Exploring the Role of Cold Plunges in Pre and Post-Exercise Recovery

Exploring the Role of Cold Plunges in Pre and Post-Exercise Recovery

Does the promise of enhanced exercise gains and quicker recovery appeal to you? Cold plunges and ice baths are gaining in popularity among athletes and fitness enthusiasts for this very reason. There’s debate as to whether it's better to cold plunge before or after a workout. Different types of exercise have different goals which require different strategies. Cold water immersion can either enhance or interfere with those goals – let’s learn how.

Getting In the Zone

Exercise generates heat in the muscles and elevates core body temperature which helps the body to perform. But there is a temperature zone where the body and muscles perform best [1,2]. This is why people do warmups – to get the muscles and body ready for action. According to Dr. Craig Heller, a temperature regulation researcher at Stanford University, too much heat is a rate-limiting factor in exercise performance [2]. He explains on the Huberman Lab podcast that heat triggers mechanisms leading to fatigue, which limits your endurance and strength. His research group studies the impact of different types of cooling during exercise to maximize performance. More on that later…

Cold Plunge Benefits for Exercise Recovery

Compared to other cooling methods, cold water immersion is considered the ‘gold-standard’ cooling strategy due to its superior advantage of providing rapid body heat loss [3]. Cold water immersion may accelerate the recovery process by reducing muscle damage, swelling and inflammation, muscle spasm, pain and soreness, and heat stress [4,5]. Feel-good chemicals called beta-endorphins improve mood, promote relaxation, and relieve pain and are stimulated by both sauna and cold plunge [6].

With all these benefits, it seems like cold can be the antidote to heat which hinders performance. But there’s a balance, and timing is important.

Is It Best to Take a Cold Shower After a Workout?

Different types of exercise or sports may require a different strategy when it comes to the cold plunge. Endurance exercise, also called cardio or aerobic exercise, includes sustained movement that increases breathing and heart rate, such as running and biking. Resistance exercise, also called strength or weight training, involves exercises that build muscle and strength.

Cold Water Immersion Before a Workout

Most studies research the recovery effects of cold water immersion after training versus before. But there is compelling evidence to support a cold water plunge before a workout.

Cold Plunge Improves Performance in Endurance Exercise

Dr. Heller says that a few minutes of a cold plunge or cold shower before aerobic or endurance exercise can prolong the time until heating up and sweating. In turn, this can increase performance [3,7]. Cyclists and runners seem to benefit from this strategy, as well as those participating in higher-intensity intermittent sprint-type exercise (soccer, tennis, volleyball) [5,8]. Runners can run farther or faster [9]. The cross country running team at Stanford University where Dr. Heller teaches stretches first, then does a cooling period before starting a run. The benefits of cooling before a workout are especially helpful in hot climates [10].

But here’s a caveat – while heat is a limiting factor in performance – cold can be too, especially for muscles. Pre-workout cooling may impair performance for runners or cyclists participating in single sprint exercises or shorter bursts of intense exercise [2,11].

Taking an Ice Bath After a Workout

Compared to other cooling strategies (cold air, cooling packs, cryotherapy), cold water immersion post-exercise appeared to be the most effective [5].

Cold Plunge Helps Muscle Soreness

Delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS is that tender, burning sensation that you’ve probably felt in your muscles the day after a good workout. People generally aren't afraid of sore muscles – they just accept it as par for the course when working out or training. But suppose the pain limits the capacity to do a workout or competition the next day or even a few days later. In that case, you might seek ways to minimize DOMS. DOMS is a result of lactic acid buildup, micro-injury to the muscles and connective tissues, inflammation, and muscle spasm. Hot and cold therapy is widely used for muscle recovery and is best applied within an hour after exercise to reduce pain. The best effects were seen with a hot pack over the affected area and cold water immersion [12].

Cold water immersion reduces DOMS after most strength training and endurance exercises [4,13]. Effects may be sport-specific. For example, volleyball players did not see much benefit of a cold plunge acutely, meaning during their first training week. After a few weeks of regular cold plunge, they did notice benefits on fatigue and soreness [14]. With some sports, becoming cold-adapted after several sessions may be necessary to see benefits.

Cold Plunge Blunts Muscle Strength

While reducing muscle soreness sounds like a benefit, a cold plunge immediately after resistance or weight training may be counterproductive when it comes to building muscle [15]. A 12-week study on men participating in a strength training program showed that 10 minutes of cold water immersion immediately after a training session blunted muscle building. There was a decrease in the activation of key proteins and cells in skeletal muscle lasting up to 2 days after strength training. Men saw increased muscle mass, just not as much as the group that didn’t cold plunge following exercise [16].

This effect could be explained by the drop in testosterone which has anabolic (muscle-building) effects. Resistance-trained men who took part in 15 minutes of cold water immersion post-exercise had lower relative concentrations of testosterone and inflammatory molecules compared to men who did not cold plunge [17]. The inflammatory response that happens with muscle damage after a workout is important for muscle repair and regeneration and cold water can blunt that process [18]. The continuous balance between muscle breakdown and rebuilding is what conditions the body to adapt and perform better over time.

Cold Plunge Improves Muscle Power

Now here’s a nuance: cold water immersion after exercise can improve muscle power, even though it has a blunting effect on building muscle and strength [4]. Wait, what does that mean? Muscle strength is your ability to pick up a dumbbell weight and do reps. Muscle power is the ability to do it quicker. Think sprinting faster, hitting harder, jumping higher. High-intensity sports like soccer may see benefit. After a soccer match, college soccer players performed cool down exercises then sat for 10 minutes in a cold plunge. They showed improved next-day agility, speed, power, and balance compared to the group that didn’t cold plunge [19].

Cold Therapy: Effects of Cooling During a Workout?

It’s kinda challenging to be submerged in cold water while working out – unless you’re a swimmer, or have access to a quick dip in a cold plunge tub during your workout. Dr. Heller’s work shows that cooling during workouts can decrease DOMS and improve strength and endurance. His team developed a device that can be worn while exercising that cools the palms of the hands, which happens to be a major portal for the body to release heat [20]. His research shows that palmar cooling between strength training sets for 3 minutes increases the ability to do more reps [21]. He gives an example of a volunteer whose ability to perform tricep dips improved by 300% in one month with this cooling technique. This strategy packs a greater punch than steroids – and without the side effects!

Cooling before versus during a workout has a comparable effect on performance [5,22]. While the concept of cooling during workouts is intriguing, we don’t have data on using the cold plunge between reps or mid-workout.

Practical Tips for Cold Plunge Therapy

Dr. Andrew Huberman, neuroscientist and host of the Huberman Lab Podcast, offers some practical tips for timing the cold plunge:

  • Less than 5 minutes of cold water immersion is recommended for increased muscle power, perceived recovery, and decreased muscle soreness.
  • If you’re trying to improve strength, it might be better to wait 6-8 hours or more until after training so you don’t blunt the benefits gained from exercise. Alternatively, you can cold plunge before training.
  • If the goal is to recover with minimal damage between bouts of exercise so you can get back out and compete right away, you can cold plunge immediately following exercise.
  • If you’re not interested in specific gains and just want to cold plunge because it feels good after a workout, just go for it!

Check out our article to learn more about how long and how often you should cold plunge for overall health.

Putting It All Together

To briefly summarize, if you do cardio or endurance exercise, a cold plunge before a workout, and/or sauna plus cold plunge right after a workout has many benefits. If your goal is to build muscle, you might want to wait a few hours before or after working out to sauna/ cold plunge, or sauna/ cold plunge on rest days. Be sure to check out our article on using sauna to optimize your fitness routine.

Even though sauna and cold plunges are commonly used recovery techniques, the science is all over the place when it comes to specific protocols for specific workouts, sports, and for males versus females. It may take a little experimentation to understand the effects of sauna and cold water immersion and how it impacts your workout performance. Let us know about it the next time you’re in – we love hearing about your experience!

This blog post was researched, edited and written by Dr. Christine Krall, Naturopathic Doctor (ND). See her bio here.

Citing our sources:

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May 28, 2024
By: Dr Christine Krall