I begin most of my work days with a cold shower. And as I endure the process, I assure myself that I’m hacking my body’s physiology and will come out on the other side mentally and physically stronger.
However, my whole strategy is really out of need rather than desire.
That’s because I’m typically rushing from my morning workout to catch the Crossover team meeting that starts promptly at 9:07. So I don’t have the luxury of waiting 5 minutes for a steamy shower that I truly desire.
So I suck it up and endure it for a few minutes to start my day feeling fresh rather than smelly.
One benefit I’ve found is that a cold shower works better than a hot one to stop sweating. But other than getting to work on time and not soaking through my shirt, is it worth the misery?
The Benefits of Cryotherapy
If you haven’t noticed, everyone is taking regular dips in ice water on their Instagram pages. This treatment, also known as cryotherapy, has the touted benefits of:
Improved immune system
Improved mental clarity
To better understand the fanatics, you should start with the Wim Hoff Method. Although, when you get into the evidence trenches to support these claims, it’s a mixed bag of results.
Part of the problem is that there are an infinite number of treatment options (long or short baths, showers, cryo chambers, etc.) that all look at different endpoints (better recovery, immune function, psychological variables, etc.)
So it’s hard to generalize the impact of extreme cold for everyone. But since the ice bath seems most popular amongst the performance chasers, I want to focus on the supporting evidence of the ice bath on training and performance.
Strength Training & Cryotherapy
The answer is NO when it comes to the support of ice baths and strength training.
In fact, the research on cold water submersion shows that it inhibits muscle growth and strength gains. For example, this 2015 paper from the Journal of Physiology showed that a 10-minute ice bath following strength sessions:
“(1) substantially attenuated long-term gains in muscle mass and strength, and (2) delayed and/or suppressed the activity of satellite cells and kinases in the mTOR pathway during recovery from strength exercise.”
mTOR controls the growth and production of muscle cells.
In theory, this would help improve aerobic capacity, but throughout my search, I didn’t see any performance data to support that idea.
An ice bath does reduce the signs of inflammation, such as swelling and soreness after exercise, but that’s not actually due to a reduction in inflammatory markers. Instead, it seems connected to altering fluid shifts and “slowing down” biological processes in the muscle.
That would be a good thing if you’ve got another event coming up, but for regular training days, you want the muscle doing its thing without inhibition so you can maximize the training effect between workouts.
What’s the Gain?
You might be bummed, or even angry, to read this if you just invested in a new ice maker.
But I’ve got a story for you…
In grad school, we ran a small trial looking at the recovery effects of an ice bath after a cycling time trial. We found that sitting in an ice bath improved performance on a second ride done immediately after.
“Cold water immersion consistently improves perceptions of fatigue and muscle soreness (Stanley et al. 2012) and enhances recovery of muscle function/performance following exercise (Leeder et al. 2011; Versey et al. 2013; Roberts et al. 2014).”
Thus, I still maintain the conclusion I found in my report from 2010.
The best benefit of an ice bath on performance is the impact on the brain rather than the body. It is invigorating as you get a surge of fight-or-flight hormones that alert you, give you some drive, and suppress other perceptions, such as fatigue or muscle soreness.
I can report from my experience that the cold shower is mood-enhancing, and I feel different as I start my day.
Several clinical trials show that different forms of cryotherapy can help treat things like depression and anxiety.
I highly doubt a 3-minute cold shower will overpower a lack of sleep or a crummy diet, but overall—and you’ll have to try it to believe it—a cold shower is an exciting way to start your day.
Based on the current evidence and the experience of this sports scientist, the conclusion is…
A post-lifting ice bath is counterproductive for muscle growth and strength gains. Nor will it help you run further or faster and it doesn’t reduce inflammation.
An ice bath does help reduce pain, soreness, and the perception of fatigue following a workout. This is good if you’ve got another competition coming up, but on the regular, it suppresses the recovery process.
Cold exposure invigorates and stimulates the central nervous system. For me, it’s a similar feel-good effect to a runner’s high.
Therefore, I don’t suspect my 3-minute blast of cold water as I soap up doesn’t provide any physical gain, but it does support the psychology to start my day strong.