Shower After Workout: Hot or Cold Water?

This is a guest post, by Lisa Jarman.


After a workout at the gym, or a session with a personal trainer, what’s the first thing you want to do? Well, top of most people’s list would be to jump in the shower and freshen up. But whether you turn up the heat or endure an icy blast, extreme temperatures can have a major effect on your body. Therefore, before you get all soaped up, it’s good to understand the different impacts of heat and cold. In medical terms, we’re talking vasodilation and vasoconstriction. But what does this mean in reality, and, more importantly, can showing in the wrong temperature cause any real problems?

Showering in cold water

Many experts and fitness professionals swear by a cold shower or ice bath (of between 10-15 Celsius/50-59 Fahrenheit) following a workout. While plunging into icy water straight after getting all hot and sweaty in the gym might be a shock to the system, the argument is that it cools the body down quickly and evenly. The drop in temperature then directs blood flow towards the vital organs; leaving the muscles alone to repair themselves and release any accumulated lactic acid. This is where the vasoconstriction comes in, as the cold water also narrows the blood vessels and lowers the temperature of damaged tissue. The result is that cold showers can help prevent bruising and swelling from waste and fluid build-up; same as applying an ice pack locally after an injury. It’s also been said that cold water showers can help increase immunity and circulation. Not to mention, they’ll sure help you shake off any post-workout slump. After all, think about those Scandinavians steaming themselves in the sauna then rolling around in the snow to cool down. If it’s good enough for them, then who are we to argue?

There are some things to bear in mind before you take the icy plunge, however. Extreme temperature changes like this can increase the heart rate and cause erratic breathing. While this rarely causes a problem in otherwise healthy people, prolonged exposure should be avoided and people with underlying heart problems or issues with high blood pressure should seek medical advice.

If the idea of jumping into an ice cold shower doesn’t appeal, you’ll be happy to know some fitness experts believe lukewarm water of around 24 C (75.2 F) is a better bet, post-workout. Warmer water allows the body to gradually recover its normal temperature without subjecting it to another extreme. Once you’re immersed and your body has started to cool down from the workout, you can then gradually decrease (or increase) the water temperature to more extreme levels.

Showering in hot water

If you’re thinking that hot water means vasodilation, you’d be right. A hot, steamy shower works to stimulate blood flow to the skin and soothe muscles. Increased blood flow is said to aid dispersing lactic acid from the body, which could help prevent or lessen aching muscles. Indeed, heat is often applied locally to ease some types of muscle pain, but do yourself a favour and don’t apply heat to damaged tissue. If you think you’ve strained, sprained or torn a muscle, get some ice on there and seek treatment. Think about how sports people are treated – when they stretcher the groaning player off, it’s ice they’re applying. Heat might relieve pain, but ice will help the healing process and get you back in the gym faster.

In truth, there are mixed views as to whether extreme heat helps the body recover its core temperature by triggering the natural cool-down mechanism, or has the effect of heating the body up even more when it is already hot from the exercise. But let’s face it, a hot shower after a hard workout feels good and can provide relaxation, even if the health benefits are not comparable to shower in cooler water. By the way, when talking about a hot shower, we don’t mean crazy hot. Generally, a hot shower should be around 40 C (105 F). Anything over 46C (115 F) can be dangerous. Basically, if you start to go bright red and smell cooking meat, back if off a few degrees.

Post-workout routine

While the experts argue over hot vs. cold water, an area about which there’s no argument is the necessity of following a solid post-exercise regime. This doesn’t mean spending the rest of the day on the couch or falling asleep at your desk; it means factoring in time to actively help your body recover from its ordeal. This includes a cool-down session following your workout, replacing lost fluids to boost recovery, and taking adequate rest to allow your body time to repair itself. Many people also benefit from a massage or active recovery, which is low-intensity exercise performed either during cool-down or the day following an intense workout. Again, if you think you’ve done some real damage, don’t be a hero and think you can just walk it off. If in doubt, seek expert advice.

A key aspect of post-workout recovery is refueling to build up your energy stores, which will be depleted, and repair muscle tissue. Ideally, it is best to eat within 30 to 60 minutes following a workout. This doesn’t mean hitting the drive-thru on the way home. You need to choose the right foods, which, in this case, are ones rich in complete protein and complex carbohydrate. Good options for protein include lean red meat, chicken, eggs, fish, or a natural whey protein powder, which can be mixed into a drink. The best carbohydrate sources are oats, brown rice and grains, as well as fruits and vegetables. One idea is to blend a shake with fruits or vegetables, oats and whey powder along with a liquid of your choice, such as milk, water or plain yoghurt. Shakes are a good option as they can be made in advance and taken to the gym. Made with oats and whey, they are substantial and you can add in all the essential elements your body needs to recover. In short, they’re much better for your body than a cheeseburger and milkshake.

Seek professional advice

Unfortunately, the jury is still out on the question of which type of water is best post-workout. To add even more confusion, studies have looked at the benefits of contrast water therapy. This involves alternating between hot and cold water to repeatedly constrict and dilate blood vessels, helping to remove waste products in the tissues and boost recovery time. In reality, many people are just looking to cool down and freshen up following a workout, but given the reported health benefits, a cold shower may be worth a try; especially if you are a serious gym-goer. If you have concerns or underlying health issues, seek the guidance of a doctor or professional fitness trainer, who will be able to offer advice to help you meet your fitness goals and achieve optimum health. After all, you don’t want to let a simple shower take anything away from all the benefits you’ve gained by hitting that gym week after week.

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