The Research Behind Ice Baths, Sauna Sessions, and Contrast Therapy & muscle building vs recovery:
Updated: Jul 7
Extreme temperature treatments, such as ice baths and sauna sessions, have been embraced by many for their potential health benefits. These treatments involve exposing the body to extreme temperatures, and they can have various effects on the body's physiology.
The Science Behind Sauna:
Saunas have been utilized for their health benefits for centuries. A study in 2018 reported that regular sauna use is associated with reduced risks of high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, pulmonary diseases, and neurocognitive diseases such as dementia (Laukkanen et al., 2018). Additionally, saunas help alleviate pain associated with inflammation and arthritis.
The body's response to sauna is akin to that of moderate to high-intensity exercise. There is an increase in heart rate, body temperature rises, sweating occurs, and hormones like noradrenaline and growth hormone are produced. This is particularly beneficial for women, who generally sweat less and start sweating later than men due to hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle. Sauna treatments can improve heat tolerance and performance by resetting thermoregulation thresholds.
Sauna sessions also lead to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, and reduce cortisol levels, which are associated with stress. However, regular users may find that they need longer or more intense sessions to achieve the same dopamine release over time.
It is recommended to have sauna sessions of 25 to 30 minutes at temperatures not exceeding 74 degrees Celsius. For women, a 9-day heat acclimation protocol has been found to be effective.
The Science Behind Cold Plunges:
Cold plunges or ice baths are often used for recovery after intense workouts. The cold causes vasoconstriction, which reduces inflammation and pain. Cold water immersion can be beneficial as it speeds up vasoconstriction after exertion, helping to increase blood pressure and circulation into the muscles.
Cold plunges have also been known to reduce inflammation, improve hormonal and metabolic health, increase fat-burning metabolism, and boost mood.
Contrast therapy involves alternating between hot and cold treatments. This therapy is believed to enhance recovery by improving blood flow and reducing muscle soreness. The alternation between vasodilation in the heat and vasoconstriction in the cold can help flush out waste products from the muscles.
A study by Vaile et al. (2008) suggests that contrast water therapy is more effective in strength recovery compared to passive recovery or cold water immersion alone. The recommended protocol for contrast therapy is to alternate between 1 minute of hot water (around 38-43 degrees Celsius) and 1 minute of cold water (around 10-15 degrees Celsius) for a total of 6 to 8 cycles, three times a week.
Effect on Muscle Building:
It is important to note that while sauna sessions and cold plunges can be beneficial for endurance athletes, they are not effective for building muscle. In fact, engaging in these treatments immediately after strength training can hinder muscle growth. Therefore, it is advisable to schedule these treatments as far away from strength training sessions as possible.
Both sauna sessions and cold plunges have their benefits, but it's essential to use them wisely and listen to your body. Contrast therapy can be an effective way to combine the benefits of both. However, individual responses may vary, and what works for one person may not work for another.
Contrast therapy, sauna sessions, and cold plunges can be beneficial in various ways, including reducing inflammation, improving cardiovascular health, and aiding in recovery. However, it is crucial to understand that these treatments are not effective for muscle building and should be scheduled separately from strength training sessions. Additionally, the body may adapt to these treatments over time, requiring more extended or more intense sessions to achieve the same effects. If you're experiencing a similar scenario in relation to exercising, read my other post entitled: "Have You Hit A Plateau?" Remember, it is essential to listen to your body and find the minimum effective dose that provides benefits without causing stress or harm. For endurance athletes, these treatments can be particularly beneficial in improving performance and recovery.
Laukkanen, T., Khan, H., Zaccardi, F., & Laukkanen, J. A. (2018). Association between sauna bathing and fatal cardiovascular and all-cause mortality events. JAMA internal medicine, 175(4), 542-548.
Vaile, J., Halson, S., Gill, N., & Dawson, B. (2008). Effect of hydrotherapy on the signs and symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 102(4), 447-455.
Mero, A., Tornberg, J., Mäntykoski, M., & Puurtinen, R. (2015). Effects of far-infrared sauna bathing on recovery from strength and endurance training sessions in men. Springerplus, 4(1), 321.