Cold water immersion, or cold water therapy has been by athletes for years to help them recover from the rigours of playing sport – but why do they put themselves through this potentially uncomfortable experience?
Cold water immersion is a low-cost technique that is easy to perform in a variety of situations, and has been shown to reduce both physiological and functional results of exercise induced muscle damage [1-3].
Cold water immersion works to reduce blood flow and swelling associated with contact (collisions) or eccentric training. Cold water immersion effectively works as an anti-inflammatory method, and ensures improved recovery, and ability to withstand these forces again at a sooner date. A 2016 meta-analysis by Machado et al., recommends a total immersion time (immersion time can be broken up into blocks) to reduce muscle soreness of 11-15 minutes, and at 11-15°C .
The anti-inflammatory effects of cold-water immersion are only part of the benefits.
“There was a time when we used to think that putting athletes in cold water after exercise was good because of its anti-inflammatory effects; we now know that that’s only about 15% of the benefit…” - Gary Brecka
Cold Water Immersion – Not just for athletes!
Cold water has a myriad of health benefits that go beyond anti-inflammatory effects and can be applicable to anyone. Some other benefits to cold water immersion include:
A Release of Cold Shock Proteins 
The majority of the benefits from cold water immersion come from the release of Cold Shock Proteins (CSPs). CSPs are reserve proteins kept in the liver, and are dumped into your blood stream in a reaction to save your life when you enter cold water.
Oxygen is forced away from your extremities to your vital organs, and pushed up to the brain, in an attempt to keep the organs and brain functioning to the best possible state.
CSPs also work to remove free radical oxidation from the body and increase the rate of protien synthesis (creation of proteins).
Increased Circulation 
Cold water immersion results in an increase in circulation, and cold-water immersion can stimulate blood flow, which in turn can help to reduce swelling and promote healing.
Boosted Immunity [7, 8]
Exposure to cold water can stimulate the production of immune cells, which can boost the body’s natural defences.
Improve Mood 
There is a release of endorphins (happy hormones) when you submerse yourself in cold water, and these can improve mood and release feelings of stress and anxiety.
How to Start Cold Water Immersion at Home
1. Take a Cold Shower
If you’re beginning to get into cold water immersion, it is recommended that you gradually introduce yourself to the sensation.
Start with a normal warm shower, and finish it by turning the water to cold. Start with one minute of cold, and then increase the time under cold as you get more comfortable (e.g., two minutes next time).
Tip: Practice controlling your breathing as you undergo cold water immersion.
After a few goes of warm then cold water in your shower, you can go straight to a cold shower as an easy method of cold-water immersion.
2. Take a Cold Bath
Simply filling a bath with cold water is a simple way to practice cold water immersion.
Three – Six minutes of immersion is all you need.
Aim for a water temperature of 11-15°C.
Add ice to bring the temperature down even further to desired levels, if your cold tap is too warm.
Daniel Glassbrook, PhD
Daniel is a sports scientist and researcher, currently working as the first team sports scientist for the Newcastle Falcons Rugby Club, and a postdoctoral researcher in sports related concussion at Durham University.
1. Bleakley, C.M. and G.W. Davison, What is the biochemical and physiological rationale for using cold water immersion in sports recovery? A systematic review. British journal of sports medicine, 2009: p. bjsm. 2009.065565.
2. Costello, J.T., et al., Muscle, skin and core temperature after− 110 C cold air and 8 C water treatment. PloS one, 2012. 7(11): p. e48190.
3. Vaile, J., S. Halson, and S. Graham, Recovery review: science vs. practice. J Aust Strength Cond, 2010. 18(Suppl 2): p. 5-21.
4. Machado, A.F., et al., Can Water Temperature and Immersion Time Influence the Effect of Cold Water Immersion on Muscle Soreness? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med, 2016. 46(4): p. 503-14.
5. Lindquist, J.A. and P.R. Mertens, Cold shock proteins: from cellular mechanisms to pathophysiology and disease. Cell Communication and Signaling, 2018. 16(1): p. 1-14.
6. Ihsan, M., et al., Skeletal Muscle Microvascular Adaptations Following Regular Cold Water Immersion. Int J Sports Med, 2020. 41(2): p. 98-105.
7. Buijze, G.A., et al., The Effect of Cold Showering on Health and Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial. PLoS One, 2016. 11(9): p. e0161749.
8. Tipton, M.J., C.M. Eglin, and F.S.C. Golden, Habituation of the initial responses to cold water immersion in humans: a central or peripheral mechanism? The Journal of physiology, 1998. 512(2): p. 621-628.
9. Shevchuk, N.A., Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Medical hypotheses, 2008. 70(5): p. 995-1001.