Your decision to take a cold or hot shower after exercise may not be as consequential as you think.
Advertisement
Should You Take a Hot Or Cold Shower After a Workout?
Credit: Getty Images

You've just followed up an intense HIIT workout with an extended cool-down routine in hopes of keeping soreness at bay. You get home and rush to peel off your gym gear before heading to the shower, and you're faced with a classic dilemma: "Hot water or cold?"

The answer to that question isn't clear-cut, at least if you're hoping to use your shower as a recovery aid. If you're seeking clarity about whether taking a hot or cold shower after a workout is best, here's what you should know.

Benefits of Taking a Cold Or Hot Shower After a Workout

You're probably well aware that showering after a workout is beneficial in general in that it can help clean your skin, preventing the build-up of dirt and bacteria that can arise if sweat lingers. As for workout recovery, some experts believe showers may help relieve muscle tension because of their effects on blood flow. Many gym-goers who want maximum recovery benefits swear by using either hot or cold water while washing off.

The theory behind taking a cold shower to boost recovery is that cold temperatures cause vasoconstriction, the tightening of blood vessels that reduces blood flow to your skin and extremities. This decrease in blood flow limits inflammation and swelling of muscle fibers after the workout, and by extension, may make you feel less soreness afterward, according to a 2017 article that focused on cold water immersion. However, there's not enough research on cold showers to confirm that they can in fact improve recovery. (Related: Does Cryotherapy for Sore Muscle Relief Really Work?)

Experts don't fully understand the effectiveness of hot showers for post-workout recovery, but what's clear is that heat in general can increase circulation. (Increasing blood flow after a workout allows for the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to muscles joints, allowing them to recover.) Blood vessels naturally relax and widen in response to heat, allowing blood to easily flow through them. Studies suggest hot sauna treatments improve blood flow in people with chronic heart failure.

Some physical therapists and trainers swear by a method that combines hot and cold water called contrast water therapy, which can take the form of a shower or a bath. For a shower, you simply turn your dial to alternate between cold (70℉ or lower) water and hot (98℉ to 101℉) water for short intervals. The idea is that rapidly alternating between restricting and boosting blood flow creates a "pumping action" that has a dramatic effect on blood circulation. Contrast water baths lowered muscle soreness but didn't seem to reduce whole body fatigue in a 2012 study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.

So, Should You Take a Cold Or Hot Shower After Workout Sessions?

Don't jump into your cold-to-hot shower just yet. Hydrotherapy practices that involve submerging yourself in water may have recovery benefits, but they aren't backed by a ton of robust research. And there's even less evidence supporting showers as a post-workout recovery tool.

"Research investigating thermal agents on recovery predominantly used hot or ice packs or immersion," says Corey B. Simon, D.P.T., Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Doctor of Physical Therapy Division at the Duke School of Medicine. "To my knowledge, research does not support showers having active physiologic effects compared to these other methods."

That said, even if showers don't have the same physiologic effects, there may still be a psychological phenomenon occurring that helps with recovery, says Simon. The placebo effect! "Expectation is very powerful and in some cases, has shown similar analgesic [pain-relieving] effects to active therapies like topical agents," says Simon. If you believe showers can help with your muscle recovery, they very well may. "Pain and function are not a biomedical phenomenon but biopsychosocial," says Simon. "So, what you think about an intervention does matter as it may influence its effects." (Related: What to Do After a Workout Within the Next 30 Minutes)

The act of showering may provoke you to practice mindfulness, which is another way your mind may help your body recover, suggests Simon. "My professional opinion, but no evidence currently, is that showers are relaxing and provide an opportunity for mindfulness," he says. "This may be the more likely pathway to a shower making you feel good after exercise."

While research on showering temperatures and muscle recovery is lacking, based on what exists, cold showering seems to have an edge. There isn't enough evidence to suggest showering at a specific temperature is optimal for muscle recovery, so think of cold or contrast showers as a supplement to your other forms of recovery — not a replacement. Whether you prefer showers that are hot, cold, both, or neither, the important thing is that you pair them with a proper cool-down routine, the right nutrition, and adequate rest.