By PJ Nestler
If you read the first installment of this series, good for you. If not, you might want to take a few minutes to look it over Getting to the Heat (and the Cold) of the Matter – Contrast Therapy 101 Part 1, before perusing this second part. Now that we’ve established some of the benefits of contrast therapy – aka combining heat and cold exposure – let’s do a deeper dive into how and when to use it, depending on your purposes and goals. We’ll also share a few words of caution to make sure you don’t go too far (particularly if, like me, you’re competitive in every element of your training).
Here are a few different scenarios in which contrast therapy can be beneficial for both body and mind:
Warming up by Warming Up
Yeah I know I just used the word “warming” twice in one sentence. But it’s warranted when we’re talking about preparing your body for a hard training session. Doing a quick contrast therapy session beforehand can rev up your nervous and cardiovascular systems so they’re ready to tackle the daily workout. Or if you’re sore as heck, skip the ice and just do a little heat exposure to ease the tension from those aching muscles.
Keep in mind that with any exercise, method, or modality there is always a benefit and a cost. If your goal is to trigger muscle growth (aka hypertrophy), then the latest research suggests getting chilly immediately after training can blunt some of the acute inflammation prompted by your training that triggers muscle repair. As XPT Advisor Dr. Andy Galpin says, “You are either optimizing or adapting.” We recommend pushing your cold therapy to later in the day or onto a rest day if you are training for strength or hypertrophy gains.
Cycling between heat and cold at night can be a great way to reset your automomic nervous system and downshift from a sympathetic “red alert” state into a parasympathetic “chill out” one (cold related pun intended). That said, your body can view going to absolute extremes with either component of contrast therapy as a threat, keeping you stuck in a high sympathetic state. So dial down the temperature a bit on your sauna and go a little warmer on your CWI than you normally would. Or just go for the milder combo of a warm bath and cool shower instead. Your sleep duration and quality will likely improve.
Sometimes we don’t want to treat contrast therapy as a mere recovery aid, but as its own stressor. In this case, you can dial up the temperature on your heat and drop it down for the cold. Or do several “rounds” as if you were doing interval trainer on a rowing machine, Ski Erg, treadmill, or bike. Alternatively, try increasing the time you spend exposed to heat and cold, without going too far. By using contrast therapy as your training, you can improve resilience and also cardiovascular health. If you start to feel woozy or light-headed in the sauna or start shivering uncontrollably in the ice, then it’s time to stop and get out.
When your training schedule tells you it’s time for a day off from intense training, don’t use this as an excuse to just sit on the couch. Instead, go do your sport of choice, play some active outdoor games with your kids and significant other, or tackle some of that overdue yard work. Then follow it up with a nice long soak in a hot tub, followed by a quick cool off. This way you’ll boost your circulation and get in some low intensity movement, without over-stressing your system. Plus you’ll likely be less sore during the next day’s training than if you’d just done nothing.
Immune System Booster
Our bodies have cold shock proteins (CSPs) and heat shock proteins (HSPs) that go dormant like your laptop when you put it into sleep mode if you never expose yourself to temperature extremes. Boot yourself back up with a quick sauna session, followed by a cold plunge or ice bath. A single Finnish sauna session has been shown to increase the number of white blood cells, which are responsible for taking out infections. Meanwhile, researchers in both Finland and Germany have demonstrated that regular sauna use reduces the incidence of both cold and flu by up to 30 percent.
Tame Anxiety and Depression & Improve Hormonal Balance
In a memorable episode of Seinfeld, Kramer puts a hot tub in the middle of his living room and encourages Jerry to “take a soak.” Of course, things go wrong when his latest contraption blows a circuit, sending the temperature plummeting and half-killing the zany hipster dufus. But comedy aside, it seems like he was onto something when it came to contrast therapy and relaxation. Cold water immersion at around 14 degrees Celsius has been shown to mimic or even exceed the positive effects of prescription SSRI drugs, improving feel-good hormone dopamine by 250 percent and norepinephrine by a whopping 530 percent. A paper published in the journal Primates shows that humans aren’t the only ones to take to warm water to quell stress – Japanese snow monkeys ease their primate cares away with a daily soak, too. Good enough for our closest animal “relatives,” good enough for us!