T Nation

Contrast Therapy


Recovery from training now a day is beginning to be a training session in itself. With foam rolling, stretching, and many other techniques out there one can recovery much faster and be prepared for the next days session or even a two-a-day session later in the afternoon. Taking the time to properly rehab after a training session will make all the difference when it comes to performance gains. The method I want to discuss with you athletes today is contrast therapy.

When you walk in my gym you will find a huge tub, not a bath tub but a large water ben made for horses and when clients enter the gym here it's one of the first things they notice. Not the crazy chains, not the tires, and not my sled... The tub! When they ask "what is it for" and I reply ice baths, you immediately see the puzzled look in their faces. Now they are asking all kinds of questions so I thought I would cover this topic for you guys as well.

Skeletal muscles are made up of long fibrous chains made up of proteins, and bundles of thousands of fibers make up the muscles themselves. When an athlete engages in a heavy workout, this structure is damaged causing micro-tears in the muscle fibers. The body naturally repairs this damage by mending the torn fibers. This process can take from 48 to 72 hours and is why muscle soreness occurs, NOT from lactic acid so get that crap out of your head!

Lactic acid is vital in producing muscle energy which is another topic on its own but however lactic acid will slow down the restoration. So for you as the athlete, reducing inflammation and lactic acid level in the blood is a marker in recuperating faster.

So how do we decrease inflammation and remove lactic acid levels in the blood faster? Easy contrast therapy of course. This type of therapy alternates between the application of hot and cold in a repetitive fashion, with the theoretical goal being to enhance recovery, decrease delayed-onset of muscle soreness (DOMS), enhance blood lactate removal, and improve various other markers of inflammation.

There are not a lot of studies proving its effectiveness however one study showed significant fluctuations in blood flow during a 20min contrast therapy session, where changing from hot to cold showed decreases in blood flow and vice versa when going from cold to heat.

Additionally, when looking at blood marker changes, contrast therapy was shown to reduce creatine kinase (a marker of inflammation) and blood lactate concentration at a similar rate as active recovery, when compared to passive recovery following training. These findings may suggest that contrast therapy has a potential benefit to athletic recovery.

Finally, following exercise, contrast therapy was shown to decrease girth measurements, increase joint range of motion, and improve perceptions of soreness.

Some Things to Consider Before Ice Bathing

  • The temperature of the hot/cold plunges
  • The time duration one spends in the hot/cold plunges
  • The number of times one should alternate between hot and cold
  • Which intervention - hot or cold - should begin and end the therapy
  • Method - some may choose to just place one body part into the hot/cold plunge (IE, lower leg or forearm), while others may choose to do a full body plunge or just a plunge up to their waist. Additionally, some studies didnÃ?¢??t use a plunge, but rather alternated between hydrocollator (hot packs) and ice packs.

My recommendations and the How To

  1. Start by filling a tub large with water; enough to submerge the body from the chest down
  2. Add ice until the water reaches a temperature between 40 - 65 degrees F (4.4 - 18 degrees C)
  3. Enter the tub for 5 minutes and enjoy!
  4. After switch to a hot tub with water of a temperature between 100 - 115 degrees F (38 - 46 degrees C) for 5 minutes
  5. Repeat this process for a total of 25 minutes ending the last plunge in the cold bath

There is not a lot of backed up evidence from science on contrast therapy but there are some things I have noticed with my athletes and myself

  • Athletes perceive less soreness following contrast therapy. The mind is incredibly important, and if this method makes athletes feel less sore and more relaxed/recovered, then its use can be validated in my book.
  • Contrast therapy has shown to decrease inflammation without a doubt this is very important in the recovery process and in aiding pain from sore muscles and joints

So give ice baths a try and regardless of what science says, see you how feel, if it works you continue the process. Try different applications as well like time ratios and temperatures that might work better for you. It's a feeling process literally!


was wondering what is the purpose of alternating from hot to cold for multiple cycles compared to doing just one cycle of hot to cold? thanks..


its accelerates the blood flow from in the muscles by vasodilating and vasoconstricting. Thus helping move out the waist faster.