Maybe you work out daily. Or maybe you only exercise a few times a week, despite your good intentions. We're not here to talk about how often you ought to be exercising -- by the way, that's 2.5 hours of moderate activity every week. We're here to talk about the one thing you likely have in common with almost every other athlete. Whatever fitness level you currently find yourself in, one thing's for sure: You're probably going to want a shower after that workout.
When you're working out, your heart increases how much oxygen-rich blood it pumps to your muscles. You do warm-up exercises to get your body ready for the physiological stress exercise can induce, and you should always make time after your workout for cooling down. Similar to how you eased your body into exercise with a warm up, just five to 10 minutes of low-intensity exercise can help reduce that light-headed feeling and help your muscles recover more rapidly. When you suddenly stop your activity, blood pools in your muscles instead of flowing back to your heart. That's the point of cooling down.
And after your cool-down? Most of us jump in the shower to relieve muscle and joint aches, and no one will argue that a nice, steamy-hot shower feels great on tired muscles. That post-workout shower also helps to wash sweat and bacteria off your skin. A cold shower, however, is a different story, with a different outcome.
Let's look at what the cold can do.
Post-workout: Cool Down with a Cold Shower
A hot shower encourages blood flow toward your skin, soothing your muscles. You relax. You feel good. A cold shower does the opposite. In response to the cold temperature, your body will do its best to protect your internal organs, encouraging the blood to flow away from the outer extremities and skin. Why is this good?
When you exercise, your heart rate increases to support your body's needs. Lactic acid builds up in muscles when they're deprived of oxygen, a normal occurrence when your workout is intense and your body dips into its energy reserves (glucose) to meet the intense energy need. When people talk about "feeling the burn," it's the lactic acid that's behind that bite.
Cold temperatures immediately after your cool-down help bring your heart rate down and increase your circulation, which in turn helps reduce your recovery time. The increased level of blood your heart pumped to match your body's needs won't be allowed to pool in your tired muscles, and those muscles will clear the lactic acid more quickly.
Additionally, exercise can cause muscles to become inflamed -- the swelling caused by small tears in the muscle fiber -- and a cold shower may help to minimize soft tissue inflammation and its associated pain.
Overall, if you're healthy, a cold shower after aerobic exercise may help to constrict blood vessels and decrease your metabolic activity, which equals less tissue damage and less swelling. Endurance athletes may want to try something a little more intense as part of their cool down: ice baths. An ice bath involves soaking in cool water for 15 to 20 minutes post-workout, and you can decrease the temperature as you begin to adjust to the cold. Accompany your cold shower with a sports massage, and you'll not only reduce the build-up of lactic acid in your post-workout muscles to reduce soreness and swelling, but you'll also boost your circulation and loosen tight muscles.
Check out the next page to learn more about the benefits of cold showers and ice baths.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "How much physical activity do you need?" 2010. (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/index.html
- Hamlin, Michael J. "The effect of contrast temperature water therapy on repeated sprint performance." Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. December 2007. (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.jsams.org/article/S1440-2440(07)00007-2/abstract
- Kimball, Nikki. "Ice Baths: Cold Therapy." Runner's World. Aug. 1, 2008. (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-241-285--12810-0,00.html
- Lagally, Kristen M. et al. "Physiologic and Metabolic Responses to a Continuous Functional Resistance Exercise Workout." The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. March 2009. (Feb. 14, 2011)http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2009/03000/Physiologic_and_Metabolic_Responses_to_a.5.aspx
- McManus, Melanie Radzicki. "Rest Easy." Runner's World. August 2004. (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.runnersworld.com/article/1,7124,s6-241-285--8256-0,00.html
- MyFox Boston. "Experts Pour Cold Water on Athletes' Ice-Bath Remedy." Nov. 4, 2010. (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.myfoxboston.com/dpps/health/experts-pour-cold-water-on-athletes-ice-bath-remedy-dpgonc-20101104-fc_10457178
- Peterson, Carl, and Nina Nittinger. "Fit to play: practical tips for faster recovery (part 3)." Medicine and Science in Tennis. 2006. (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.stms.nl/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=897&Itemid=322
- Quinn, Elizabeth. "What to Do After Exercise to Speed Exercise Recovery." CrossFit Now. (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.crossfitnow.com/component/content/article/1-wods/145-what-to-do-after-exercise-to-speed-exercise-recovery
- Roth, Stephen M. "Why does lactic acid build up in muscles? And why does it cause soreness?" Scientific American. Jan. 23, 2006. (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-does-lactic-acid-buil
- Runner's World. "Reduce inflammation by jumping into an ice bath." August 2004. (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.runnersworld.com/article/1,7124,s6-241-288--8627-0,00.html
- Sports Doctor, Inc. "What's Going On in There? The physiological effects of exercise on your body." 2000. (Feb. 14, 2011)http://www.sportsdoctor.com/articles/physiology.html