Benefits of Cold Exposure on Your Performance
Sitting still in a tub of ~30 degree F water and ice sounds like fun, doesn’t it?! If you’re like most people, the thought of being in water this cold will give you feelings of stress, anxiety or even fear. In today’s society, we covet convenience and comfort. Everywhere we go is temperature controlled at a nice 70-75 degrees, from our homes to our cars to our workplaces. In our culture, we value comfort and immediacy, and anything that falls outside of these zones feels stressful.
Stress has been identified as a bane to our modern lifestyles. But stress isn’t the issue—it is our response to and lack of mitigation of this stress that is. Learning to mitigate stress and adapting to these situations are what we should be aiming for. Today, many people find themselves living with too much stress and no meaningful way to manage it. Unmanaged stress has a detrimental effect on our wellbeing. On the flip side, if we do not encounter enough stress in our day to day lives, we do not continue to adapt and grow into our best selves. We cannot aim to eliminate stress from our lives, we must learn how to deal with it and reap the benefits from it instead. Exposing ourselves to small doses of extreme stress(like cold exposure) allows our body to learn and adapt after each exposure at the cellular level. A lot of the research involving thermal stress - more specifically, cold-water immersion - is very much in its infancy, giving unclear or even conflicting conclusions. That being said, there are some things we do know.
There are many promising benefits to cold water immersion. It lowers skin temperatures for up to an hour(2). This is important to our recovery because elevated skin temperatures can cause additional damage to our cells(3, 9). Lowering the skin temperature lowers nerve conductivity, which decreases our pain sensations and muscle spasms(9). Cooler temperatures increase the constriction of our blood vessels, changing the amount of blood flow throughout our body, and limiting inflammation and swelling(9, 10). In fact, the pressure of the water on our body (hydrostatic pressure) when sitting in water increases the amount of blood in and around our vital organs and improves cardiac output – which increases blood flow and flushes metabolic waste(6). Data also supports a delay of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness(DOMS) for up to 96 hours and improved retention of maximal strength from cold water immersion(5).
The acute response to cold water immersion is very much sympathetic (fight, flight or freeze); because of this there is also a massive parasympathetic (rest and digest) response afterwards, that can last for a few hours(1, 4, 7, 8). This is great for many of those who are stuck in a sympathetic state because being able to drop down into a parasympathetic state has been associated with better maintenance of training activity and improved exercise performance.
Controlled, small doses of thermal stress like cold water immersion are proving to be effective means of improving performance. Another reason to take part in cold water immersion - and possibly one of the best - is the mental and psychological control that you tap into in these situations. Learning how to manage stress by controlling the emotions of fear and anxiety trains your ability to focus and will show you how powerful your mind can be when trained.
What to do next:
We want to both empower and inform you to make a beneficial change with how you approach your recovery. That being said, the next step is to start with a short (5-10 sec) cold shower at the end of your normal shower. Try this for the next week. You may notice that you feel a little different after the 3rd or 4th try.
Al Haddad, H., Laursen, P. B., Chollet, D., Lemaitre, F., Ahmaidi, S., & Buchheit, M. (2010). Effect of cold or thermoneutral water immersion on post-exercise heart rate recovery and heart rate variability indices. Autonomic Neuroscience,156(1-2), 111-116. doi:10.1016/j.autneu.2010.03.017
Bleakley, C. M., & Davison, G. W. (2010). What is the biochemical and physiological rationale for using cold-water immersion in sports recovery? A systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine,(44), 179-187. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2009.065565
Buchheit, M., Haddad, H. A., Laursen, P. B., & Ahmaidi, S. (2009). Effect of body posture on postexercise parasympathetic reactivation in men. Experimental Physiology,94(7), 795-804. doi:10.1113/expphysiol.2009.048041
Costello, J. T., Culligan, K., Selfe, J., & Donnelly, A. E. (2012). Muscle, Skin and Core Temperature after −110°C Cold Air and 8°C Water Treatment. PLoS ONE,7(11). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048190
Hohenauer, E., Taeymans, J., Baeyens, J., Clarys, P., & Clijsen, R. (2015). The Effect of Post-Exercise Cryotherapy on Recovery Characteristics: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Plos One,10(9). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139028
Johansen, L. B., Jensen, T. U., Pump, B., & Norsk, P. (1997). Contribution of abdomen and legs to central blood volume expansion in humans during immersion. Journal of Applied Physiology,83(3), 695-699. doi:10.1152/jappl.1918.104.22.1685
Parouty, J., Al Haddad, H., Quod, M., Leprêtre, P. M., Ahmaidi, S., & Buchheit, M. (2010). Effect of cold water immersion on 100-m sprint performance in well-trained swimmers. European Journal of Applied Physiology,109(3), 483-490. doi:10.1007/s00421-010-1381-2
Stanley, J., Buchheit, M., & Peake, J. M. (2011). The effect of post-exercise hydrotherapy on subsequent exercise performance and heart rate variability. European Journal of Applied Physiology,112(3), 951-961. doi:10.1007/s00421-011-2052-7
White, G. E., & Wells, G. D. (2013). Cold-water immersion and other forms of cryotherapy: Physiological changes potentially affecting recovery from high-intensity exercise. Extreme Physiology & Medicine,2(1). doi:10.1186/2046-7648-2-26
Wilcock, I. M., Cronin, J. B., & Hing, W. A. (2006). Physiological Response to Water Immersion. Sports Medicine,36(9), 747-765. doi:10.2165/00007256-200636090-00003