A man taking an ice bath and holding his hands to his face. Learn about cold showers vs. ice baths in this article.

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Cold Showers vs. Ice Baths: Which Is Better for Exercise Recovery?

You’ll be chilly either way, but experts say one method is likely more effective than the other.

By Michele RossMarch 28, 2024


If your social media algorithms have become privy to your interest in wellness, fitness, or workout recovery, chances are that you’ve heard about cold water immersion (CWI). Cold plunges, in particular, have become popular among athletes, celebrities, and creators alike, with purported benefits ranging from improved mood to decreased muscle soreness. But not everyone has access to ice baths or cutting-edge wellness centers—so could a cold shower offer the same health benefits?

We dug into the latest research and spoke with fitness experts to learn more about cold showers vs. ice baths, including which method may be better for exercise recovery and how to safely integrate each practice into your fitness routine. Read on for everything you need to know. 

Benefits of Taking Cold Showers

Before we dive into the benefits of taking cold showers, it’s important to know what constitutes as “cold” in cold water immersion of any kind. “Generally speaking, cold water immersion is defined as deliberate exposure to cold water below 60 degrees Fahrenheit,” explains exercise physiologist Rachelle A. Reed, PhD.

Cold showers tend to be a bit warmer than that threshold, Reed continues, but it varies based on the season and where you live. Very few of us measure the exact temperature of our showers, of course, but around or below 60 degrees will typically be uncomfortable and challenging to bear at length.

That said, if your shower is cold enough to count as cold water immersion, Reed says it has the potential to yield benefits such as:

  • Temporarily decreasing inflammation and the sensation of pain

  • Decreasing your core body temperature and tissue temperature, which helps reduce post-workout thermal stress and muscle fatigue

  • Causing your blood vessels to dilate, which can reduce blood flow to areas of inflammation

  • Improving workout recovery and subsequent performance

  • Temporarily increasing feel-good chemicals such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine in the brain and body

  • Temporarily boosting your mood

  • Temporarily increasing your metabolic rate as your body works to thermoregulate

Potential wellness perks aside, cold showers also have the built-in perks of being free, at-the-ready, and easy to implement. Compared to ice baths, “cold showers are more accessible, cheaper, and may have a lower barrier to entry for many consumers,” Reed says.

Benefits of Taking Ice Baths

Compared to cold showers, more research exists on the benefits of cold water immersion in the form of ice baths or dipping in a cold body of water. A 2018 review of 99 studies, published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology, found that cold water immersion may reduce:

Contrast water therapy (i.e. switching from hot to cold immersions) was also found to have a significant impact on DOMS.

Additionally, a 2022 systematic review of 52 studies published in the journal Sports Medicine found cold water immersion to be effective for recovery for 24 hours following high-intensity exercise, with benefits extending to:

  • Reduced muscle soreness

  • Recovery of muscular power

  • Lower levels of creatine kinase (CK), a protein whose levels rise after intense exercise and skeletal muscle injury

  • Stronger perceptions of recovery

Ice baths also don’t require as much time spent in teeth-chattering cold water. “Generally speaking, the colder the water, the less exposure time you may need [in an ice bath] to cool the core body temperature and tissue temperature,” Reed explains.

Cold Showers vs. Ice Baths: Which Is Better for Exercise Recovery?

All things considered, ice baths appear to have an edge over cold showers for exercise recovery. 

“Ice baths have been used in athletic training and sports performance and recovery settings for decades,” Reed explains. “They can often provide more localized relief than a cold shower. Plus, the temperature of the ice bath is typically much lower than a cold shower may be, so you may need to spend significantly less time immersed in order to see a similar effect.”

Indeed, a cold shower is unlikely to be as effective as other forms of cold therapy, including ice baths and cryotherapy, for muscle recovery, says Corey Simon, PhD, an associate professor in the department of orthopedic surgery at Duke University, a senior fellow in the Duke Aging Center, and a physical therapist. More robust research is needed to clarify the benefits of cold showers for exercise recovery, as other forms of cold water immersion have been more thoroughly investigated in existing studies.

Cold showers are also much less immersive than ice baths, making their potential benefits less substantial. “Showers are only reaching a specific region of the body, often the trunk,” Simon shares. “This may explain why there is more evidence for [whole-body] cold-water immersion or body cryo-stimulation.”

Even if it may fall short for exercise recovery compared to ice baths, taking a cold shower isn’t without its potential merits. For instance, a 2022 study published in the journal Current Psychology found that participants who took cold showers for 15–60 seconds daily over 14 days reported lower stress levels than a control group (with more notable benefits attained when paired with pranayama-style breathwork).

“It is also quite possible that cold water exposure effects are mindfulness-based, as tolerating uncomfortable sensations can be a powerful thing,” Simon explains. As such, braving a cold shower can yield a sense of accomplishment and confidence, flooding your brain and body with feel-good chemicals that can make you focus less on aches and soreness.

How to Add Cold Showers and Ice Baths to Your Recovery Routine

Interested in trying out cold showers, ice baths, or both forms of cold water immersion for workout recovery? Here are a few expert-backed tips and tricks to make your endeavor as comfortable, safe, and successful as possible:

1. Start Slowly

Reed suggests limiting your initial exposure to cold water to 15–30 seconds, max. “You can gradually build up time later on as your body begins to adapt to the stressor of cold water,” she says. She advises increasing your exposure time by 15-second intervals every few weeks, or as tolerated.

The same rule applies to how often you try out these recovery techniques. Instead of diving into the proverbial deep end, test the waters little by little—perhaps a cold shower every few days, or an ice bath once weekly or biweekly—before you build a more consistent regimen to complement your workouts.

But remember: It’s best to consult a health professional before trying out cold water immersion, especially if you have a medical condition or injury.

2. Pair Cold Water Immersion with Breathwork

“Use a breathing technique to help you both find a sense of calm and ensure you resist the urge to hold your breath,” Reed advises. Deep, even breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows you to ease discomfort while sending signals to your brain that you’re safe and sound.

Reed recommends box breathing in particular. This entails inhaling for four counts, holding for four counts, exhaling for four counts, and holding for four counts.

3. Test Your Limits (But Not Too Much)

Cold showers and ice baths will push you out of your comfort zone. This can be a good thing—but only to an extent. Don’t overtax yourself more than you need to, as doing so can run counter to your goals and greater health.

“Listen to the feedback from your body,” Reed says. “You know your body best, so pay attention to cues and remove yourself from the cold stimulus when you need to.”

4. Get Your Timing Right

Though cold water immersion can be beneficial for post-workout recovery, mood, and more, there can be too much of a good thing. “Studies have shown negative effects with chronic use; and so infrequent use, such as when first returning to sport, is likely appropriate,” Simon says.

What’s more, if you’re lifting weights and doing other forms of resistance training, you’ll want to be mindful of when exactly you immerse yourself in cold water. In a 2024 review of eight studies published in the European Journal of Sport Science, researchers concluded that cold water immersion immediately following resistance training may hinder muscle growth (although more research is needed).

“A common-sense solution would be to time cold water immersion, like cold showers or plunges, on off-days or between resistance training workout days in order to preserve and nurture lean mass,” Reed says.

Safety Considerations to Keep In Mind

“Cold therapy is generally considered safe for most adults when used appropriately,” Reed says. However, she suggests consulting your medical provider if you have any questions or concerns—especially if you have health conditions or injuries, or are on medications—before trying ice baths and cold showers for exercise recovery.

“Cold therapy has vascular implications, meaning it significantly alters your blood pressure and blood flow in the short term,” she explains. Because of this, Reed says that cold water immersion isn’t recommended if you:

  • Have a heart condition

  • Have circulatory issues

  • Recently had surgery

Remember, too, that more research is needed on the safety and efficacy of cold water immersion based on factors such as age and health, Simon adds. “A study showing cold water immersion is safe in a healthy young adult or athlete does not mean it is safe for an older adult, or in the presence of underlying health conditions,” he says.

The Takeaway

When you compare ice baths vs. cold showers, experts currently say that ice baths are likely the more effective solution for workout recovery.

Research to date suggests that—when performed safely and timed well—ice baths can be beneficial for exercise recovery. While cold showers are more accessible and cost-effective, chances are they won’t elicit the same benefits to an equal extent. However, they could be worth trying as an entry point to more immersive cold plunges (or for a mood boost and sense of accomplishment, at the very least). Just make sure to ask your doctor if you have any questions or concerns before giving either method a shot.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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