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Contrast Therapy: Contrast (Hot/Cold) Immersion Therapy and the Benefits for Athletes

Contrast Therapy: Contrast (Hot/Cold) Immersion Therapy and the Benefits for Athletes

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • History
  • Overview: What Is Contrast Therapy?
  • Benefits of Contrast Therapy
  • Timing the Intervals (Alternating Hot/Cold)
  • DIY Hot/Cold Therapy
  • Best Hot/Cold Therapy Equipment

  • Introduction

    If you’ve ever stepped out of a hot tub in the cold of winter–taking your body from 100-plus-degree water to a possibly snowy deck in freezing temperature–you unknowingly got a taste of contrast therapy, sometimes known as hot/cold therapy.

    Contrast therapy is a form of hydrotherapy or immersion therapy that has a long history helping athletes recover from the rigors of intense training.

    History of Contrast Therapy

    Elements of heat therapy and cold therapy have existed separately for hundreds, if not, thousands of years.

    Finding relief by soaking in natural hot springs likely dates back to the Neolithic Age. Steam rooms and hot baths became popular across various cultures before 1000 CE. Of course, the ancient Greeks were famous for their bath culture.

    Cold water/ice baths date back to at least the 1700s, where English physicians believed they could treat everything from constipation and “numbness of the eyes” to nightmares and even cancer.

    Combining the two–a hot sauna followed by a plunge into snow or cold water–has been popular in Finland for hundreds of years.

    Contrast therapy has been popular with endurance athletes like runners and cyclists for decades but athletes of all sorts are beginning to embrace hot/cold immersion therapy.

    What is Contrast Therapy: An Overview

    Contrast therapy is a form of hydrotherapy that can be as simple as subjecting the muscles to hot water and then cold water in alternating fashion.

    Quickly switching between hot and cold, sometimes known as Rapid Contrast Therapy, causes vasoconstriction (the narrowing and constriction of blood vessels) and vasodilation (the opening and widening of blood vessels) in rapid succession.

    Going from vasoconstriction to vasodilation creates a “pump” effect that flushes debris and waste.

    This process helps with the recovery process for athletes and offers a host of other benefits for athletes and non-athletes alike.

    Benefits of Contrast Therapy

    Hot/cold contrast therapy offers a number of positive impacts on health, particularly as it pertains to recovery:

    • Decrease in inflammation
    • Decrease in swelling
    • Decrease in edema
    • Improved circulation
    • Stronger immune system
    • Reduced soreness

    The reduction in inflammation that contrast therapy offers is why it’s been popular with endurance athletes for decades.

    According to the National University of Health Sciences, contrast therapy showers can boost the immune system against common illnesses like colds and flu, extending the benefits far beyond the likes of distance runners and cyclists.

    In particular, contrast therapy done less than an hour after exercise has shown to be effective at reducing muscle soreness later on.

    Contrast Therapy: Timing the Intervals

    Because contrast therapy relies on alternating hot and cold, the cadence and timing of each session is one of the most important components of the treatment.

    The “hot” portion of the hydrotherapy typically lasts from 1 to 5 minutes, with 3 minutes being a popular duration. The cold portion, whether a full-body immersion in an ice bath or a more targeted cold application, runs for 30 to 60 seconds.

    The alternating of hot and cold can be repeated for 20 minutes, ending after a turn in the cold portion of the therapy.

    DIY Hot/Cold Contrast Therapy

    Getting an introduction to contrast therapy can be as simple as applying ice packs after a hot shower.

    Alternating the temperature of shower water can also provide a makeshift contrast therapy experience.

    You can also create DIY heating pads by filling a pillowcase with standard white rice and microwaving it for 60 seconds. DIY ice packs can be as simple as placing wet towels in the freezer or placing ice cubes in a ziploc bag.

    Best Hot/Cold Contrast Therapy Equipment

    If you’re ready for invest in the best hot/cold contrast therapy wearables and devices, Recovery for Athletes has you covered:

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