Using Cold, Hot and Contrast Baths to Boost Recovery
Matches can place a huge strain on both the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular system. Having an effective strategy to aid recovery after exercise is vitally important to help restore normal performance levels as soon as possible so you can be ready to perform in your next training session or match.
You might have heard of footballers using hot, cold or even contrast baths to help with recovery, but does it work? We’ll get to that but first, let’s look at the different types of baths (or water immersion methods) for recovery.
Cold baths taken post-exercise are known as cryotherapy. These baths are typically around 10°C and used for 15-20 minutes.
Hot baths taken post-exercise are known as thermotherapy. These baths are usually around 36°C and used for 10-20 minutes.
(Also known as contrast therapy) These involve alternating between hot and cold baths. The hot baths range from 37-43°C and cold baths range from 12-15°C. Protocols vary but are usually between 30 seconds and 5 minutes for each bath, with no rest in between baths.
What’s the THEORY…?
In this section I’ll outline the common theories surrounding water immersion for recovery and how it’s thought to work. Remember, these are just theories…
As water temperature decreases, heart rate reduces. In turn, arterial blood pressure increases because your blood is being re-directed from your outer body and is prioritised to flow through your core to help maintain your core temperature, it’s one of your body’s natural survival mechanisms.
During these colder temperatures, your cellular, lymphatic and capillary vessels also vasoconstrict (the space for fluid to flow through narrows) which results in increased fluid pressure and decreased fluid diffusion into the tissue. Because of the reduced fluid absorption, swelling which could occur from muscle damage is reduced - the cold temperature also helps to numb any pain.
Neural aspects are also affected by the cold. Cooling of tissue decreases the rate of transmission of neurons and regulates the impulse of pain perception to the central nervous system (CNS). This reduction in nerve impulse transmission has two effects: pain perception is lowered and muscular tension is reduced.
With hot water immersion pretty much the opposite happens. Cardiac output and heart rate increases and blood vessels vasodilate (widen), blood also flows closer to the surface of the skin.
As a result, cellular, lymphatic and capillary vessels widen and permeability is increased. Increased permeability increases nutrient delivery and waste removal from the cells which can increase healing. Other proposed benefits of thermotherapy include increased muscle elasticity, joint mobility and again a reduction in pain perception and muscle tension.
However, if an injury has occurred such as a muscle strain, the further increase in swelling from applying heat is likely to cause additional pain – so in this scenario cold immersion may be the better option (however you are then losing the nutrient delivery factor of hot water immersion, so it really depends on the nature of the injury as to which option you think is most appropriate).
Contrast baths have been thought to improve recovery by:
- Stimulating area-specific blood flow
- Increasing blood lactate removal
- Reducing inflammation and fluid build-up
- Stimulating circulation
- Reducing stiffness and pain
- Increasing joint range of motion
- Reducing the onset of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMs)
Contrast baths are also a great option as part of your active recovery, they bring many of the same benefits as common active recovery methods but without the same energy demands. Alternating between hot and cold temperatures is thought to act like a pump for the body’s fluids - it causes vessels to repeatedly widen and narrow, increasing blood flow and cell waste removal and therefore boosting recovery.
How do you get the best results?
To get the best results from water immersion, baths need to be taken for at least 10 minutes post-match or post-training to start seeing the possible benefits. There doesn’t seem to be additional benefits from repeated baths so a one-off bath is likely sufficient to obtain the recovery benefits you’re looking for. These baths should be taken as soon as possible after a match/training session.
So, by using the water immersion strategies above at the very least you’ll be aiding your psychological fatigue and perception of how ready you feel to perform again by changing the way your body feels, with the possibility of the theories outlined above actually taking place to help you recover faster.
However…in terms relying on water immersion alone to actually improve future performance, unfortunately the evidence to support this just isn’t conclusive. One player could use water immersion and another could completely ignore it, and they would both have the potential to perform to the same level in the near future. Physiologically, a player who does not use water immersion would not be at a disadvantage.
What does the research say?
Research has shown that when used post-match, yes they can reduce the perception of fatigue and reduce muscle soreness. However, as of yet they have not been shown to greatly influence inflammation or muscle damage, no to the extent which would help to improve later exercise performance.
As mentioned previously, there is evidence that they increase inflammation (especially in injured players). These baths have been shown to have no positive effect on later exercise performance.
Research has shown that contrast therapy can reduce muscle soreness and help to maintain muscle strength in future exercise sessions. However, again there are mixed results for its effectiveness on later exercise performance.
So, in terms of using water immersion by itself to boost recovery and aid future performance your results are going to be very limited and could be completely psychological. However, unless you've picked up an injury and you're having a hot bath, water immersion will not have any negative impact. The trick is to combine water immersion with other recovery strategies and then you’re onto a winner…
Combining water immersion with other recovery strategies
To optimise recovery, it’s important to try and influence as many performance aspects as possible (nutritional, physiological, neurological, and psychological). For the greatest chance of accelerating recovery, you’re much better off combining a number of strategies rather than just doing one in isolation.
Here’s an example of what you could do:
- Perform a thorough ‘cool down’ post-match/training
- Focus on rehydration and carbohydrate intake to replenish lost fluids and glycogen stores immediately post-match
- Use your preferred form of water immersion
- Include massage for increasing blood flow to fatigued muscles
- Use meditation, flotation and massage again to help with psychological fatigue
The best chance you have of speeding up the recovery process is by combining a variety of methods (as outlined above) rather than just relying on one alone.
Water immersion seems particularly affective in terms of psychological recovery and helping your body FEEL better: more relaxed, numbing any soreness, tightness and pain - which of course is a huge benefit. But in terms of physiological recovery and aiding future performance, the key one to focus on really is your post-match nutrition.
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