Let’s be real: Most people don't enjoy the cold. Why? Freezing temperatures are harsh on the body, which is uncomfortable. The body reacts appropriately, as it shivers and goes numb. But comfort breeds complacency, and making progress in any training program — especially when training for a Spartan race — requires embracing harsh conditions. If you can get past the initial discomfort of the cold and adjust to the temperature drop, cold therapy is incredibly beneficial for your body and its muscles after a tough workout.
Common Methods for Cold Therapy
There are a few methods of cold therapy exposure, including cryotherapy, ice packs and wraps, and topicals, and other kinds of menthol-containing gels and creams with cooling, numbing properties. However, there’s also another cold therapy option to consider: cold-water therapy. Simply put, cold-water therapy is similar to an ice bath, where you submerge yourself in cold water following a training session.
Sitting in a tub of frigid water and ice takes some getting used to (as the cold temperature will shock your body initially), but the sensation will become less noticeable and uncomfortable with a little time and patience. And if you can handle it, you’ll reap some epic recovery rewards.
If you don't have time to prepare your own cold-water bath after every training session (it can get time-consuming), try the Spartan-approved Cold Plunge, an ice water tub for both indoor or outdoor use that provides cooling, filtration, and sanitation benefits in an ice-cold water bath that's ready for use whenever you need it.
Here’s everything you need to know about cold-water therapy and its benefits, as well as how best to implement it into your regular training regimen.
How Does Cold-Water Therapy Work?
Although intense training sessions ultimately benefit your body and muscles — where you’re likely to experience gains in strength and mass over time — training does cause some immediate damage to your muscle fibers and tissues. Working out challenges them, and strenuous activity will deplete electrolytes, fluids, and fuel stores, as well as increase the risk of soreness and DOMS later on.
That’s why hydrating immediately after (and throughout) training and eating a snack within 30 minutes of completion is essential for recovery, as well as techniques that use physical touch and senses to stretch and soothe those tired muscles. (That’s where stretching, massages, and cold-water therapy come in.)
Remember, however, that inflammation after exercise is normal.
“Swelling in your muscles post-workout happens due to an influx of white blood cells that act as an anti-inflammatory weapon to repair the microscopic damage that working out has caused,” personal trainer and Villanova Men’s Basketball Head Performance Coach, John Shackleton, MS, CSCS, explains.
Fortunately, an ice bath afterward can help, and it offers several benefits that can improve your recovery time and soothe those tired, strained muscles.
Cold-Water Therapy Alleviates Pain and Proactively Attacks Soreness
Ice baths speed the recovery process by reducing post-workout pain and preventing further inflammation or soreness, which may often appear the following morning after a tough workout. Shortening recovery time will get rid of muscle tension and better strengthen and repair your muscles so that they’re healthy and free from any lingering pain.
“The practice of cold-water therapy promotes vasoconstriction, or the shrinking of your blood vessels, in order to better recuperate them,” Shackleton says.
According to research in the Journal of Emergencies, Trauma, and Shock, constriction of blood vessels promotes the elimination of waste and other toxins from the body, such as lactic acid, to allow muscles to recover faster.
“As blood vessels reopen and circulation improves, the body resets and balances with greater immunity” he explains.
Ice Bath Sessions Prevent Injury from Overuse
Without adequate recovery, there’s more room for the adverse effects of overtraining to set in, causing all of your hard work and dedication to backfire. Working out too often, too intensely, or for too long each session increases inflammation, and, unless managed and treated, inflammation can build up in time and cause an injury from overuse.
Regular cold-water therapy sessions will keep your body safe and strong, allowing you to safely and consistently train your hardest and get the most out of every workout.
“Not only does cold-water therapy help athletes recover more quickly from workouts, but also it reduces the chance of developing injuries, too,” Shackleton says.