Cold showers, saunas, ice plunge pools, steam rooms. There are loads of things you see online about what is better, what will aid your recovery more, what raises your testosterone, boosting your athletic performance.
I have recently been playing around with hot and cold immersion therapies. Mainly cold showers and sauna use. I feel great now I’m doing it, however when I first started it was confusing as to what could be done when. So this is my own personal experience and what I have experimented with. This isn’t a definitive guide and you could write thousands upon thousands of words for the science and how it improves certain functions, but it’s beyond the scope of this article for today. This is a basic guide on what to do, when and the benefits of both.
First a disclaimer
Before beginning any sort of heat treatment or cold exposure you should check with your medical doctor to ensure that you are safe to begin any of it. Some heat treatments will cause your blood pressure to fluctuate so doing these will have adverse side effects if you already have existing conditions.
So what are the differences?
Heat treatments are ways of increasing your body skin temperature above normal. This is done mostly in saunas, however, other ways like steam rooms can also be used. This brings the blood to the surface through a mechanism called vasodilation and will make you sweat more.
Cold treatments are the opposite of this. You decrease your skin temperature and reduce blood flow to the surface in what is called vasoconstriction. There are many ways to do this and there are new ones popping up now that include standing in near-freezing nitrogen that is meant to help you recover. However, a cold shower or cold swim will be just as good for you.
Benefits of both
There are multiple benefits to both cold treatment and hot treatments. Be advised there are different times and places to use these but we will get into that later on.
Increased Cardiovascular Health: In a sauna, your heart rate will increase. This is due to your body wanting to cool down. Your blood vessels dilate. Your heart needs to work harder to get the blood around your body.
Sweating: So I hate the word “detox”. However, sweating has been shown to help the removal of excessive salts and toxins within the body. Don’t let the sweat just sit on your skin though, make sure you wash it off after you are done.
Reduced Chance Of Death: A study in Finland showed the use of Sauna reduces all-cause mortality risk and decreased cardiovascular risk.
Increased Hormone Production: Sitting in a sauna affects your endocrine system. It’s been shown that it raises levels of Noradrenalin and Human Growth Hormone. However, this is a study conducted in 1988 but is still fairly relevant.
Vagus Nerve Improvement: You know when you get in really cold water and you freeze up/spasm? It’s the same feeling as if you’ve been punched in the solar plexus. That’s your Vagus Nerve going into spasm, it’s the nerve that controls the parasympathetic control of your heart, lungs and digestion. Stimulating this nerve in such a way is like a lightning bolt being sent through your system.
Reduced Inflammation: The reduced body temperature and constricted blood flow reduce the swelling within body tissue. This can help reduce your delayed onset muscle soreness the next day.
Increased metabolism: Cold water has been shown to increase the conversation from inactive white fat to metabolically active brown fat. Brown fat is the energy source your body uses when you are in a resting state. Please don’t confuse this as a cure all for weight loss. For weight loss, you need to maintain a calorie deficit. But it’s a good thing to add to your arsenal.
Wakes You Up: If you ever feel sluggish in the morning or even during the day. A cold shower will definitely help. The combination of your vagus nerve being stimulated, your blood flow increasing and your breathing increasing will wake you up.
There are cons of using these too. There are obviously some great reasons to incorporate both cold water immersion and heat treatments into your weekly schedule. But all good things come at a cost. Due to the nature of vasoconstriction of cold water immersion, the body will naturally shut down hypertrophy. So if you are looking to bulk up and build muscle, a cold shower or an ice plunge after a workout will not do you much good.
Saunas too have a downside, your profuse sweating can cause you to lose up to a litre of water in a single session. This after a workout where you are already dehydrated can cause major issues and could potentially be dangerous if you don’t rehydrate soon after.
What Do I Recommend?
the problem with a lot of these things is that they can easily be overdone. It’s easy to get sucked into the habit of doing this all straight away. Ice baths are horrible. I can confirm that. I would start by reading stories of Win Hoff “the iceman”. He talks about his breathing techniques that can help you survive in cold water. There are methods he uses that start with 20 seconds immersion to 20 minutes in a bath filled with ice cubes. If you are looking to increase your muscle mass, don’t do a cold bath straight after a workout if you want to reap the benefits of your session. I’d say wait at least an hour after your workout or have your cold shower before your workout to get that energy boost. Then on your days off, you can work these in.
Heat therapy and sauna can easily be added in everywhere as long as you are properly hydrated. After a workout, drink lots of mineral water and after your session in the sauna, drink some water with added minerals (like Himalayan sea salt). In terms of time, start with 10-15 minutes a few times a week and work up to 30 minutes 3 times a week. Don’t rush into this, it’s like starting out exercise. You wouldn’t begin with 5, 1-hour sessions a week. You’d start doing 15 minutes a few times a week and building it up.
Never want to miss an update? Sign up to the newsletter here.