Perhaps you already heard about the benefits of ice baths. Actually they’re one of the most effective ways to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, perceived fatigue, muscle damage, and inflammation after physical exercise, according to a 2018 meta-analysis of 99 studies looked at the effectiveness of recovery methods.
But let’s be real: It’s a total chore to fill your tub up with bags of ice. What’s the next best thing? An ice cold shower seems obvious, but are there any benefits of cold showers?
While it’s not quite the same as immersing yourself in icy water (and you won’t get the same intended effect), even a few minutes under that cold water can affect how you perform and recover.
First thing’s first: A cold shower pre-workout could do wonders for you, especially when you’re, for example, running in the heat. “You feel better, but your body temperature would also be a little bit lower to start the run,” which affects how high it might rise during the run, says Doug Casa, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer of The Korey Stringer Institute. “There’s no question that your performance could be better, and that you’ll be safer.”
But you’re more likely to crave that cold water post-workout, when it can provide relief for soreness and inflammation and give almost every system in your body a boost, a recent review of the science in The North American Journal of Medical Sciences found. “Jumping in a cold shower immediately after exercise is a great idea, because the faster you get your body temperature down after activity, the better you’re going to recover,” Casa says.
“When you use water to cool your skin, your body can send blood back to important areas like your stomach and your intestines, so you can handle hydration and nutrients better. Then your fatigue will be less later on.” explains Casa.
That exposure to cold water also causes vasoconstriction, which is when your blood vessels become more narrow and, along with the heart, need to work harder to continue moving blood flow, says Aaron Drogoszewski, a NASM-certified personal trainer. “This increased demand strengthens the heart and blood vessels, translating to improved circulation longer term,” he explains. “Improved circulation benefits overall health, performance, and recovery by helping to deliver key nutrients and energy to muscles and organs while simultaneously removing exercise-related metabolic waste products such as lactic acid more efficiently.”
Taking a cold shower for up to five minutes, two to three times per week, has also been shown to help relieve symptoms of depression, according to research published in the journal Medical Hypotheses. “That cold water exposure helps to decrease cortisol levels and increase the levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin,” says Drogoszewski. Even better: The adrenaline rush you get from immersing yourself in cold water helps to increase energy, focus, and performance outcomes, he adds.
Everyone’s definition of what’s cold is different. “Generally, the colder the water the better, and the longer you can stand it the better,” he says.
The best practice is to start slow and build up to longer exposures, says Drogoszewski. “The goal is to engage in the practice long-term, so if it’s absolutely miserable, the likelihood of sticking with it is pretty slim. I now do five to 10 minutes straight every morning, but I started with 30 seconds of cold at the end of my shower then built up from there.”
What you don’t want to do is turn the faucet so far to the cold side that you end up shivering - and using more energy - under the spray. “I would not want to induce a shivering response in someone after they just exercised in the heat,” says Casa. “You have enough stress your body’s dealing with already.” And in the dog days of summer? A nice, cold shower might be the actual cooldown your workout needs.