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What to Know About Cold Water Therapy for an Athlete

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

Depending on where you're coming from in the world, cold showers may be a natural part of your life. If we compare athletes coming from less fortunate backgrounds then they might not know anything different. However, for those fortunate enough to have hot water, potentially you could be missing out on the amazing benefits of cold water.

Many athletes are starting to clue in that ice baths and cold showers are great for recovery and muscle repair. In my athletic career, coaches would recommend ice baths after each hard and long training days, so we can make the most of spring training or off-season training everyday. Without the worry of over training and muscle fatigue hindering the next day's performance.

To make an example about athletes who never had the luxury of hot water would be Usain Bolt. He grew up in Trelawny, Jamaica, which is a rural area not too far from Montego Bay. But, due to living in the countryside his family was not fortunate enough to have hot water, except for boiling it... So for Usain, cold water therapy is just another day, and aided in his recovery without him even realizing its affect. This is just reality for some athletes that are coming up in a lower standard of living. But realistically it's actually better for our bodies to take cold showers.

Ice baths are a bit more specific to advanced muscle recovery and blood circulation. But, cold water in general is great for hair and skin, plus circulation, burning bad body fat, and improving mood and alertness. Cold water creates a meditative effect on the body due to the deep breathing technique that naturally happens when the body feels cold water. Think of the first gasp of air you take when you feel cold water... Now imagine having to control your breathing while staying under or in that cold water. This deep breathing that the body naturally does is to control the heart rate and deal with the shock since our body temp is much higher than the water. However, once we control our breathing and allow our mind to relax and embrace the water, it slowly starts to feel not so bad, and usually after 5 minutes it doesn't seem that bad. But, getting through the first 2-3 minutes is the challenge of dealing with cold water.

In my experiences it was a love hate relationship, because I don't overly enjoy cold water, but I know the benefits of it and have felt the difference in performances the next day when I did or didn't take an ice bath the day before. So, I always recommend to athletes or clients that they should start small and build their way up. No need to torture yourself, but definitely you need to give it a try and focus on breathing and the positives of the therapy, versus the "pain/shock? of being in the water. As well, once you get used to it consistently, it becomes very refreshing for after intense training sessions.

What does icing do to the body?

After a very intense or long workout, or after a race—which is essentially the most intense workout—the body has just experienced a state of elevated body temperature, high cardiovascular demand, and muscular stress. Inflammation from muscular stress triggers an immune response, which causes blood vessels to dilate and sends an influx of immune cells to the areas of stress. This process is helpful because it repairs the injured tissue, but too much of a good thing can lead to some negative repercussions. In this case, the result of all this inflammation is swelling and pain.

For an injury to a specific area of the body, applying an ice pack will cause blood vessels in the region to constrict (become smaller), which reduces swelling, and less swelling results in less pain. Cold also slows down the speed at which nerves send messages, which is another way in which pain is reduced. However, ice is not proven to speed up recovery because it creates vasoconstriction to the area. It is only to reduce severe pain and inflammation, but after initial swelling is down, heating the area will have better recovery effects than ice.

Immersing the body in cold water is a more efficient way of cooling down multiple groups of muscles at the same time. Just like an ice pack, it reduces swelling and muscle damage from exercise by constricting blood vessels and decreasing metabolic activity. It also reduces strain on the cardiovascular system and brings down hyperthermia (elevated body temperature), which can reduce fatigue. For both local icing and ice bath immersion, another beneficial part of the process comes after the cold stimulus has been removed. During this warming period, there is a return of fresh blood to the body, which floods the cells with nutrients and oxygen, and helps to flush out the waste products of tissue breakdown.

  • Ice bath

    • Most studies suggest immersing one’s body up to the hips at a temperature of 50-60°F or 10-15 *C for 10-15 minutes

    • Make sure there is someone nearby for your safety and in case you have trouble lifting yourself out of the bath due to numbness or fatigue

    • Be sure to fully warm up about 30-60 minutes later with a warm shower or hot drink since the cold can make muscles tense and stiff

One important reminder is that you should never ice a body part or take an ice bath before running, racing, or any other workouts. The body needs to be warm before these activities, and ice can also decrease strength and delay the body’s reaction time.

Ice baths should be reserved only for after the hardest training sessions or races, or if you will be performing again soon afterwards (like back-to-back races). It is most beneficial for short-term recovery between events or hard workouts, and research suggests that it can hinder long-term adaptations. This is why ice baths should be avoided during a building phase of training. Research has also shown that icing after strength training can actually slow down the growth of new muscle, so if the goal of your workout is to build strength, it may not be the best choice for you.

Remember that after a tough workout or race, it’s also important to rest, rehydrate, and replenish your body with healthy food to help you recover as quickly as possible.

The Benefits of Cold Water Therapy

1) Boost recovery after exercises

Cold showers help reduce muscle soreness after intense workouts. Since cold water has regenerative properties, your muscles will relax and repair after a tough workout.

2) Burns body fat

Some fat cells, such as brown fat, can generate heat by burning fat. They do this when your body is exposed to cold conditions like in a shower. Gerrit Keferstein, MD, says these cells are mostly situated around the neck and shoulder area. So, perfect for showers!

3) Increase alertness and mood

Due to our body's regulating temperatures, cold water creates an "alarm system" to get out of danger which cold can do. Therefore, the adrenaline spike comes from that.

4) Strengthen Immunity and Circulation

Cold water helps to boost the white blood cell count because the body is forced to react to changing conditions. Over time, your body becomes better at activating its defenses.

5) Help your hair and skin

This is because cold water closes the cuticles and pores in the scalp and also adds luster and shine, which is due to the closed cuticles. It truly helps in sealing in the hair's moisture and also helps in clumping the hair together

6) Lowers heart rate/ blood pressure

the rush of cold water, while an initial shock to the system at first, will close the pores of your skin and slow down your heart rate. This also lowers blood pressure as Heart rate and pressure are usually interconnected.

7) Helps facilitate meditation

a 5–10 minute cold shower boosts your mood instantly! After a short cold exposure, the brain floods with endorphins and oxygen (from the hasty breathing in the shower). The pleasant feeling engulfing the body becomes an easy sensation to pay attention to once you sit down to meditate. Brings more bodily connection to senses and awareness, plus forces conscious breathing when in the cold water, which jump starts the meditation process.

Cold water therapy has been around for thousands of years because its benefits are astounding. It's just something we don't always think about because in many countries we are very fortunate to have hot/warm water to make showers more pleasant. However, if anyone is like me from a multi-season country such as Canada, it will change the desire we have for cold or hot water. Of course in very hot climates or the summer it will feel pretty refreshing; but, in places that have winter it may be less appealing to jump into cold water after being outside in negative degree weather. Either way, adding in some form of cold water therapy into your routine will help immensely with boosting your physical well being, and help with improving mind body connections that are needed for proper meditation. Start small and work your way up in duration, I guarantee if you try and stick with it, you will feel the benefits very quickly!

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