You’ve just completed a vigorous HIIT workout and an extended cool-down routine in order to prevent soreness. Once you get home, you quickly remove your gym attire before heading to the shower. Now, you’re faced with a classic decision: “Do you choose hot or cold water?”
The answer to that question isn’t so straightforward, particularly if you’re hoping to use your shower as a means of recovery after your workout. If you’re seeking clarification on whether a hot or cold shower is more beneficial post-workout, here’s what you should be aware of.
Advantages of Taking a Cold Or Hot Shower After a Workout
Chances are, you’re already aware that showering after a workout is generally beneficial for maintaining clean skin and preventing the accumulation of dirt and bacteria from sweat. When it comes to workout recovery, some experts believe that showers can help alleviate muscle tension by influencing blood circulation. Many fitness enthusiasts who aim to maximize their recovery benefits endorse the use of either hot or cold water during their shower.
The theory behind utilizing cold showers for recovery purposes is that the cold temperatures cause vasoconstriction, which is the contraction of blood vessels that reduces blood flow to the skin and extremities. This decrease in blood flow limits inflammation and muscle fiber swelling after your workout, and as a result, may decrease post-workout soreness, according to a 2017 article examining cold water immersion. However, there isn’t enough research on cold showers to definitively confirm their ability to improve recovery. (
The effectiveness of hot showers for post-workout recovery isn’t fully understood by experts, but it’s clear that heat, in general, can enhance circulation. (Increasing blood flow after a workout facilitates the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to muscles and joints, aiding in their recovery.) Blood vessels naturally relax and widen in response to heat, allowing for easier blood flow. Studies indicate that hot sauna treatments improve blood flow in individuals with chronic heart failure.
Some physical therapists and trainers advocate for contrast water therapy, which involves alternating between hot and cold water in either a shower or bath. During a shower, you simply adjust the temperature between cold (70℉ or lower) water and hot (98℉ to 101℉) water for short intervals. The concept behind this therapy is that rapidly switching between restricting and boosting blood flow creates a “pumping action” that significantly influences blood circulation.
In an investigation published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance in 2012, it was observed that immersion in contrasting water baths exhibited a decrease in muscle discomfort; however, there was no apparent reduction in overall physical exhaustion.
So, Should You Opt for a Chilly or Toasty Shower After Your Workout?
Hold on before you dive into that cold-to-hot shower. Engaging in hydrotherapy practices that entail immersing yourself in water might have recovery advantages, but they lack substantial scientific evidence. Additionally, there is even less support for showers as a post-workout recovery tool.
“Studies that have examined thermal agents for recovery mostly focused on hot or ice packs, or immersion,” explains Corey B. Simon, D.P.T., Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and the Doctor of Physical Therapy Division at the Duke School of Medicine. “To my knowledge, there is no research that suggests showers have active physiological effects compared to these other methods.”
That being said, even if showers do not have the same physiological effects, there might still be a psychological phenomenon at play that aids in recovery, notes Simon. It’s the placebo effect! “Expectation is incredibly powerful and, in some cases, has shown similar pain-relieving effects as active therapies such as topical agents,” Simon explains. If you believe that showers can contribute to muscle recovery, then they very well might. “Pain and function are not purely biomedical phenomena but also biopsychosocial,” Simon emphasizes. “Therefore, your perception of an intervention matters as it can influence its effects.”
The act of showering might prompt you to engage in mindfulness, which is yet another way your mind can aid in your body’s recovery, according to Simon. “This is my professional opinion, as there is currently no evidence, but I believe that showers promote relaxation and provide an opportunity for mindfulness,” he suggests. “This may be the more probable path to feeling good after exercising.”
Although research on shower temperatures and muscle recovery is limited, based on the available evidence, cold showers appear to hold some advantages. Nonetheless, there isn’t enough proof to propose that showering at a specific temperature is ideal for muscle recovery. Therefore, think of cold or contrast showers as an additional support to your other recovery methods, rather than a substitute. Whether you prefer hot, cold, both, or neither, what matters most is that you combine them with a proper cool-down routine, the right nutrition, and sufficient rest.
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