Are There Benefits of Taking a Cold Shower After Working Out?
Sport & Activity
Here's what you need to know if you're hopping into a cold shower after a workout in the hopes of boosting recovery.
Ending a hot shower with an abrupt blast of cold water has been gaining popularity over the years, with claims that it can make your hair healthier or boost your immune system—although studies have reported that cold showers may only produce mildly positive effects. Cold water therapy isn't new, with scholars noting that even Thomas Jefferson used cold water in foot baths to "maintain his good health". But is there actually science behind the alleged health benefits of taking a cold shower after a workout?
For athletes specifically, cold therapy or cryotherapy (treatment that involves applying freezing or near-freezing temperatures to abnormal tissue) have been supported in peer-reviewed studies as a way to facilitate recovery after a tough workout. It's easy to then think a post-workout cold shower would have at least some of the same effects, especially as access to this recovery method is much more simple and affordable.
"The basic theory of cooling the body after a workout has been based on the belief that cold water can enhance the body's adaptation to training and restore the ability to perform at a high level", says Veronica Jow, M.D., founder and doctor at Avid Sports Medicine in San Francisco. "Cooling is believed to decrease muscle soreness and muscle damage, swelling and inflammation. However, these assumptions are not completely supported by research and depend on [things such as] type of exercise, timing and frequency."
Here's what the experts have to say about whether or not taking a cold shower after exercise actually lends any health benefits.
Expert-Backed Dos and Don'ts of Taking a Cold Shower After a Workout
It may be tempting to hop into a cold shower immediately after your workout, especially if you're in a time crunch. But according to Karly Mendez, M.S. in exercise physiology and human performance specialist with Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute in Houston, Texas, it may be best to wait at least twenty minutes after exercise before taking a cold shower.
"This is because, post-workout, your body needs time to cool down, specifically regarding normalising your heart rate and body temperature", says Mendez. "You want your body to return to a baseline temperature and heart rate to begin to recover".
The American Heart Association explains that, if your heart rate and body temperature are both high after a workout and you skip the cool-down process, you could "pass out or feel sick". That's why, after your workout, Mendez suggests cooling down for five to 10 minutes, then stretching for an additional 10 minutes. Then you're ready for a cold shower. But what is the most effective way to take a cold shower? Spoiler alert: it doesn't include jumping into a stream of cold water.
"Begin [your] shower with a lukewarm temperature so the body is not shocked with the temperature change", instructs Mendez. "As your body temperature adjusts to the temperature, you can begin to make the water cooler. For the last two minutes of your shower, make the temperature as cold as you can stand [and] make sure the water jets are hitting major muscle groups".
Pro tip: it's likely you'll only be able to hit muscle groups located in the upper body with your shower head, but if you have a dual shower head that includes a handheld hose, you can aim that at lower body muscle groups, too.
Does a Cold Shower After Exercise Count as Cold Water Immersion?
If you're hoping to replace cold water immersion (like an ice bath) with a cold shower instead, unfortunately they aren't the same thing. Mendez stresses that not only is the water temperature between the two methods drastically different, but stepping under a shower head means that the water isn't hitting your entire body all at once.
"With a cold shower, your body is never completely immersed in the cold temperature, making it more difficult to achieve the full effects of the cold temperature", Mendez adds.
An article in the Journal of Physiology published in 2017 noted that cold water immersion doesn't have an impact on post-exercise inflammatory stress response—and this wasn't the first research to debunk this common practice. In fact, a 2007 study questioned the validity of using an ice bath to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
"At a very basic level, cold water causes vasoconstriction—[the] tightening of blood vessels—whereas hot water causes vasodilation, [or] an increase in the size of blood vessels", says Jow. "While ice after an injury or exercise has been thought to aid recovery, the opposite may actually be true. In exercise-based research that focuses on the effect on muscles, joints and nerves, there are varying theories, [including that] directly applying heat after a workout may potentially make cellular damage and breakdown worse".
If you still want to use cold water immersion in your routine, Sten Stray-Gundersen, a performance coach and exercise physiologist at ROI Physical Therapy and Sports Performance in Austin, Texas, doesn't recommend doing so right after a workout. "Cold water immersion can actually inhibit muscle protein synthesis, so if muscle growth is a priority, one should save the cold stress for before the workout or at least four hours after a workout", he says.
For context, muscle protein synthesis is when the body produces protein to repair muscle that was damaged by endurance or resistance training. So, if cold water immersion can potentially prevent that vital process from happening, that could hinder both your recovery from exercise and your athletic performance.
If cold water immersion isn't as beneficial as previously believed, is it OK to just replace your ice bath with a cold shower? While not as discomforting, the research on cold showers and recovery is a bit of a mixed bag as well.
So, Are There Any Real Benefits of Taking a Cold Shower After Exercise?
A 2019 study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that taking a cold shower after a workout elicited faster heart rate recovery. However, this was after participants cycled in 35 degrees Celsius temperatures with 40–60 percent humidity. In this case, the study authors' conclusion stated that a cold shower could only be recommended for reducing cardiac stress after working out in hot conditions.
Some other research that hasn't found any notable differences between taking a cold shower or opting for passive recovery (like taking a rest day) suggests there may be a psychological benefit. Stray-Gundersen notes that cold stress can act as a "pick-me-up" and help reduce pain symptoms in that manner, in part due to the sympathetic response garnered.
The American Institute of Stress notes that the sympathetic nervous system is what controls our "fight or flight" response to a dangerous or stressful situation. When this part of the nervous system is activated, there is a sudden rush of hormones, which can cause symptoms such as an increase in heart rate or even trembling.
"Cold stress will promote a vasoconstriction, excitation and norepinephrine release and therefore should probably be performed in the morning or afternoon to boost the nervous system for the day ahead", Stray-Gundersen says. "It is also a good way to build mental toughness and become accustomed to discomfort".
If you're looking for that mental boost, a cold shower after exercise may be what you're looking for. You may still want to follow the guidelines of doing a proper cool-down and stretching before blasting the cold water.
In fact, Jow says that if you really want to "cool down" from a workout, you should perform focused exercises specific to the main body part used in your sport, rather than hopping into an ice bath or cold shower. For example, cyclists and runners may focus more on lower body exercises such as leg swings, while tennis and golf athletes will probably spend more energy on the muscles in their back and upper body (think: shoulder mobility exercises).
She explains that these exercises are often more effective at promoting recovery than cold water, as they allow your body to decrease in temperature gradually (in contrast to the shock of cold water). Of course, if you are someone who receives a mental boost from ending your shower with a blast of cold water—remember, research suggests there is a psychological benefit—then don't feel you need to stop your routine.
For more tips on recovery, be sure to download the Nike Training App Club!
Words by Ashley Lauretta