You know the feeling: You hit the snooze button one too many times, run to the bathroom after your roommates, and turn on the shower only to find all the hot water is used up.
At one point, I identified taking a cold shower as synonymous with cruel and unusual punishment, forgoing it entirely if no hot water was available.
Oh, how things change.
Today, I use cold exposure as a regular part of my recovery process. Cold exposure is connected to faster recovery times, reduced stress levels, and a boosted immune system. Cold exposure can be achieved through ice baths, cryotherapy (cold therapy), or even jumping in a cold swimming pool or lake. However, the easiest and most practical method of cold exposure is to take a cold shower after workouts.
Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Before experimenting with cold exposure therapy, speak to your doctor to ensure this technique is right for you.
What Is Cold Exposure?
Just as the name entails, cold exposure exposes you to cold temperatures to help you recover from your workouts. This can be as simple as applying an ice pack to a sore hamstring or as advanced as attending a cryotherapy clinic.
Icing after exercise has been a common recovery method for decades. However, one small ice pack will only cover a single muscle group. Therefore, athletes started experimenting with cold water immersion, helping their entire body recover after workouts. This is why you see professional athletes submerging their entire bodies in ice baths in the locker room.
However, the average person doesn't have a full-body tub they can fill with ice every time they work out. And while cryotherapy seeks to achieve the same result, a single session can cost between €50 and €90 (or $60 and $100) per session. Therefore, taking a cold shower after a workout is the most convenient, economical, and practical approach to cold exposure.
How Does Cold Exposure Work?
When you work out, you break down tiny fibers in your muscles. (Fun fact: In order to build muscle, you must first break them down during exercise — allowing them to grow even stronger — in a process known as hypertrophy.) Since this exercise-induced muscle damage can have a negative impact on your athletic performance and recovery, many scientists, trainers, and athletes experiment with techniques to shorten the healing process — cold exposure being one of them.
Submerging yourself in an ice bath or taking a cold shower causes constriction of your blood vessels. Studies show that this restriction can help flush out lactic acid from muscle tissue, the main cause of exercise-related soreness. As you continue to expose your muscles to the cold temperatures, it slows down swelling and muscle tissue breakdown.
The result? Research shows taking a cold post-workout shower or an ice bath will delay the onset of muscle soreness, reduce pain levels, and help repair the muscles broken down during exercise. In addition, once the cold source is removed (i.e., you hop out of the shower), your muscles warm up, causing a faster return of blood flow. This will improve your blood circulation over time, which is essential for muscle recovery.
What Are the Health Benefits of Cold Showers After Workouts?
Research on the benefits of cold therapy is still growing. However, supporting evidence shows that cold exposure can help do the following:
- Speed up your recovery process: Cold exposure can help relieve pain caused by sore muscles and reduce inflammation, a key cause of exercise-related injuries.
- Improve your quality of sleep: Studies show that your thermal environment can impact your sleep quality. Exposing yourself to very low temperatures — such as taking cold showers — is connected to longer, uninterrupted sleep patterns. Uninterrupted sleep, in turn, causes increased productivity and even healthier, more mindful choices when it comes to your diet.
- Reduce stress levels: Exercise and various muscle recovery techniques cause stress on your body — which, in the right amounts, can be a good thing. As you stress your nervous system through cold therapy, your body will adapt, improving your ability to handle stress overall.
- Boost your immune system: Science shows that being exposed to extremely low temperatures for short periods of time can help boost your immune system. In fact, some research shows that the anti-inflammatory nature of cold exposure can reduce your risk of developing a number of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease.
- Help you focus: I can understand the initial horror associated with the thought of cold showers. However, from personal experience I assure you that taking cold showers makes you feel alert, allowing you to think more clearly throughout the day.
What Is the Best Way to Take Cold Showers After Workouts?
If you're interested in using cold therapy such as cold exposure or ice baths as a post-workout recovery technique, there is more than one way to try it. Research on "the best" approach to cold exposure is still growing. Below, you’ll learn about the two most widely practiced methods.
Note: Cold exposure is very effective under situations where you are under acute stress. For example, after a workout — when muscle fibers are broken down — is an ideal time for a cold shower. However, if you experience chronic stress — like an ongoing injury — you might benefit from switching to heat. Exposing injured body parts, like torn muscles, to heat can help with recovery.
1. Slowly Build Up Your Tolerance
The first approach to cold exposure is to simply make it a part of your daily routine. Either in the morning or after exercise, try to take a cold shower for one minute.
Over time, you will build up a tolerance toward cold showers. Try to increase the length of your cold exposure to at least five minutes. While I prefer to take a cold shower daily, some experts recommend taking ice baths on your toughest training days immediately following the conclusion of a HIIT workout. (HIIT, or high intensity interval training, is one of our recommended forms of cardio, one of the four pillars of 4 Legs Fitness.)
2. Alternate Between Cold and Hot Showers
The second approach involves alternating between hot and cold showers. To experiment with this method, take a cold shower for one minute. Afterwards, you'll immediately adjust the temperature of your shower to a much hotter temperature. If you're using an ice bath, see if you can alternate between an ice bath and a hot tub or a sauna. If you are one of the lucky few who experience snowy winters, sit in the sauna then roll around in the snow.
In one study conducted by the NIH, alternating between hot and cold showers actually helped reduce the number of sick days for participants and helped boost productivity. Therefore, alternating between hot and cold showers appears to have the same anti-inflammatory effect as experimenting with cold showers alone.
Cold Showers After Workouts Can Help Improve Recovery
Cold exposure is a recovery technique where athletes expose themselves to cold temperatures, either through the use of ice packs, ice baths, cold showers, or cryotherapy.
Research shows that regular, acute cold exposure can help reduce muscle soreness, inflammation, pain, and recovery times. In some studies, it's even been shown to increase productivity and stress thresholds.
To experiment with cold exposure, the easiest way is to take a cold shower after working out. Some athletes choose to alternate between hot and cold showers, but research is still growing on which method is best. Personally, I choose to make cold exposure part of my daily routine, taking one first thing in the morning.
If you're interested in reducing muscle soreness and boosting your overall athletic performance, make cold exposure part of your regular recovery process. To learn more about cold exposure, the philosophy behind it, and how to get started with cold therapy, download my 4 Legs Fitness Practice Note, “Improve Your Fitness With Cold Exposure.”