Hot or Cold? Find Out Which is Best For Workout Recovery!

Written by Andy Mobbs
Reviewed by Ioannis Nikitidis
Hot or cold? Find out which is best for workout recovery!

During the last decades and as sports performance is supported more and more by science, there is an increasing interest in the effect of the temperature of the bath on the recovery process of an athlete after a workout or game session.

Some athletes and trainers suggest that a cold bath benefits the recovery and reduces the recovery time, while others state that hot water helps more and is more effective for the recovery process. . It could boil down to personal preference but what does the science say?

Contrast Water Therapy

Back in 2006, researchers compared 4 methods to find out which one is better for the recovery. One of them was the Contrast Water Therapy. According to the researchers, the exact protocol was the following “Participants immersed their body to the level of the anterior superior iliac spine in one of two temperature- controlled water baths, alternating between one minute in cold water (8–10°C) and two minutes in hot water (40–42°C) for approximately nine minutes”. The results of this study showed that the Contrast Water Therapy resulted in decreasing muscle damage when compared with other methods used for recovery. In addition, another study concluded that this method leads to an improvement of muscle function. The theory behind findings is that the change of the temperatures leads to changes in the blood flow, reduces edema and inflammation (1).

A year later, researchers evaluated the effect of contrast temperature water therapy on repeated sprint performance and found that although it decreases blood lactate concentration and heart rate, there is no significant effect on the repetitive sprinting performance (2).

On top of these studies, in a 2011 published study about the application of whole-body contrast-water therapy on recovery after a short intense exercise, researchers found that this method had similar results to the Active Recovery that comprised low-intensity cycling, but showed a better rating of fatigue, showing its superiority as a recovery method (3).

The usual duration ratio of cold to warm baths is 1:3 or 1:4, and the temperature ranges for hot baths are 37 to 43°C, while the ranges for cold baths are at 12–15°C (4).

Cold bath

In a 2009 study, scientists investigated the effect of cold-water immersion on recovery from muscle damage after training and they concluded that there is no beneficial effect (5).

Sellwood’s scientific team compared 1-minute immersions in either cold water at 5°C or tepid water at 24°C and found that the ice water protocol had no effect on the Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness in untrained individuals (6).

On the other hand, there are some performance studies supporting that Cold Water Immersions may be useful within competition settings that require a short turn‐around like tournaments, cycling tours etc. or that take place in high environmental temperatures. However, using this method on a regular basis during the training period doesn’t seem to be a good strategy (7).

A recently published paper (2019) highlights that according to the most recent research individuals who want to improve their skeletal muscle conditioning should not apply cooling as a part of their post-exercise recovery strategy because it lowers the capacity of the muscles to use proteins and build new muscles (8).

Hot Water

In 2018 researchers evaluated the effect of the post-exercise Hot Water Immersion in both endurance-trained and recreationally active individuals. They found out that Hot Water Immersions are a good strategy to reduce thermal strain during exercise-heat-stress (9).

Contrary to the above- mentioned study, a more recent one (2020) concludes that Hot Water Immersion does not increase post-exercise muscle protein synthesis and muscle recovery (10).

Take Away Message

The most recent studies about water temperature and recovery after exercise show that choosing hot, cold or a combination depends on your training level and goals. You can even try what works best for your body because the environmental temperature might also affect the result. Therefore, listen to your body’s needs and reactions and follow what feels better for you!


(1) Gill, N., 2006. Effectiveness of post-match recovery strategies in rugby players. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40(3), pp.260-263.

(2) Hamlin, M., 2007. The effect of contrast temperature water therapy on repeated sprint performance. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 10(6), pp.398-402.

(3) Sayers, M., Calder, A. and Sanders, J., 2011. Effect of whole-body contrast-water therapy on recovery from intense exercise of short duration. European Journal of Sport Science, 11(4), pp.293-302.

(4) Lateef, F., 2010. Post exercise ice water immersion: Is it a form of active recovery?. Journal of Emergencies, Trauma, and Shock, 3(3), p.302.

(5) Jakeman, J., Macrae, R. and Eston, R., 2009. A single 10-min bout of cold-water immersion therapy after strenuous plyometric exercise has no beneficial effect on recovery from the symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage. Ergonomics, 52(4), pp.456-460.

(6) Sellwood, K., Brukner, P., Williams, D., Nicol, A. and Hinman, R., 2007. Ice-water immersion and delayed-onset muscle soreness: a randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 41(6), pp.392-397.

(7) Allan, R. and Mawhinney, C., 2017. Is the ice bath finally melting? Cold water immersion is no greater than active recovery upon local and systemic inflammatory cellular stress in humans. The Journal of Physiology, 595(6), pp.1857-1858.

(8) Fuchs, C., Kouw, I., Churchward‐Venne, T., Smeets, J., Senden, J., Lichtenbelt, W., Verdijk, L. and Loon, L., 2019. Postexercise cooling impairs muscle protein synthesis rates in recreational athletes. The Journal of Physiology, 598(4), pp.755-772.

(9) Zurawlew, M., Mee, J. and Walsh, N., 2018. Post-exercise Hot Water Immersion Elicits Heat Acclimation Adaptations in Endurance Trained and Recreationally Active Individuals. Frontiers in Physiology, 9.

(10) Fuchs, C., Smeets, J., Senden, J., Zorenc, A., Goessens, J., van Marken Lichtenbelt, W., Verdijk, L. and van Loon, L., 2020. Hot-water immersion does not increase postprandial muscle protein synthesis rates during recovery from resistance-type exercise in healthy, young males. Journal of Applied Physiology, 128(4), pp.1012-1022.