Should I Be Taking Cold Showers? Breaking Down the Recovery Benefits of a Bone Chilling Experience

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Complex Original

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A long, hot shower can be comforting, cleansing and even soothing. A cold shower, on the other hand, is typically just the opposite: frigid and jarring. But yet, it’s the cold shower that stands to benefit you the most, and could actually help post-workout.

A cold shower is, somewhat intrinsically, better than its warmer alternative. For example, cold showers save you money (no need to pay for that heated water) and help the environment (cold showers tend to be shorter, and thus use less water).

And then there are the health benefits. Cold showers lead to the following:

  • shinier hair

  • improved skin complexion

  • strengthened immune system

  • increased alertness

There is even a recent study that shows how cold showers can actually help burn fat.

But its role in aiding recovery after a run or tough workout is why you should be considering adding a cold shower to your exercise routine. Perhaps most obviously, a cold shower helps to decrease your overall body temperature -- especially important in the warmer summer months -- which in turn slows your heart rate, and allows your body to begin its recovery sooner. A cold shower has also been shown to increase circulation, which means it can help flush out the lactic acid that builds up in muscles. Additionally, the cooler water aids in limiting inflammation, meaning less soreness for you.

A cold shower, though, is just dipping your toes in the waters of frigid recovery. The more intense option is an ice bath, but the science remains… conflicted: Icing really does work; “Cryotherapy was ineffective”; Ice baths post-run lead to reduced swelling; An ice bath after a hard workout helps ready you for another hard workout in the near future; Cold-water helps with recovery, but it may actually be too much recovery.

With so many opposing studies, it’s not surprising that there is even a recovery option for those who remain betwixt the two schools of thinking: Contrast temperature water therapy, or alternating hot and cold water during your recovery shower. A study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that athletes who tried contrast therapy had a significant reduction in both heart rate and blood lactate levels.

So, should you or shouldn’t you use a cold shower for recovery? Like most things in the running and fitness community, it becomes a matter of personal preference, trying it out yourself and which evidence -- both anecdotal and scientific -- you choose to follow. But proponents of cold water recovery have a pretty great example of its benefits: Meb Keflezighi.

Ryan Hudson is a contributing writer and avid runner who works as a social media manager in Washington, DC. If he's not tweeting, that probably means Ryan is either training for a triathlon or eating a PB&J.

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