Elements of heat therapy and cold therapy have existed separately for thousands of years. And combining the two–a hot sauna followed by a plunge into snow or cold water–has been popular with the Turks, Russians, Finns, Romans, and Chinese for hundreds of years. They have all used the idea of contrast therapy, transferring the body from very warm temperatures to very cold temperatures, as part of a regular health and wellness routine. For decades, endurance athletes like runners and cyclists have also incorporated the two into their exercise/recovery regime. Indeed, many others, including non-athletes, are discovering the combination of hot and cold therapy and are working it into their self-health routines.
When you have a muscle strain, cold therapy may ease the inflammation and numb the pain. Heat therapy will usually ease the muscle stiffness after the inflammation resolves. Alternating between the two, commonly known as contrast therapy, may be the best alternative to manage your pain. Contrast therapy is often referred to as the Nordic Cycle. This type of therapy has been part of Nordic societies for ages and is often cited as a significant reason they may be one of the healthiest societies in the world. Contrast therapy works on the concept of vasodilatation (during heat) which produces a substantial increase in circulation throughout the body and vasoconstriction (during cold) which increases the pressure in the circulatory system. Basically, this results in alternating the blood from flowing to the internal organs and extremities which may help reduce swelling and inflammation, enhance your sleep, improve circulation, relieve depression and provide an overall sense of wellbeing. Beyond the purely physical merits, combining heat and cold also offers psycho-emotional advantages as well. You can use the combination of these modalities to increase your resilience and develop mental strength.
There are several ways to heat up and cool the body. The three main types are immersion: using a sink, bucket or tub; wrapping: using heating pads, ice packs or soaked towels; and pouring/spraying: steam from a faucet or shower heads or hoses. Whenever possible, you want to completely surround the body part, so immersion is often the best method.
Beyond the physical merits, combining heat and cold also offers psycho-emotional advantages as well. You can use the combination of heat and cold to increase your resilience and develop mental strength.Other benefits include:● Reduced pain ● Decreased swelling ● Improved circulation ● Reduced inflammation ● Improvement in mild muscle strains ● Reduced post-exercise muscle soreness ● Faster recovery after exercise ● Improved skin and complexion ● Increased energy ● Increased alertness ● Increased heart rate (similarly as during aerobic exercise) ● Elevated mood
If you are new to contrast therapy, it is recommended that you begin slowly and carefully. You can begin by taking cold showers (use cold water for the last few minutes of your shower). Focus on your breath: inhale and exhale slowly. Researchers have found that taking cold showers may enhance your immune system and make you more resistant to illness. They can also be a significant boost to your energy level. Always be sure to stay well hydrated.
There are several different routines for practicing this type of therapy. You will need to discover what works best for you. Remember that the best routine for you may feel somewhat uncomfortable at first; however, the benefits of the hot sauna/cold plunge are both physical and psychological, and immediately noticeable. Once your body adjusts to the experience, the health benefits and exhilarated feelings that result from this therapy will outweigh any sense of discomfort. The traditional Nordic Cycle of combining sauna bathing with cold plunging suggests jumping into an ice bath after the sauna. However, there is nothing wrong with reversing that sequence. If you are inexperienced with contrast therapy, the preliminary guidelines for performing a sauna/cold plunge are: 1. Spend 15 minutes in a 125°F or hotter sauna. 2. Jump immediately into a cold plunge of around 50°F for 30 seconds, up to 2 minutes. 3. Complete this cycle a total of 3 times (3 sauna sessions and 3 cold plunges).
Switching from hot saunas to cold tubs causes the body to naturally increase the volume of blood flow. This happens when the body constricts and dilates blood vessels. This effect also helps to improve vascular and cardiac response. The lymphatic system works to flush away toxins throughout your system, promoting cellular regeneration and ridding the body of the harmful byproducts of hard workouts. The cold plunge stage of contrast therapy makes skin pores rapidly minimize, helping stop oil production that causes skin issues. This can help reduce acne, pimples, blackheads, and even prevent blemishes. If blemishes are already an issue, contrast therapy is helpful for reducing any swelling and redness to provide soothing relief for irritated skin. Cold exposure is a great way to keep acne from getting worse by effective inflammation reduction. We now know that contrast therapy is one of the best ways to quickly reduce lactic acid buildup. Studies have found that contrast therapy can help prevent too much lactic acid buildup, helping people recover from soreness and fatigue faster. Additionally, studies have shown that contrast therapy helps lessen the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness, reducing its severity in athletes when regularly practiced.
NOTE: It is important to stay hydrated while engaging in contrast therapy, and it is a good idea to focus on deep breathing during the therapy.
Contrast therapy can be practiced just about any time; many people make it a weekly routine. Studies have found that regular and frequent use of contrast therapy is more beneficial in general. These studies have found significant health improvements in people who practice contrast therapy frequently compared with those who don’t. The best time for a contrast therapy session is directly after an intense workout, which will help prevent post-workout soreness and inflammation.