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Cold plunges and general cold water therapy have gained a lot of traction in the strength and conditioning community in the last decade or so. But for good reason, because there are plenty of potential benefits of voluntary cold exposure. 

But here’s the question: Is it best to cold plunge before or after workouts? Is it the best form of active recovery? And how does it compare to some of the best muscle recovery tools on the market? 

The truth is the answer is not that simple nor are the reasons behind it. Because there are quite a few nuances on this topic, I sat down with Dr. Michael Masi, DPT, SCS, CSCS, CISSN, USAW-1, and founder of Masi Fitness, to discuss cold plunge timing and debunk cold exposure myths. 

It’s also worth noting that cold plunges are just one type of cold therapy. Other methods include cryotherapy, ice baths, cold showers, and cold water swimming.

Medical disclaimer: This article is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. For health advice, contact a licensed healthcare provider.

What Is a Cold Plunge?

A cold plunge sounds pretty much exactly like what it is: plunging your body into cold water. Using a bathtub, a DIY setup, or one of the best cold plunge tubs (with a chiller for temperature regulation), you immerse your entire body—usually up to your chest or neck—into cold water.

Cold plunges usually range from 59 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit, but can be colder for folks with cold immersion tolerance. 

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“Cold water immersion is typically just a few minutes at a time, but the stimulus creates a physiological response and, in turn, results in potential health benefits,” says Dr. Masi, DPT.  

A 2022 review published by the International Journal of Circumpolar Health1 discusses the four main physiological responses that occur during cold water therapy: 

  • Thermoregulation: This is your body’s natural response to regulating your internal temperature by increasing blood flow to vital organs by dilating certain blood vessels, while blood flow to the skin actually constricts.
  • Shivering thermogenesis: If your nervous system can’t regulate via thermoregulation, you’ll start to shiver as a natural response to increase your core body temperature. 
  • Nonshivering thermogenesis: This response can increase blood flow to brown adipose tissue (BAT) which can potentially reduce brown fat tissue, body fat, and help with overall weight loss. 
  • Cold shock: If you’re exposed to cold water for too long (or the water is too cold for your tolerance) your core temperature may drop too low which can cause rapid increase in your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. This can sometimes lead to uncontrollable hyperventilation or hypertension.

When to Do a Cold Plunge: Before or After Workouts?

Now that we’ve covered the physiological adaptations that occur with cold water exposure, let’s answer the question about cold plunges and timing: pre- or post-workout?

Most studies we found research the effects of cold water therapy after training as a part of recovery from intense workouts. And in general, that’s the recommendation from many health professionals. 

However, Dr. Masi, DPT, suggests that cold plunges should be timed away from your exercise routine. Dr. Masi doesn’t necessarily suggest going directly from your workout into a cold plunge. 

“Cold water immersion can help with recovery because it reduces the inflammation from working out and can give you the feeling of reduced soreness,” says Dr. Masi. 

“In reality, inflammation is a natural response to working out and we want that to aid muscle growth and the response for increased muscle mass. If we were to plunge after workouts consistently, we are potentially stunting our body’s natural response to muscle growth,” he explains. 

He goes on to say that for high-level athletes cold plunges may be necessary to help reduce the perception of soreness and allow an athlete to get back to their sport faster. For example, a baseball player with a double header, back-to-back game schedule may need to use cold therapy as a way to reduce inflammation and muscle damage and be ready for the next game quickly. 

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cold plunge initial reaction

“Ice baths are much more applicable in sports rehabilitation versus a recovery method for traditional strength training sessions,” Dr. Masi adds. 

While there is a lot of buzz around cold water therapy in the fitness industry, there are studies that support Dr. Masi’s claims. A 2012 random control trial published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology2 found that cold water immersion can help reduce the perception of muscle soreness, but that same study notes that results are rather unclear on actual muscle recovery. 

In a 2018 review published in Frontiers in Physiology3, researchers discuss that massage is one of the most effective tools for reducing inflammation from workouts and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The same review notes that perceived fatigue can be effectively managed using compression techniques or cold water immersion.

In a more recent 2022 study published by Sports Medicine4, researchers found that submerging in water with cold temperatures after high-intensity workouts was more effective in reducing muscle soreness than after eccentric workouts (like hypertrophy and bodybuilding-style training). This study supports Dr. Masi’s earlier statement that cold plunge therapy techniques may offer more benefits to athletes than the average home gym owner. 

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Although this is not directly related to full-body cold water immersion, I think it’s worth mentioning that Dr. Gabe Mirking, author of the 1978 best-selling Sports Medicine Book, coined the term RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) for the treatment of athletic injuries. On Dr. Mirkin website5, he writes, “Coaches have used my “RICE” guideline for decades, but now it appears that both Ice and complete Rest may delay healing, instead of helping.”

Furthermore, a 2010 study published by the Journal of Emergencies, Trauma, and Shock6 recommends proper warm-up and cool-down periods, sufficient rest, gentle stretching, balanced diet, plenty of fluids, and massage as ways to recover from exercise in place of ice water immersion. 

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Other Benefits of Cold Plunges

When it comes to timing your cold plunges for workout recovery purposes, we just learned that hypertrophy workouts may not benefit from post-workout ice baths. However, there are still benefits to dipping into cold water that don’t specifically have to do with workout recovery. 

  • In a 2010 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America7 found that the combination of cold water exposure, hyperventilation-style breathwork (like the Wim Hof Method), and meditation may activate your sympathetic nervous system which releases norepinephrine (aka adrenaline) and may potentially help your immune system to better fight infection. 
  • There may be potential mental health benefits from regular cold water exposure. A 2023 BMJ Military Study8 found that cold water immersion positively impacted mental status and reduced anxiety in soldiers. 
  • A Biology9 study from 2019 found that there is a potential link between ice baths and increased energy levels in brown fat tissues which may help aid weight loss, regulate glucose levels, and stabilize insulin sensitivity. 

Cold Plunge Before or After Workout: Final Thoughts 

When it comes to cold plunging before or after workouts, it turns out that the answer is more complex than a simple yes or no, this or that. 

As it turns out, cold plunges can inhibit the body’s natural response to recovery from exercise. Dr. Masi, DPT, suggests timing cold plunges away from exercise times and possibly even waiting until non-training or recovery days. 

In fact, one study6 even recommends proper cool-down, sufficient rest, gentle stretching, drinking fluids, and massage over cold water exposure to help with workout recovery and overall performance.

Cold Plunge Before or After Workout: FAQ

How do you prepare your body for a cold plunge?

According to Wim Hof (aka the Iceman) who created the Wim Hof Method, teaches his students to start with one-minute cold showers at the end of a warm shower to start preparing your body for longer exposures, colder temperatures, and eventually full-body immersion. 

How long should you cold plunge after a workout?

There are many studies supporting the fact that cold plunges are not necessarily the best method for muscle recovery and can actually stunt the body’s natural response for muscle recovery and muscle growth. 

What not to do after a cold plunge?

In our written guide on how to cold plunge, we outline the steps you should take before, during, and after plunging. Although it might be tempting to turn on the shower to a warm water setting, it’s important to allow your body to warm up naturally, although you can wrap yourself in a towel to warm up a bit quicker.

References

  1. Esperland D, de Weerd L, Mercer JB. Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water – a continuing subject of debate. Int J Circumpolar Health. 2022;81(1):2111789. doi:10.1080/22423982.2022.2111789
  2. Stanley J, Buchheit M, Peake JM. The effect of post-exercise hydrotherapy on subsequent exercise performance and heart rate variability. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012;112(3):951-961. doi:10.1007/s00421-011-2052-7
  3. Dupuy O, Douzi W, Theurot D, Bosquet L, Dugué B. An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Front Physiol. 2018;9:403. Published 2018 Apr 26. doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
  4. Moore, E., Fuller, J.T., Buckley, J.D. et al. Impact of Cold-Water Immersion Compared with Passive Recovery Following a Single Bout of Strenuous Exercise on Athletic Performance in Physically Active Participants: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis and Meta-regression. Sports Med 52, 1667–1688 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-022-01644-9
  5. Mirkin, G. Why Ice Delays Recovery. 2021 May 9. 
  6. Lateef F. Post exercise ice water immersion: Is it a form of active recovery?. J Emerg Trauma Shock. 2010;3(3):302. doi:10.4103/0974-2700.66570
  7. Kox M, van Eijk LT, Zwaag J, et al. Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans.  Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014;111(20):7379-7384. doi:10.1073/pnas.1322174111
  8. Néma J, Zdara J, Lašák P, et al. Impact of cold exposure on life satisfaction and physical composition of soldiers [published online ahead of print, 2023 Jan 4]. BMJ Mil Health. 2023;e002237. doi:10.1136/military-2022-002237
  9. Peres Valgas da Silva C, Hernández-Saavedra D, White JD, Stanford KI. Cold and Exercise: Therapeutic Tools to Activate Brown Adipose Tissue and Combat Obesity. Biology (Basel). 2019;8(1):9. Published 2019 Feb 12. doi:10.3390/biology8010009

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Cold plunges and general cold water therapy have gained a lot of traction in the strength and conditioning community in the last decade or so. But for good reason, because there are plenty of potential benefits of voluntary cold exposure. But here’s the question: Is it best to cold plunge before or after workouts? Is it the best form of active recovery? And how does it compare to some of the best muscle recovery tools on the market?   » Read more about: Cold Plunge Before or After Workout: Active Recovery Myths Debunked  » Read more

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Cold plunges and general cold water therapy have gained a lot of traction in the strength and conditioning community in the last decade or so. But for good reason, because there are plenty of potential benefits of voluntary cold exposure. But here’s the question: Is it best to cold plunge before or after workouts? Is it the best form of active recovery? And how does it compare to some of the best muscle recovery tools on the market?   » Read more about: Cold Plunge Before or After Workout: Active Recovery Myths Debunked  » Read more