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Are Cold Showers or Ice Baths Better for Recovery After a Workout?

Updated on May 8, 2015
Many find that cold therapy, whether in the form of ice baths or cold showers, can help ease discomfort after a hard workout.
Many find that cold therapy, whether in the form of ice baths or cold showers, can help ease discomfort after a hard workout. | Source

After seeing athletes on television immerse themselves in large tubs of ice water to help themselves recover after a training session, you might well be wondering if this is a worthwhile technique for you to explore. You may also have heard it mentioned that a simple cold shower may have a similar effect, and wondered which recovery strategy was actually better for you. Whether you are a gym rat, a high-level athlete or simply a weekend warrior, these principles can help you stay healthy and ready for any challenge.

Benefits of Cold Showers and Baths

Proponents of both cold showers and cold baths believe they can have a variety of health benefits, and multiple studies have supported these benefits. Most of these studies have performed with water at between 50 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius. Potential benefits include:

  • Reduced muscle soreness and improved lactic acid removal from the muscles
  • Improved blood circulation
  • Increased recovery time after training or working out
  • Faster healing from injuries

Many individuals have actually found that a cold shower after a workout will have much the same effect as a cold bath. However, a contrast shower (a repeating cycle of roughly 10 to 30 seconds of hot water followed by 10 to 30 seconds of ice cold water) can be similarly effective, and possibly even more beneficial than either alternative by itself, particularly for expanding and contracting the capillaries to boost circulation and flush out the muscles.

A cold or contrast shower is often a much more convenient and less labor-intensive form of post-exercise recovery therapy than an ice bath.
A cold or contrast shower is often a much more convenient and less labor-intensive form of post-exercise recovery therapy than an ice bath. | Source

Cold Showers/Baths and Fat Storage

Some individuals falsely believe that exposure to cold triggers the body to store fat, but the fact is that the opposite is actually true. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that exposure to cold can help trigger the body to burn off its stores of white fat in an attempt to stay warm.

A potential side benefit of cold showers is their ability to encourage your body to burn off excess stored fat.
A potential side benefit of cold showers is their ability to encourage your body to burn off excess stored fat. | Source

Acclimating to Cold Showers or Ice Baths

Whether you prefer a cold shower or an ice bath for recovery, if you are not used to them you should not expect yourself to be able to jump in headfirst – so to speak. Start with brief sessions, gradually increasing their duration over time as your body acclimates and you become more mentally prepared for them. Many find that listening to music, watching TV or playing an audiobook are helpful techniques for distracting them from the cold.

A contrast bath requires two separate tubs, but a contrast shower simply requires adjustable water temperature.
A contrast bath requires two separate tubs, but a contrast shower simply requires adjustable water temperature. | Source

Conclusions

While many studies have found evidence of benefits from some form of cold or contrast therapy after a workout, others have been less conclusive. The biggest takeaway is simply that everyone is different, and therefore no one recovery strategy will work perfectly for every single person. Although may athletes and fitness gurus prefer contrast showers or baths, you should experiment with cold showers, ice baths and contrast showers or baths to determine which is the most convenient and effective option for you.

How do you prefer to reduce soreness and stiffness after you work out?

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References

New England Journal of Medicine: “Cold-Activated Brown Adipose Tissue in Healthy Men.”

Journal of Emergencies, Trauma and Shock: “Post Exercise Ice Water Immersion: Is It a Form of Active Recovery?”

Speed Endurance: “Ice Baths, Contrast Showers, and Epsom Salt Baths”

Peak Fitness: “Why a Cold Shower May Be More Beneficial for Health Than a Warm One”

T-Nation: “7 Secrets to Rapid Recovery”

Men’s Fitness: “Trainer Q & A: “Do Ice Baths Help with Muscle Soreness?”

The Weather Channel: “Turn Down the Heat: Cold Showers Are Best for You — and the Environment”

New England Journal of Medicine: “Functional Brown Adipose Tissue in Healthy Adults.”

Men’s Journal: “Laird Hamilton: Why Cold Showers Are Good for You"

What are your favorite recovery techniques after hard exercise?

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