Two things I always remind athletes to chase when looking into building or enhancing their recovery routine to improve performance are to make sure the activities are easy enough to complete regularly and make sure it is something that doesn’t require any additional effort to an already busy day many student-athletes have.
Contrast showers which are a great recovery option for increasing blood flow to sore or stiff muscles check both of these boxes. Contrast showers, also known as contrast hydrotherapy are showers in which you alternate your body temperature from hot to cold and back again by alternating between hot and cold water. These showers have been found to hold a ton of benefits and might be just the protocol to add to your weekly recovery routine.
Reduced Muscle Soreness
Cold water exposure helps reduce inflammation and injury by reducing blood flow to the affected area. One study done in Australia found that an athlete’s perception of recovery following contrast hydrotherapy was much higher than regular showers and passive recovery methods (1). Like having a brand new pair of cleats and the look good, feel good, play good manta, the psychological benefits here cannot be overlooked. Another study found cold water exposure to be effective in reducing and improving the recovery of functional performance deficiencies that result from Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, as opposed to other means of passive recovery (2).
Contrast showers typically feel great immediately after of the day after a game or training session and research suggests this method is most effective within 72 hours of training or injury (2). A full contrast shower typically consists of three complete cycles of switching between hot and cold water. During each cycle, the goal is to increase the temperature of the water and decrease the temperature of the cold water so that the blood vessels continually respond. During periods of hot water, these vessels dilate and move blood to the surface of the skin. The cold water has the opposite effect making these vessels constrict and move blood deeper into the body.
An easy principle to remember when it comes to contrast showers is to keep things to a 3-to-1 ratio or aim to be under hot water three times longer than you are under cold water. This allows you to stay flexible and complete only what you have time to do that day. A few sample timing variations have been included below.
All in all contrast showers are one of the easiest methods to enhance recovery after tough competitions or training. This method is also not a new idea, it has allowed athletes to reduce inflammation and support muscle function for many many years. Give it a try and see how you bounce back.
- Juliff LE, Halson SL, Bonetti DL, Versey NG, Driller MW, Peiffer JJ. Influence of contrast shower and water immersion on recovery in elite netballers. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Aug;28(8):2353-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000417. PMID: 24531433.
- Vaile, Joanna & Gill, Nicholas & Blazevich, Anthony. (2007). The Effect of Contrast Water Therapy on Symptoms of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 21. 697-702. 10.1519/R-19355.1.