of americanelements.com

In Theory ...

The idea behind taking an Epsom salt bath is that the sulfates and magnesium released into the water will soak into your body, thereby releasing your muscle tension. Supposedly, an Epsom salt bath can also work other medical wonders like reduce swelling, cure ingrown toenails, and ease sunburn pain. But you should take all this information with a grain of salt (HA!): there aren't a lot of scientifically based studies that will tell you for sure if this theory actually works.

Anecdotally, there's lots of evidence. Epsom, England, was dubbed a "spa town" with visitors coming from all over since the 17th century to take advantage of the natural springs.

And I can tell you for sure that I will be using this method for curing muscle aches again.

What about you? Have you ever used Epsom salt as a way to relax after a tough workout? Have any other tips? Share them in the comments!

The Run-Around is a weekly feature, focusing on fitness in and around Annapolis, MD.