Many athletes consider a cold water bath as one of the best methods of regeneration. Despite the discomfort associated with it, they believe that immersing in icy water is beneficial for the rapid return of muscles to the mold. On the other hand, we have supporters of hot, relaxing post-workout baths. They are also convinced of the rightness of the method they prefer. Dislikes with preferences, but let’s try to find out what science can tell us about it.
According to the theory propagated by its supporters, a cold bath helps regenerate muscles after training by constricting blood vessels, thanks to which we avoid the accumulation of lactic acid and accelerate the healing of muscles. It also reduces the heart rate and can provide better circulation, which reduces the number of inflammations, and consequently leads to less pain and faster recovery. The main analgesic effect of cold water is immediate. It is said that bathing in cold water reduces the severity and intensity of DOMS (delayed muscle pain syndrome or simply soreness), especially when the water temperature is around 55 ° F (or about 12 degrees Celsius).
On the other side of the barricade, we have opponents of the method involving a cold bath after training. They refer to several important aspects. The first concerns lactic acid. Opponents of this method argue that the narrowing of blood vessels to prevent the accumulation of lactic acid does not make much sense from a physiological point of view. The muscles produce lactic acid in response to deformation, and the blood flow carries lactic acid so that the constricting blood vessels will inhibit the release of lactic acid from the muscles. In addition, lactic acid is not responsible for muscle pain. It creates a burning sensation that we feel during training, because we burden our muscles, but the pain after training is caused by microinjuries in the muscles and an inflammatory reaction. So, regardless of whether the lactic acid stays on the muscle or not, you will still feel the pain the next day.
The second point concerns inflammation. Reducing inflammation with cold water can help relieve pain, but it can prolong the actual recovery time. Inflammation, though painful, is needed for healing. It occurs when white blood cells move in place of micro-injuries and begin healing, thus promoting muscle growth. The saying “no pain, no gain” seems perfectly accurate in this case. However, too many inflammations are not good either, despite the fact that hot water relaxes and benefits, so you can also argue against this method.
So which method is the best: hot or cold?
Research says that both methods are good. Baths in cold and hot water have their advantages and disadvantages. Research shows that the results vary depending on the type of exercise and their intensity. Baths in hot water can be effective in relieving pain after light workouts when there is not too much muscle tear. Such a bath can loosen tight muscles and prevent stiffness. Cold water baths, on the other hand, can bring more benefits to slightly harder workouts and help in reducing soreness.
In the case of more intense workouts, contrast therapy appears to be the most effective. This method consists of spending up to three minutes in cold water and then switching to hot or hot water, and then up to fifteen minutes of rest. Contrast therapy is often used to facilitate recovery after an injury, and because intense workouts can cause a significant tear in the muscles, the same effect is achieved. If you do not have two bathtubs, this method may seem difficult, but the transition from a cold bath to a hot shower will be equally effective.
There are also studies indicating that immersion in water, regardless of temperature, has no effect on pain or recovery time. Because there is no method that would immediately cure without pain, the change in effects between doing nothing after training and using immersion in water can be relatively small.
- Gill, N. D. (2006). Effectiveness of post-match recovery strategies in rugby players. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40(3), 260-263.
- Hamlin, M. J. (2007). The effect of contrast temperature water therapy on repeated sprint performance. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 10(6), 398-402.
- Jakeman, J. R., Macrae, R., & Eston, R. (2009). A single 10-min bout of cold-water immersion therapy after strenuous plyometric exercise has no beneficial effect on recovery from the symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage. Ergonomics, 52(4), 456-460.
- Sayers, M. G., Calder, A. M., & Sanders, J. G. (2011). Effect of whole-body contrast-water therapy on recovery from intense exercise of short duration. European Journal of Sport Science, 11(4), 293-302.
- Why does lactic acid build up in muscles? And why does it cause soreness? (n.d.). Retrieved February 01, 2016, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-does-lactic-acid-buil/
- Wilcock, I. M., Cronin, J. B., & Hing, W. A. (2006). Physiological Response to Water Immersion. Sports Medicine, 36(9), 747-765.