Why contrast baths are so good for post-rugby recovery

As we often skied carrying in excess of 80 lbs. of kit, even relatively strong ice could break, plunging an unlucky “Bootneck” into the icy depths below. 

A little over 20 years ago, I was a Royal Marine Commando – a branch of the British armed forces known for operating in climates and places that the rest of the military tend to avoid. This included working and training in desserts, jungles, urban environments, and the freezing snow of Norway – just in case the Cold War ever kicked off again.

During my time in Norway, I had the dubious pleasure of having to jump into a hole in the ice and into the water below. This was to simulate falling through weak ice while skiing and practice self-rescue.

Subsequently, this drill was something of a lifesaver. However, safety notwithstanding, this experience was a) very painful, b) pretty scary, and c) worth several beers in bragging rights back on civvy street!

Weirdly, several hours after this forced cold-water immersion, I felt pretty good. In fact, I felt great. I was energized and the nagging pain in my hard-worked muscles, caused by many miles of cross-country skiing, had all-but vanished.

I was reminded of this when I first encountered ice baths and contrast baths, often used as a recovery method after sport and training.

Ice and contrast baths for faster recovery

Playing and training for rugby is physically hard. Not only do you have to exert yourself vigorously, you also have to contend with the big hits that will leave you battered, bruised, and sore.

Unlike a boxer, who may have several months rest and recovery before he fights again, most ruggers have to get up, dust themselves off, and do it all over again just one week later. Injuries, aches, and pains? Ha! Ruggers just play on.

Subsequently, anything you can do that will enhance recovery is very valuable. It’s not enough to grab a quick shower and then head to the bar for an admittedly well-deserved beer, what is usually referred to as passive recovery.

Instead, if you are serious about getting back on your feet as soon as possible after a training session or match, you need to recover actively. Active recovery might sound like an oxymoron but, in actuality, taking steps to actively speed up recovery means you can get back to training sooner, train harder, and play better than if you just let nature take its course.  

You can read more about strategies for recovery in this FREE e-book.

Studies vs. real life results

When it comes to cold water therapy for enhanced recovery, there are two main methods – ice baths and contrast baths. Ice baths are as painfully simple as they sound; you immerse yourself in icy water for several minutes at a time. On the other hand, during a contrast bath, you alternate between sitting in icy water and then warm water.

Both of these methods have the following proposed benefits:

  • Reduced pain
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Reduced swelling
  • Reduced post-exercise muscle soreness
  • Increased circulation
  • Increased rate of recovery
  • Improved subsequent performance

I say proposed because, as with so many aspects of sports science, studies on both ice baths and contrast baths are contradictory. Some studies suggest that both of these methods are equally effective, while others concluded that one method is better than the other. Even the studies that reported benefits from ice baths and contrast said that any effect was marginal – anywhere between 2-6%.

The main problem with the studies done on ice and contrast baths is that the temperatures and durations were inconsistent so it’s no wonder the results differ so wildly. However, almost all studies agree that both ice baths and contrast baths are better than passive recovery. Several studies also focused on the acute or immediate effect of cold water therapy, and not the effects over the following 24-72 hours.

You can read an in-depth review of ice and contrast baths here.

From an anecdotal perspective, both ice and contrast baths seem to work. That’s why so many professional and top-flight amateur rugby teams use them. Some teams have even built purpose made cold immersion pools. That’s a significant investment which suggests they really do believe in the efficacy of this type of therapy. If nothing else, immersion in icy water triggers the release of endorphins, nature’s pain killers, so you’ll feel better regardless.

Ice baths vs. contrast baths

As there are two methods, it’s only to be expected that some experts will champion one over the other. But, if you think about both of these methods logically, contrast baths should be the most beneficial.

This contradicts some of the studies which suggest that ice baths alone are more effective. However, anecdotally and personally-speaking, contrast baths seem to be more effective. If nothing else it’s nice to know you are going to be able to warm yourself up after being dunked in icy water!  

Where cold causes vasoconstriction (the reduction in circumference of blood vessels), pain relief, a reduction in swelling and inflammation, and reduced bruising, heat causes vasodilation which is the increase in circumference of blood vessels.

Using both icy and warm water creates a profound pumping effect that should be more beneficial than using ice alone. This will increase blood flow at a superficial and microscopic level, driving freshly oxygenated blood into your hard-worked muscles, and speeding up the removal of the waste products of exercise. Compared to ice baths alone, contrast baths just make more sense.

Making ice and contrast baths work for you

If your team doesn’t have money to build a bespoke ice bath facility, you can still “enjoy” ice and contrast baths by filling a large refuge bin or regular bath with icy water. Simply immerse yourself in the icy depths for 1-2 minutes, and then hop under a warm shower for the same length of time. Alternate hot and cold 3-5 times for best effect.

If you have never used this type of therapy before, ease yourself in gently – both to the cold and the hot. Start off with moderately cold water and moderately warm water, and then decrease and increase temperatures respectively as you become more accustomed.

No ice bath? No problem! Try alternating cold and hot showers. While you won’t have control over theexact temperature of the water, justswitching between very hotand very coldshower settings will still be beneficial. Direct the water onto your head and neck, back, abdomen, and legs to get the greatest generalised cooling and heating effect.

To speed up recovery locally, such as in an area where DOMS is more severe, use a cold pack and a heat pack and place them alternately on the muscle(s) most affected.Make sure, however, to puta cloth between the packs and your skin to avoid burns, making sure the packsare neither too hot or too cold.

Precautions

Sudden immersion into cold water, especially when you are hot and sweaty, could be dangerous so exercise caution when first using this recovery strategy. Look out for contraindications such as nausea, dizziness, feeling faint, and heart palpitations, all of which would suggest you aren’t well-suited to ice or contrast baths. Also, keep an eye out for blueness or extreme redness which could indicate circulatory problems. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and have a relaxing massage instead!

If you are serious about rugby, you need to be serious about recovery too. That includes cooling down properly, stretching, and post-exercise nutrition. If you have all these things under control, ice and contrast baths could give you an extra recovery edge.

AUTHOR

Patrick Dale

Patrick Dale

Pat is an ex-Royal Marine and owner at fitness qualifications company Solar Fitness Qualifications Ltd. Pat has authored three exercise books and thousands of articles. Pat has competed at a high level in several sports including rugby, triathlon, rock climbing and powerlifting.

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