After a complete apocalyptic monster of a workout session, after collapsing on the floor in a heap of sweat, or staggering to reach your water bottle to chug the last of the liquid and quench your thirst, the next thing that most people think about is jumping into a shower to wash off all that sweat and bacteria, and also to ease those muscles and joints.
Most of us, me included until very recently, go for the hot shower to really massage those muscles and make the body feel loose and replenished.
But more and more research is showing the huge benefits of a cold shower after a training session, with a lot of evidence stacking up that’s making me dial down the heat once I hit the showers.
Just like a proper cool down after a heavy gym workout will set you on the track to a faster recovery, adding a cold shower into the mix will supercharge the recovery process even further and gear your body up to repair itself faster.
Adding just five minutes of cool down to your workout helps in:
- Reducing the light-headed sensation that you can get after an intense workout
- Forcing your muscles to recover faster
- Stopping the blood pooling in your muscles, mobilizing it back through your heart and lungs to re-energize your body
After the cool down
This is where a cold shower takes all the hard work that you’ve done in the gym and gives it a little more edge, here’s how. Cold water hitting your body post-workout does a few key things to your physiology.
Protect your internal organs: the magic loophole
Your body interprets the cold water hitting your body as a threat. We have more than two hundred thousand years of hard-coded DNA woven into our systems, which activates response pathways to protect us from the environmental forces that used to threaten our existence on this planet. As soon as the cold water hits your body, it’s going to do its best to move your blood from the outer extremities of your body, away from your skin and towards your internal organs to protect them.
This is great post-workout because as the blood moves away from your muscles into your internal organs, it carries lactic acid and lactate away with it. Lactic acid is the compound that your muscles produce when you exercise. Now, new research has shown that lactic acid is not the enemy that we once believed it to be, and I’ll save that for another post, but after you’ve worked out you need to wash it out of your muscles. By way of the internal organ blood rush, a cold shower does the job nicely!
Delayed Onset Muscle Syndrome (DOMS) is a side-effect of the strenuous workout. Metabolic activities are enhanced by the tearing down and rebuilding of muscle cells. These small tears in the muscle fibres and the subsequent cell damage is the way that muscles grow, but there’s also an inflammatory element that leads to the condition known as DOMS. Wake up a few days after a bench session and your chest is tender, just the slightest touch and you’re in pain. That’s DOMS. There’s no getting away from it, but you can reduce it; two ways:
- Anti-inflammatory drugs can reduce the feeling of tenderness, but when it comes to DOMS they also have been proven to have a catabolic effect: the reduction in pain is coupled with a reduction in muscle gains
- It’s been suggested that a cold shower will minimize post-exercise muscle inflammation and thereby also reduce DOMS. And without the catabolic effects of anti-inflammatories.
Brown fat = good; white fat = bad
When our goal is to burn fat and build muscle, scientific understanding has really come on in the last few years, and when it comes to stripping fat from our bodies new research shows that brown fat – the ‘good fat’ that surrounds our organs – can play a part in stripping out white fat, the ‘bad fat that sits on our stomachs, hips and thighs. Emerging research is proving that it’s possible to boost our levels of brown fat, which is considered healthful since it actually helps us burn calories and sucks white fat out of the rest of the body.
How can this be done? Well, it seems exposure to lower temperatures increases the activity of a gene that converts white fat to brown, to trip in that magic loophole that protects your body from shutting down.
The Metabolic Runway
…and to top it all off, taking a cold shower increases the metabolic rate because your body is trying to warm itself up. Scandinavian research shows that exposing your body to cold temperatures could increase your metabolic rate fifteen fold.
Showering with confidence!
Now, here’s the thing. To channel all this positive joojoo you don’t need to take a cold shower. Dang, that’s a fact. You can take your normal hot shower, but then knock the heat right down for the last 30 seconds. That is enough to trigger the pathways that make all this good stuff happen.
So next time you hit the showers after an awesome workout, dial down the temperature and reap the benefits!
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Header image ‘Dark Shower’ by Rikard Elofsson.
Shower tap image ‘Cold’ by Andrew Seaman.