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The benefits of cold showers for runners

The benefits of cold showers for runnersDespite growing up in Northern Russia, my parents used to get me out of bed every morning by throwing me into a cold shower. While this may sound like some sort of medieval torture technique, they were doing it with good reason: cold showers were supposed to boost your immune system, and I was growing up with a relatively nutrition-stripped diet in a place with very little sunshine. Of course, knowing this didn’t make the wake-up call any easier, and it took me a good 15 years to re-discover the benefits of the cold shower. But now I am, once again, a convert – and I recommend them to everyone I know.

Just to be clear: I still don’t like them. In fact there are few people in this world who genuinely enjoy cold showers. Perhaps on a hot day after a big run they can feel good, but certainly not on a regular basis and not in the middle of winter. But while they can be unpleasant, cold showers can be an incredibly powerful, health-boosting tool for athletes, including runners.

Here’s why:

  • Better breathing. Efficient breathing is crucial to good running performance, but it’s difficult to train and easy to forget about. Stepping into a cold shower is a shock to your system, and your breathing deepens in response, to increase oxygen intake in an attempt to keep you warm. This deeper breathing in response to stress will carry over into your training.
  • Improved alertness. Another thing that will happen when the cold water hits your body will be an increase in heart rate, which will send a rush of blood through you, energizing you immediately, reducing fatigue and creating mental alertness.
  • Improved immune system function. Looks like mom and dad were right – cold showers can boost your immune system, by increasing white cell counts and concentrations of plasma, T helper cells and lymphocytes. 
  • Faster recovery Sports scientist Ned Brophy-Williams explains cold water redirects blood flow in such a way as to reduce inflammation and swelling, and improve the amount of blood returning to the heart, which flushes out metabolites and waste products built up during exercise, and replenishes nutrients to muscle cells faster. A 2009 study of 360 runners, cyclists and resistance trainers showed those who took cold water baths had less muscle soreness one to four days after exercise.
  • Better mood and resilience. For runners, a good mood means better motivation to get out there even on days when the weather isn’t playing its part. Cold-water swimmers have been found to exhibit significant improvements in mood. Cold showers can even help you to push yourself longer: studies show cold-water exposure increases both mental and physical resilience to stressful environments like strenuous training.

How to do it

  • Just do it: Many people recommend you start with a hot shower and gradually reduce the temperature until the water runs cold. But I say – just go for it. If you start with a hot shower you’ll talk yourself out of it.
  • Work out first: It can be helpful to take cold showers right after exercise, as you’ll already be warmed up and in need of cooling off (not to mention the post-exercise recovery benefits you will receive.)
  • Breathe: Be prepared that your for your first (few) cold showers you will not be able to stay under the water for very long, and that you may experience a very strong physical shock reaction, which can include gasping, panicking, and so on. Don’t worry – it won’t always be like this. Just take a deep breath and stay under the water as long as you can.  In a few days, you’ll find your tolerance will go way up.

After about two to three weeks of regular cold showers, don’t be surprised if you start to look forward to the meditative exercise of being able to stay under the cold water, even though it’s unpleasant. And the next time you and your friends are going swimming at the lake, you’ll be able to shock them by waltzing right into the cold water as they stand there, scared to go further than their ankles.

Time to cross the Polar Bear Swim off your bucket list, perhaps?

Written by Varia Makagonova /Photo Pixabay

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