If you exercise too vigorously, you may notice subsequent pain caused by small tears in muscle fibers. This is called delayed onset muscle pain and soreness (DOMS). While muscle fibers repair relatively quickly and help strengthen muscles (the intended result of regular exercise), it is possible to have an intense workout without feeling extreme muscle soreness over the next 24 to 72 hours.
One way to alleviate DOMS symptoms is to take a coldwater plunge, also known as cryotherapy or coldwater immersion. This practice involves sitting in a pool, sometimes filled with ice cubes, with water between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
How Cold Plunge Pools Work
Cold plunge pool therapy helps decrease muscle pain and soreness by stimulating blood flow which, in turn, minimizes muscle inflammation. In addition, it has been linked to decreased metabolic activity and is said to flush lactic acid, among other waste products, out of affected muscle tissues. Some proponents of cold plunge pools also use hot tubs after the therapy as this is believed to speed up blood circulation and decrease recovery time.
Studies have proven the effectiveness of cold plunge pools in aiding recovery, but some have suggested it might not be beneficial for those looking to enhance muscle size and strength. In 2011 the Cochrane Library released a review of 17 cryotherapy studies and concluded that cold plunge pool therapy was most effective for runners. There are different variations of this recovery method, but most sessions are relatively short and last between five and 10 minutes.
Chillers and Cooling Towers
While it’s possible to get the water to the appropriate temperature with the use of ice, some technological advancements, such as chillers and cooling towers, make cold pool plunges much easier to facilitate.
An on-demand chiller works similar to a water heater but with contrasting results. Instead, it cools the water to the desired temperature before allowing it to flow from a bathtub faucet. This is made possible by a small circulation pump that guides the water through an evaporator before returning it to the water tank.
Cooling towers, meanwhile, are used for pools and are less effective in warm areas. They do not utilize evaporation, and water is often unable to consistently reach below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. They may even heat the water on hot and humid days.
Use by Athletes
Athletes, runners especially, are the primary users of cold plunge pool therapy. Professional athletes have been known to immerse themselves in cold water once or even multiple times per day to aid in workout or injury recovery. The National Football League’s Green Bay Packers, for instance, have a cold plunge pool at the team’s practice facility for all players to use. Colleges and high schools have also been installing cold plunge pools and chillers in recent years.
Life Coach Tony Robbins Is a Major Proponent
Inspirational speaker and life coach Tony Robbins sometimes speaks on stage for up to 16 hours straight when delivering one of his seminars. As part of a routine to keep himself energized, the 57 year old starts his morning with a workout. He follows this up by sitting in a sauna for five minutes before taking a dip in a cold plunge pool. It’s such an integral part of his routine that he has a sauna and cold plunge pool at seven of his homes. The practice was recommended to him by his personal trainer for its cardio benefits.
A blog post on Robbins’ website notes that cold plunge pool therapy not only promotes overall wellbeing but also relieves symptoms of various medical conditions and has long-lasting health benefits. It goes on to say: “And when practiced on a regular basis and turned into a habit, you begin to experience health benefits, including long-lasting changes to your body’s immune, lymphatic, circulatory, and digestive systems that enhance your quality of life.”
Weight Loss and Other Benefits
The lymphatic system consists of a network of vessels that help the body cleanse itself. Immersing yourself in cold water causes these vessels to contract and, consequently, flush out waste, microbes, and bacteria from cells. This also has benefits for the immune system, which prompts white blood cells to destroy unwanted substances.
Coldwater therapy can also help boost metabolism and aid in weight loss as it forces the body to burn calories to keep warm. Moreover, a 2009 study found that cryotherapy promotes healthy brown fat and helps eliminate white fat, which is generally found around our thighs and waistlines.
Advocates of the paleo diet, which harkens back to the Paleolithic era and largely involves the consumption of foods that could be garnered through hunting and gathering, are also typically proponents of cold plunge pool therapy. Paleo practitioners believe in living non-sedentary lifestyles and following practices once popular among our ancestors. Coldwater baths, they contend, bring about benefits such as increased self-discipline, energy, and alertness.