When it comes to recovery, everyone seems to be looking for an edge. Cold plunges are in vogue right now. Heck, I’ve jumped on that train too. And the question everyone seems to be asking is “do they work?” First off, that’s a poor question. We need to define what “work” means. What most people mean is, will cold plunges help with post workout recovery?
The answer is a little more complicated than that. Before diving in, it’s important to note, even talking about cold plunges for recovery is putting the cart before the horse. If you’re worried about recovery from training, follow these steps:
- Get enough sleep. Sleep is THE most important recovery tool. If you’re not regularly getting 7+ hours of sleep per night, that’s step 1 right there. Don’t even consider cold therapy until your sleep is on point.
- Eat enough food. Especially protein. One thing many of our most recent nutrition challenge participants found was that they were undereating based on their activity levels. I can’t tell you how many comments we received along the same lines of “I feel so much better in general.” As regular trainees, we get accustomed to feeling muscular soreness, and maybe a little joint pain from time to time. Properly fueling our bodies ensures that we can repair our tissues properly.
- Move! The best movement to clear out soreness and fatigue is the movement that made you sore in the first place. Legs sore from squats? Do some slow squats. We need it to be slow enough to use our Type 1 muscle fibers. These fibers can use waste products from exercise (pyruvate) as fuel. Also, the lymphatic system is instrumental in clearing waste. Unlike our circulatory systems which have a pump (the heart), the lymphatic system requires external input to help it clear. Movement is one of these inputs.
Once you’ve got 1, 2, and 3 dialed in, you can start exploring other methods of recovery. Which brings us back to cold plunges and cold therapy, and our original question – do they work? Let’s dive in.
What is cold therapy? It could be:
- Submersing yourself in cold water (with or without ice)
- Dunking your face in cold water
- Taking a cold shower
- (Note – the face plunge and cold shower are supposedly steppingstones to build up to full body immersion)
As for whether they work, there are studies both in support of and against cold therapy for recovery. I’m just going to enumerate the pros and cons of cold therapy, and then discuss the implication for recovery.
- Increased levels of brown adipose tissue.
- Increased hormone (adiponectin) activation.
- Increased metabolism/reduced blood sugar.
- Lymphatic stimulation for clearing of fatigue/soreness.
Basically, most benefits are associated with brown adipose tissue (BAT), AKA brown fat. Your body has 2 kinds of fat, white fat, which is used for energy storage, and brown fat, which is metabolically active, meaning easier to burn. It can also help convert white fat into brown fat, making it more usable. In other words, cold therapy can help change the fat stores of your body/
Cold therapy has been shown to activate the hormone adiponectin, which converts BAT into usable energy. Since you end up using body fat as an energy source, you don’t use your glycogen stores in your muscles. Therefore, your muscles can use that glycogen for repair and growth, which is where the argument for cold therapy as an anabolic came from. So, the prime benefit has to do with conversion of the body’s fat stores, and any other benefit occurs further down the line as a secondary result.
As far as muscle soreness goes, cold therapy can numb you to the point where you don’t feel the pain anymore. And, when you get out, the contrast between being cold and returning to normal is another external input to help clear the lymphatic system. This is a big reason you might see a CrossFit Games athlete use a cold plunge in between events.
- Vasoconstriction blunts adaptation to training.
Now the counterpoint: when we train, we are deliberately causing an inflammatory response in our systems. We WANT our bodies to pump the necessary materials to our muscles to repair them, causing us to grow bigger and stronger. These materials are delivered through our circulatory system. When we use cold therapy, our blood vessels constrict, preventing that delivery. So, a cold plunge following a strength training session can prevent the gains you’re training for.
So, on the one hand, cold therapy keeps our glycogen stores full, which can be used to repair muscle tissue. On the other hand, it prevents the influx of new glycogen, which can blunt our training response. Therefore, this becomes a question of timing. If we cold plunge, we want to make sure it’s NOT post training. Ideally, on a rest day, or conditioning day would work. If that’s not possible, leave as much time post strength training as you can.
Furthermore, you can limit the duration of your cold plunge. You can get the BAT benefits with about 10 minutes of cold therapy per week. If you do this in a single session, you’re DEFINITELY going to blunt a training response. If you spread it out over the week to 2 minutes per day, you can get the cumulative BAT effect while minimizing vasoconstriction.
Lastly, let’s bring it back to the beginning of the article. When it comes to recovery, sleep, food, and movement are important, in that order. Dial those in, and you’re 95% of the way there. Other recovery methods – supplements, cold therapy, etc., are for the last 5%. Don’t put the cart before the horse. See you in the gym.