What Are Contrast Showers?
Contrast showers, sometimes known as contrast hydrotherapy, are showers in which you quickly change your body temperature from hot to cold and back again by alternating between hot then cold water. A contrast shower usually consists of three complete cycles of hot and cold water, and with each cycle you increase the temperature of the hot water and decrease the temperature of the cold water so that the blood vessels continue to respond. The hot water causes blood vessels to dilate, thereby pushing the blood to the skin’s surface, and cold water causes blood vessels to constrict, causing the blood to go deeper into organs.
When trying a contrast shower, it's best to alternate between hot and cold for three to four cycles. Start with a hot phase and turn the temperature up as hot as is tolerable you for two to three minutes. Then, turn the temperature down very cold for 15 seconds. Repeat the cycle three or four times and make sure to always end on cold.
What Are the Benefits of Contrast Showers?
1. They Might Prevent Muscle Soreness
Contrast showers, like ice baths, are often used by athletes to speed up recovery after tough workouts. One Australian study found that while contrast showers didn’t actually accelerate recovery in elite athletes, the athletes’ perceptions of recovery were superior after contrast showers compared with regular showers and passive recovery. Researchers concluded that the “psychological benefit from [contrast showers] should be considered when determining the suitability of these recovery interventions in team sport.”
2. They Might Boost Your Energy
OK, this one is a bit obvious if you’ve ever taken a cold shower, willingly or not. The energy boost could be attributed to the improvement of blood circulation. As mentioned earlier, contrast showers combine the effects of vasoconstriction and vasodilation through cold and hot water exposure, improving overall blood circulation, which can make you feel more alert.
3. They Might Strengthen Your Immune System
Could contrast showers (or fully cold showers) mean you’ll get sick less? Perhaps. A study by researchers in the Netherlands asked 3,000 volunteers to finish their morning showers with a 30-, 60- or 90-second blast of cold water, or to shower as they usually did, for 30 consecutive days. On average, in all the groups that doused themselves with cold water, people called in sick to work 29 percent fewer days than people in the control group. The researchers’ conclusion: Cold showers lead to fewer sick days. Researcher Dr. Geert A. Buijze told the Harvard Business Review, “The exact effect on the immune system is unclear, but we do have some knowledge of the pathway through which it works. Cold temperatures make you shiver—an autonomous response to keep your body temperature up. It involves a neuroendocrine effect and triggers our fight-or-flight response, causing hormones like cortisol to increase, shortly before we shift to a relaxation response.”
What Does a Contrast Shower Feel Like?
Now, I’m normally a night showerer, but the thought of a half-freezing shower close to bedtime was…not appealing to me. So, for the first day of my weeklong experiment, I showered in the morning. The first few minutes of the hot cycle, which normally would’ve been comforting and lovely, were filled with dread. I knew what was coming. The first blast of cold water took my breath away, but not in the romantic comedy love-at-first-sight sense. I didn’t time each cycle, so I kind of just guessed when each had elapsed, and it was time for a switch. The switch back to hot water, though more pleasant than cold, was similarly shocking. I would say that for about 85 percent of the shower, I was breathing rapidly and wishing it was over. Afterward, once I had dried off and layered two sweatshirts, sweatpants and two pairs of socks, I did feel super awake.
Days two and three went a lot like day one, but by day four, I noticed a shift. The cold water was still taking my breath away, but I found that I was able to regulate my breath faster and faster the more I got used to the rapid shifts in temperature. I also think blasting my shower playlist through my speakers helped distract me.
By day seven I won’t say that I was enjoying my contrast shower, but I was definitely more used to it. Will I continue to take contrast showers every day? I won’t, but I will keep them in my back pocket for mornings that I have to be up extra early or am extra tired from the night before. Taking a contrast shower is not a pleasant experience, but I can see it coming in handy when, say, I have to be up for an early flight (remember air travel?) or I’m feeling a little hungover.
The Bottom Line
Though there haven’t been quite enough studies to say whether or not contrast showers will significantly improve your health, I will say from personal experience that they’re a great way to get an instant energy boost in the morning. So, if you’re feeling sluggish immediately after waking up or are looking to cut back on caffeine, go for it. After the first few days, you’ll get used to the sensations—and might even come to appreciate them. Note that you shouldn’t try contrast showers if you’re pregnant or have certain other health conditions. If you’re unsure, always consult your doctor.