If you’re a weightlifter, runner, or any type of athlete, you’ve probably looked for ways to prevent muscle soreness. You may have heard of cold water immersion, hot water immersion or even contrast baths themselves. Athletes and therapists have used ice baths and hot baths for recovery post-workout and have found them effective for relieving soreness.
If you haven’t heard of contrast baths, or just want to learn more about them, we will walk you through how they work and how you can incorporate them into your recovery routine.
What is a contrast bath?
Contrast baths consist of alternating immersion of a limb or the body in hot then cold water. This technique is thought to be more effective for post-exercise recovery than just hot or cold water immersion alone2.
One study has attempted to explain the physiology behind contrast baths. The repeated hot and cold cause temporary vasodilation and vasoconstriction, simulating a pumping effect in the blood vessels2. It is thought that this vascular pumping effect increases blood flow to the tissues resulting in enhanced oxygen delivery, waste removal, and therefore recovery2.
Although this proposal appears intuitive, more research needs to be done to form a conclusion on the physiological process involved in contrast baths.
Most evidence for contrast water immersion is anecdotal. Many athletes and therapy clinics use contrast baths and find them effective for reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) post-exercise.
There are many different opinions on the best procedures for using contrast baths. Reviews have suggested effective ranges of temperature and timing for applications1,3.
- 3:1 or 4:1 ratio for time spent in warm vs cold water
- cold water immersion duration between 10-15 minutes
Cold Water Temperature
Warm Water Temperature
Although the physiological process has not yet been concluded, contrast baths have been shown to be effective for reducing muscle soreness post-exercise. Along with scraping, this could be an excellent technique to add to your recovery game.
- Cochrane, D. J. (2004). Alternating hot and cold water immersion for athlete recovery: A Review. Physical Therapy in Sport, 5(1), 26–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ptsp.2003.10.002
- Shadgan, B., Pakravan, A. H., Hoens, A., & Reid, W. D. (2018). Contrast baths, intramuscular hemodynamics, and oxygenation as monitored by near-infrared spectroscopy. Journal of Athletic Training, 53(8), 782–787. https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-127-17
- Versey, N. G., Halson, S. L., & Dawson, B. T. (2013). Water immersion recovery for athletes: Effect on exercise performance and practical recommendations. Sports Medicine, 43(11), 1101–1130. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0063-8