For many people, it’s common sense that when you’ve spent some time in the cold, you’d want to warm up right after to prevent any further chills (and accompanying miserable feelings, of course.)
But what about us people getting into the world of cold exposure therapy willingly?
On one hand, after subjecting yourself to bone-chilling temperatures most people would rather avoid, you’d want to reap all the benefits that cold exposure therapy can give you.
Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash.
Sure, after a frighteningly cold ice plunge, a hot steamy shower sure seems tempting.
But on the other hand, do you really want to lose all that hard-earned progress by warming up too soon?
In this article, we’re going to talk about how your body reacts to ice baths, long term positive benefits of ice baths you won’t want to miss, as well as touch on Contrast Therapy, and finally, if it’s worth it to take a hot shower after your ice bath.
Let’s dive right in.
How your body immediately reacts to an ice bath
For beginners, first, we’ll discuss your body’s immediate reaction to an ice bath.
This way, you’ll see the effects of what happens beneath the surface, so that we can take into account how cold exposure benefits us—and exactly when we shouldn’t want to warm up.
Okay, so let’s say you have your ice bath ready and you plunge right in.
Here’s what happens:
- Within moments, your body immediately reacts to the drop in temperature and constricts your blood vessels to conserve heat. This is called vasoconstriction.
- Your heart rate and blood pressure increase in the short term from the shock of the cold.
- The release of endorphins is triggered, promoting a positive mood as well as an energy boost.
- Your metabolism increases in an effort to maintain internal body temperature.
Doesn’t sound so pleasant, right? It makes you wonder are ice baths are good for you? But here’s when the magic happens.
The short-term, voluntary stress of ice baths (also called “eustress,” meaning positive stress) gives you a whole host of benefits as opposed to the usual (and chronic) stressors of daily modern human life.
Short-Term Positive Benefits of Ice Baths
Here are some of the short-term benefits that ice baths can give you.
You’ve probably seen athletes' photos online where they’re almost fully submerged in ice water.
Example: Weightlifter Karyn Marshall in an ice bath. Attribution: Dr. Dennis Cronk.
Some of them take ice baths in between matches to help with recovery: reducing muscle soreness, swelling, as well as inflammation.
The adrenaline rush you get from cold water exposure (up to 530% in one study) also boosts your immune system and makes you more alert and energised.
The dopamine increase you get as well increases your mental acuity—compare this to other stressors that only increase the stress hormone cortisol, as well as adrenaline, which really doesn’t feel good at all.
Note that this can all happen in half an hour or less of cold-water immersion (sometimes even just 20 seconds! in very cold water.)
And some of the effects (particularly the dopamine increase) can last for hours and hours after the cold exposure.
With that, let’s now move onto the long-term effects, which can be influenced by if you warm up right after.
Long-Term Positive Benefits Of Ice Baths
Aside from the immediate benefits, if you keep up your cold exposure routine, you’ll also get long-term positive effects.
They had a long-term study on whole-body cold exposures on healthy women.
They went winter swimming in water from 0-2 degrees C, as well as whole-body cryotherapy in -110 degrees C for a few seconds.
What they found was that ACTH and cortisol, the stress hormone, in weeks 4-12 were much lower than in week 1.
Norepinephrine also showed a 2 to 3-fold increase for 12 weeks after the cold exposures. (Source) This can help with your immune system.
It’s also been shown that cold temperatures make your body produce more “brown fat.” (Source) This brown fat can help improve insulin sensitivity as well, since it’s also linked to improving one’s metabolic profile and lowering blood pressure over the long term. (Source)
Putting yourself into controlled stressful situations can also improve your willpower.
Basically, taking regular ice baths will help improve your cardiovascular health and metabolism. It can also increase your self discipline in the form of increased willpower.
If you're ready to take the plunge and try cold water therapy, our portable ice bath is the perfect solution.
So, with all these effects, we go back to the main question:
Should you take a hot shower after an ice bath?
If you want to gain the long-term benefits of ice baths, then you shouldn’t take a hot shower right after an ice bath, because a lot of the benefits of cold exposure therapy come from your body’s reaction to the cold and leaving it to naturally warm up on its own.
There’s no harm in drying up with a towel, but let your body warm up on its own to get most of the benefits.
And of course, keep your safety in mind.
Don’t stay in an ice bath for longer than 20 minutes, especially if you’re a beginner.
If it’s too uncomfortably cold, then you might have to warm up.
But if you’re familiar with my personal cold exposure journey, you might remember that for my first ice bath, it was at a contrast therapy spa.
So how does that factor in with ice baths?
Here are the basics of contrast therapy:
Contrast Therapy Basics
As mentioned earlier, contrast therapy involves alternating between hot and cold temperatures.
Rest and recovery at a contrast spa is okay if that’s your goal. Photo by Camila Cordeiro on Unsplash.
This can be done in a variety of ways, such as alternating between hot and cold showers.
There are also contrast therapy spas, where you have the option to alternate between different dipping pools of varying hot temperatures, capped off with a final ice bath, like in my first ice bath experience back then.
This contrast between hot and cold makes your blood vessels constrict and dilate, which is a more active type of therapy that exercises your whole body’s blood flow, versus a regular massage.
- Decreasing DOMS or muscle soreness
- Reducing fatigue
- Reducing swelling from injuries
- Removing lactic acid
Notice how the benefits are similar to the effects of a good massage?
That’s because your blood vessels and muscles stretch out and contract when you go from hot to cold and vice versa: very similar to when a skilled masseuse pushes and stretches your muscles.
Is it worth it to take a warm or hot shower after your ice bath?
If your goal is to gain the long-term effects of cold exposure, then it’s definitely NOT worth it to have a hot or warm shower after your ice bath.
You’ll seriously be missing out on a lot of what makes ice baths worth it.
However, if you’re simply after Contrast Therapy, then go ahead and turn up the heat to get massage-like effects from putting yourself in hot and cold water.
You can also opt to “end with cold” as it’s called (AKA the Søeberg Principle), and end your contrast therapy with a nice cold ice plunge, to get the best of both worlds.
If you’re just starting out with any form of hydrotherapy, it’s important to ease into it, whether you’re after the heat or the cold.
You can start with cold showers and ramp up the intensity every time you’re in the shower.
If you want to step things up, it’s also helpful to get a nice portable tub, like our Ice Bath NZ, so you start off right in the exciting world of ice bath therapy.
Our cold plunge tub comes with everything you need to get started: just add ice and water.
So when you take your ice bath, it's important to make sure that the water is between 10-15 Degrees Celsius.
Another guideline on ideal ice bath temperature:
Have the temperature be uncomfortably cold, but enough that you can stay there safely for a few minutes.
Also, like with most things that push your body to the limits, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional before you do any cold exposure therapy, especially if you have any underlying health conditions.
Additionally, for beginners, it's important to limit your time in the ice bath to no more than 10 minutes.
In short, if you want to make the most out of your ice bath and reap those tasty long-term benefits, it’s best to NOT take a warm shower right after your cold plunge.
However, don’t forget to warm up in a more natural way by drying yourself off and bundling up in a towel or two.
Also, if you’re after contrast therapy, then feel free to dip into a warm plunge pool or hot shower since that’s part of the contrast water therapy protocol.
Just note that you won’t get as much of the benefits of ice baths if you do so.
It’ll still probably feel good, though. 😊
Stay safe out there!
Try our portable ice bath today and experience the many benefits of cold exposure—Delivered straight from Christchurch to your doorstep NZ wide.
Becher, T., Palanisamy, S., Kramer, D. J., Marx, S. J., Wibmer, A. G., Gaudio, I. D., Butler, S. D., Jiang, C. S., Vaughan, R., Schöder, H., Lorenzo, A. D., Mark, A., & Cohen, P. (2020, February 16). Brown Adipose Tissue is Associated with Improved Cardiometabolic Health and Regulates Blood Pressure. bioRxiv. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.08.933754
Bieuzen F, Bleakley CM, Costello JT. Contrast water therapy and exercise induced muscle damage: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2013 Apr 23;8(4):e62356. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0062356. PMID: 23626806; PMCID: PMC3633882.
Leppäluoto J, Westerlund T, Huttunen P, Oksa J, Smolander J, Dugué B, Mikkelsson M. Effects of long-term whole-body cold exposures on plasma concentrations of ACTH, beta-endorphin, cortisol, catecholamines and cytokines in healthy females. Scand J Clin Lab Invest. 2008;68(2):145-53. doi: 10.1080/00365510701516350. PMID: 18382932.
Šrámek, P., Šimečková, M., Janský, L. et al. Human physiological responses to immersion into water of different temperatures. Eur J Appl Physiol 81, 436–442 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1007/s004210050065