by PJ Nestler
If you’re familiar with our XPT lifestyle, you’ll know that one of our three main pillars is Recover (the other two being Breathe and Move). We typically divide our recovery approach in two. First is passive recovery, which is basically rest and any kind of therapy in which a practitioner subjects you to a modality like massage. This is certainly necessary and useful, but we like to prioritize active recovery as well. This is a fancy way of saying that you’re becoming a participant and proactively doing something that will help you to bounce back more quickly and fully from your training and the demands of daily life. Such techniques include mobility/soft tissue work, nutrition, low intensity movement or activity, breath work and, for our purposes in today’s topic, contrast therapy.
What do we mean when we write this term? What we’re getting at is the combination of exposure to both heat and cold to illicit certain physiological responses at different times and for varying purposes. The use of contrast therapy is found in cultures across the world, from the traditional onsens in Japan to plunge pools and saunas in Scandinavia to the sweat lodges of Native American tribes. We’re going to get to some of the scientifically proven or indicated benefits in a moment, but the main reason that having a hot and cold practice has perpetuated across country and continent lines and for centuries is simple: it works. People feel better when they take a soak in hot water or get in a sauna, and then add in some manner of cold exposure (or vice versa). So they’ve kept doing it. Our country’s adoption of this ritual has been much more recent, but people are starting to wake up to the fact that getting hot and then cooling off can improve their recovery, boost their energy levels, bust stress, and so much more.
From a physiological standpoint, we know that we cannot simply expose ourselves to an appropriately dosed stimulus and hope that it will promote growth and change. We have to also add in a second element – recovery – to prompt adaptation. That’s why at XPT we like to include some kind of heat and cold exposure in our weekly training programs and during the XPT Experience. It’s one of the many powerful, tested, and true ways to amplify the body’s response to training in the pool, in the gym, and in other settings.
Let’s look at some of the physical benefits that cultivating a regular contrast or thermal therapy approach can have. Several studies found cold water immersion (CWI) significantly reduced the loss in maximal strength (Bailey, 2007; Leeder 2012; Pournot 2011), while dozens have overwhelmingly shown that a cold plunge reduces delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that plagues so many athletes. On the flipside of the thermal therapy coin, the authors of one significant study discovered that a session in a sauna heated to at least 212° F) can increase beta-endorphin, growth hormone, and testosterone concentrations while decreasing concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol.
Beyond the purely physical merits, combining heat and cold also offers us some psycho-emotional advantages as well. From a purely anecdotal standpoint, we can use these modalities to increase our resilience and develop mental strength. Former Navy SEAL and ultimate bad ass David Goggins often speaks about the need to “callous the mind” so that we can deal more resolutely with the hardships we create for ourselves in training and the unavoidable problems that crop up in everyday life. One way to achieve this is to expose ourselves to extreme conditions that force us way outside our comfort zone.
With climate controlled homes, air conditioned cars, and thermostat-regulated office buildings, we’ve become used to keeping the temperature around us in a very narrow band. And as, according to the EPA, we spend up to 90 percent of our time in indoor environments, this means we’re becoming increasingly ill-equipped to deal with the much wider temperature variations we encounter outside in nature. It’s not until we take a ski trip to Colorado that we begin to bemoan the cold, or when we drive through Las Vegas on the way to see relatives on the West Coast that triple digit reading on the thermometer makes us all flustered and cranky.
We can also encounter temperature regulation issues when training/competing outdoors during the summer or winter, particularly if we spend the bulk of our time training in a nicely air conditioned/heated gym that doesn’t require us to modulate our response to heat or cold. This can lead to excessive sweating and resulting dehydration on an August afternoon or a lack of speed and endurance as we shiver through a run on a chilly December morning. Or if we show up for a race and the weather doesn’t cooperate with our carefully coordinated and calibrated plan then we might blame a sub-par performance on the conditions, when the real issue is our inability to deal with the fluctuating temperatures because we’ve conditioned ourselves to not be able anything other than a comfortable 60 to 75 degrees.
Thankfully, the solution to such issues is fairly straightforward. First, we must endeavor to spend more time being active outdoors throughout the year, and merely adapt our choice of gear and clothing to the changing seasons. Second, adding in just two to three contrast therapy sessions a week can dramatically improve our ability to deal with temperature swings, improve our recovery, and increase our mental and physical resilience. Yes, I know that every blog post you read is asking you to add one (or, in the case of lifestyle blogs, 6, 8, or 10 more) thing to your daily routine, and recognize that this can be overwhelming. But adding in contrast therapy requires a minimal time commitment of just a few minutes per session and gives you a lot of bang for your buck.
To get started, all you need to do is simply take a soak in a hot tub or bath or do a sauna session for 10 minutes. Then follow this with a cool shower that includes a cold blast of 30 to 45 seconds. Do this twice this week. That’s all. And then from there, we’ll add in just a little more progression in the forthcoming part two of this blog series. Now you have your homework, let’s see if you make the grade!
Check back soon for part 2, in which we’ll share some simple yet highly effective protocols for heat + cold