Who doesn’t enjoy a shower after a hot and sweaty workout? You might relish the soothing sensation of warm water caressing your tired muscles that just did three sets of deadlifts.
However, some people like the sensation of cold too and dial back the temperature of their shower. At the very least a cold shower wakes you up if your muscles are exhausted after a demanding session of deadlifts, push-ups, and squats. But could there be health or fitness benefits to turning back the temperature of your shower after an exercise session?
Cold Showers and Exercise Recovery
Some experts maintain that a cold shower helps the muscles you worked recover quicker. Who doesn’t want a faster recovery? When you lift heavy weights or do any type of intense exercise, it creates microscopic tears in the muscle fibers. These micro-tears, although quite tiny and not detectable to the eye, activate alarm bells that tell immune cells to travel to the area to help clean up the damage and begin the repair process.
Studies also show that these cells release inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. That’s why you may experience some swelling and discomfort when you’ve worked your muscles hard. Studies even show as we get fitter, we release fewer cytokines that cause inflammation and more anti-inflammatory ones. It’s another way our bodies adapt to exercise.
Cold Exposure and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
How might a cold shower help tame after-workout inflammation, also known as delayed-onset muscle soreness? Cold temperatures slow blood flow to inflamed areas caused by microscopic muscle damage and that helps reduce swelling and inflammation. Exposure to cold also reduces metabolic activity in that area and that helps limit tissue damage.
Could taking a cold shower reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)? DOMS is the annoying stiffness and muscle discomfort you feel 24 to 48 hours after a workout your muscles aren’t accustomed to. Delayed onset muscle soreness can be a minor annoyance or debilitating enough to make a workout tough. So, interest in limiting its effects are strong.
Some athletes take ice baths in hopes of limiting DOMS, but does this approach work? A meta-analysis of 17 studies looked at this issue. Subjects took a 24-minute cold bath with a temperature of 10 to 15 degrees Celsius after their workouts. The workouts included running, cycling, or training with weights.
The results? Cold water baths reduced delayed onset muscle soreness 1 to 4 days after exercise. However, this was a cold-water bath and not a shower. It’s not clear whether an icy cold shower would have the same benefits as soaking in cold bathwater. Also, in the study, the comparison was between taking a cold-water bath and doing nothing or resting. It would be interesting to see studies that compare cold water baths or cold showers with heat, massage, and other interventions.
Some studies also show that contrast water therapy, alternating warm water with cold water is more beneficial than exposing muscles to cold alone. A typical contrast therapy protocol is two minutes of warm water followed by 30 seconds of cold water, repeated up to 5 times.
The Downsides of Taking a Cold Shower after a Workout
One downside of shocking your body with a cold shower is the impact it can have on your cardiovascular system. As mentioned, cold causes blood vessels throughout your body to narrow, and that places added strain on your heart. It also raises blood pressure. Therefore, if you shock your body with cold, it could cause a spike in blood pressure.
If you have hypertension or cardiovascular disease, such a shock isn’t healthy for your body. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that a cold shower triggered a sharp rise in systolic and diastolic blood pressure and boosted heart rate. If you take a cold shower check your blood pressure before and after and see if it spikes. If so, skip the cold shower!
Another concern is whether reducing post-workout inflammation reduces muscle gains. Resistance training stresses your muscles and creates small muscle fiber tears. It’s during the repair process that muscle fibers become thicker. In turn, that makes the muscles in that area larger and capable of generating more force. Some studies show that interfering with the inflammatory process may limit hypertrophy gains.
For example, some research finds that taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAID) or supplemental antioxidants reduces hypertrophy gains by suppressing local inflammation. Antioxidants have anti-inflammatory activity but they also act as signaling molecules that facilitate muscle hypertrophy. If that’s the case, taking a cold shower or antioxidants could limit muscle gains. However, research on this issue is inconsistent.
The Bottom Line
If you enjoy a cold shower, it may have some benefits like reducing post-inflammatory muscle changes that trigger muscle soreness. But also know that it can cause a sharp rise in blood pressure and increase your heart rate. That might not be safe for people with underlying health problems. Plus, it’s not a pleasant experience unless you love the feeling of ice-cold water on your skin. For most, it’s too much of a shock to be enjoyable. If you’re otherwise healthy and enjoy the experience, it may offer benefits.
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