Ice baths, cryotherapy, and cold showers. I’m sure you’ve heard or done at least one before and here I’ll share the science behind using these cold therapies and why you should or should not add them to your routines.
The biggest thing to consider when you're looking at adding cold therapy into your routine is what type of athlete you are. I’ve categorized the article by the following athlete types:
- Strength/Power Based Athletes
- Combat and Multi-day Event Athletes
- Endurance Athletes
- General Fitness Athletes
This is a very general categorization, although I feel it was specific enough to allow everyone to put themselves into a category.
There are really only 4 types of cold therapy available to the general public. I’ve listed them below in order of lowest to highest intensity:
- Cooling Devices for Palms
- Cold Showers
- Cold Plunges/ Ice Baths
There aren’t many different types of cold therapy, but they do vary in degrees - literally and figuratively. Studies have shown that you’ll get benefits from cold water as high as 59 degrees for as little as 30 seconds so you don’t have to start by jumping into a frozen lake. Even for experienced individuals maximum benefits can be reached in a short period of time. A cold plunge of around 44 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes can give maximum benefits to even the most experienced cold exposure experts.
A cooling glove that circulates cold water has recently been developed for research in increasing strength and endurance in athletes and has also shown to improve the lives of patients with multiple sclerosis. The glove simply circulates cold water through tubes in the palm of the glove. The palms lay flat in the glove and cool capillaries in the fingers and palms which then circulate cooled blood back to your core and immediately show an increase in overall muscular endurance and strength. This is by far the least intense form of cold therapy on the list, but also the most difficult to access because it’s not publicly available.
Cold showers are next in line as an intro for anyone looking to experience some benefits without totally freezing their tail off. This is the most accessible form of cold therapy for everyone. Whenever you have access to a shower you can simply ignore the hot water handle and you’ll be getting some awesome superficial benefits. The longer you stay in the water and the colder it is the bigger your benefits will be.
Cryotherapy is third on our list and comes in a few different varieties from standing outside in frigid temperatures to full body exposure cryo facilities that can cost up to $75 per visit. Cryotherapy typically uses cold air that can feel as low as -200 degrees Fahrenheit! The benefits of cryo are great, although the air can’t penetrate as deeply as cold plunging before damaging skin. Cryo facilities typically cap exposure at 3 minutes maximum.
Finally my favorite, but the most difficult and intense experience, the cold plunge/ice bath. The cold plunge varies from putting single parts of your body to fully plunging your entire body into frigid waters. The plunge reaches much deeper tissues due to the duration of exposure and increases when you plunge from the neck down. Ice baths can get as cold as 33 degrees and companies that have developed cold tubes that circulate water typically cap their lowest temperatures around 44 degrees.
Benefits to Athletes and Non-Athletes
For anyone training or generally working out the idea is to train harder and recover faster, but finding out how to maximize recovery is an individual challenge. There are a number of factors that influence recovery speed outside the scope of this article, but we’re focusing on cold therapy specifically.
My consensus is that cold exposure can help everyone regardless of what they may or may not be training for. Cold therapy ranges from simply adding 10 seconds of cold water at the end of a hot shower to full immersion cold-plunges. The difference is the duration, penetration, and purpose of each therapy.
Let’s look at general benefits and then I’ll move into athlete specific recommendations.
Cold therapy is all about resiliency - we’re strengthening the body and the mind at the same time. If you don’t like the cold and you subject yourself to the cold you’re getting mentally and physically tougher. For everyone alike, any type of cold exposure can have the following benefits:
- Tightening and clearing up skin
- Reducing inflammation
- Increasing circulation
- Increasing alertness
- Increasing thermogenesis
- Spiking dopamine and other neurotransmitters and protective proteins
- Improving sleep quality
This all comes down to burning more fat, sleeping better, and being happier overall simply from taking a cold shower or ice bath.
Now for some athlete specific recommendations:
Strength/Power Based Athletes
Injured, Combat, and Multi-day Event Athletes
General Fitness Athletes
No matter what you do you should try out some cold exposure and become more of a beast in your day to day life.