Cool Down, Recover Faster

Hardcore high-intensity training can leave you feeling like you’ve been run over by a truck. Fatigue and soreness gets worse over time if you don’t recover adequately between training sessions. The nature of cross-training workouts is to push hard and fast all the time. Supplements, such as creatine monohydrate, caffeine and whey protein, can prevent fatigue, promote recovery and increase training intensity. But sometimes, nutrition is not enough. So what is?

Cold water.

Scientific studies show that post-exercise cold-water baths decrease inflammation, speed recovery, promote post-workout healing, reduce muscle soreness, decrease muscle pain and stiffness, and boost energy levels.

Cool Down, Recover Faster


Cold-water baths help your body return to its normal level by causing rapid recovery of the cardiovascular and nervous systems. French researchers led by Hani Al Haddad found that water immersion activated the parasympathetic nervous system, which “tunes down” the body’s activation level. At the onset of exercise, the body stimulates the sympathetic nervous system – “the fight or flight system,” which increases adrenaline release, heart rate and blood pressure. The sympathetic response also directs blood flow to exercising muscles.

After exercise, the body slowly returns to a resting mode by gradually reducing the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and activating the parasympathetic system. Water immersion puts pressure on the skin (hydrostatic pressure), which pushes blood toward the heart and promotes recovery. The increases in central blood volume (blood returning to the heart) turns on the parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces blood pressure, heart rate and muscle blood flow, and promotes normal resting metabolism. Boosting blood flow to vital organs after exercise is like a shot in the arm that increases energy levels and promotes recovery.

Cold water immersion also improves performance during subsequent workouts. Separate studies by Australian and French researchers showed that post-exercise cold-water baths improved strength and power on workouts held on the same day and on subsequent days. Sprint cyclists were able to maintain performance better over a five-day period when taking cold-water baths after workouts than athletes using passive recovery or hot-water baths.

Cold-water baths showed mixed results in promoting recovery from several workouts conducted on the same day.


  • Before taking a cold-water bath, cool down after exercise by reducing the intensity of activity gradually. For example, keep moving at a slow pace after completing an intense cross-training workout. Gentle static stretching after exercise will also help the muscles relax and might prevent post-exercise muscle soreness.
  • Cold baths can trigger potentially deadly breathing and heart responses in some people. Sudden cold-water immersion can cause a gasping response, which could result in drowning if you jump into a lake, stream or cold pool. It can also cause heart rhythm disturbances that could result in cardiac arrest. People with heart or respiratory disease should check with their physician before using this technique.
  • Use cool water rather than cold or ice water for immersion. Excessive cold water can cause violent shivering, which can trigger further muscle damage. Cool water, on the other hand, helps blood return to the heart and provides tissue compression that reduces pain and decreases inflammation. A swimming pool or tub containing 70- to 80-degree water is an excellent choice. If not too cold, athletes can jump into a stream or lake.
  • A cool-water soak is better than a cold shower. Cool water immersion promotes recovery, in part, by compressing tissue with water pressure. Cold shower water provides little compression.
  • Five to fifteen minutes of cool-water immersion is sufficient. You will notice a positive difference within a few minutes. The physical benefits of this technique occur quickly— more is not better.


Bahnert A, Norton K, Lock P. Association between post-game recovery protocols, physical and perceived recovery, and performance in elite AFL players. J Sci Med Sport. Published online June 2012.

Haddad H-A, et al. Effect of cold or thermo-neutral water immersion on post-exercise heart rate recovery and heart rate variability indices. Auton Neurosci: Bas Clin 156: 111–116, 2010

Higgins T, Climstein M, Cameron M. Evaluation of hydrotherapy, using passive tests and power tests, for recovery across a cyclic week of competitive rugby union. J Strength Cond Res. published online, July 12, 2012.

Kahanov L. et al. Exertional rhabdomyolysis in a collegiate American football player after preventive cold- water immersion: a case report. J Athl Train. 47: 228-32, 2012

Peiffer J, et al. Effect of cold water immersion on repeated 1-km cycling performance in the heat. J Sci Med Sport. 13: 112–116, 2010

Pournot H. et al. Short-term effects of various water immersions on recovery from exhaustive intermittent exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 111: 1287-1295, 2011.

Stanley J, Peake JM, Buchheit M. Consecutive days of cold water immersion: effects on cycling performance and heart rate variability. Eur J Appl Physiol. Published online, July 3, 2012.

Vaile J, et al. Effect of hydrotherapy on recovery from fatigue. Int J Sports Med. 29: 539-544, 2008.