Many athletes swear by the power of a cold shower, believing it rejuvenates their body and mind. Fans of the practice point to the fact that throughout history, people have bathed in cold water for the health benefits.
The Romans and ancient Greeks are known to have enjoyed cold baths for health and spiritual reasons. Archaeologists have unearthed alabaster bathtubs in the palaces of Knossos and Phaistos in Crete, dating from as long ago as 2400BC.
Greek poet Hesiod and the legendary author of the Iliad, Homer, both wrote positively about using the bath, while bathing facilities were built next to the gymnasiums where athletes trained for the games and sports.
According to historians, the ancient Greeks had a cold water bath first, followed by a hot one, while the Romans first had a hot bath and finished with a cold one. The Greeks also invented a type of shower.
The Romans’ public baths were mainly hot water, but with a small fountain or vat of cold water nearby, so bathers could splash themselves if they wished. Some had a frigidarium room – the name coming from the Latin “frigeo”, meaning “to freeze” – which contained a large pool of cold water for bathing or swimming.
Other ancient civilisations who believed in the power of cold showers were the Japanese practitioners of Shinto, who would sit in ice-cold water falls to meditate – a practice known as Misogi. Every morning, the Spartans would complete a two-hour calisthenic workout, followed by a dip in cold water.
With such a long tradition, it’s no surprise that cold showers are so popular today for their health benefits. They are said to have multiple benefits, including boosting your metabolism so you burn more calories. This is because when your body feels intense cold, it begins to burn stored fat to produce more energy to protect your core temperature.
Professional athletes take an ice bath after an intense workout because it reduces muscle pain and inflammation, while improving blood and lymphatic circulation. This helps disperse lactic acid in the muscles and improves recovery time.
A cold shower is also said to strengthen your immune system by promoting white blood cell production. These are the cells which fight infection when a virus strikes by rushing to the site of the attack. It also helps to drain your lymphatic system, removing waste and impurities from the cells and decreasing your risk of infections.
Cold water is also said to help strengthen your nervous system against stress. The cold water causes your nervous system to feel a slight oxidative stress, so in time it strengthens itself to combat this, leaving you more able to deal with regular day-to-day stressful situations. Your body will start to produce Norepinephrine as it responds to the stress situation and this also makes you more alert.
A cold shower is also said to help you sleep better, because the drop in your core temperature triggers feelings of sleepiness. In psychological terms, having the willpower to jump in a cold shower, whatever the weather, improves your discipline.
Some people claim it’s a myth that cold showers have health benefits. However, many of the benefits are scientifically proven, including speeding up recovery after exercise and improving the immune system. A study carried out on distance runners and cyclists on whether cold showers helped them to recover more quickly after sport concluded this was the case.
Several famous and well-respected athletes are devotees of cold baths and showers, including Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, the winner of eight Olympic gold medals in three events – the 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay in the Olympic Games of 2008, 2012 and 2016.
In the 2016 documentary, I Am Bolt, which detailed the athlete’s amazing career, he reveals he submerges himself in a bath of ice water after events, even asking hotels to provide a tub of ice in his room. In the documentary, he says, with heavy sarcasm as he lowers himself into the icy bath, “This is my celebration … so much fun, right?”
Fellow sportsman David Beckham, the world-renowned footballer who played for England and for Manchester United and Real Madrid at club level, is also a firm believer in the power of the cold shower. It’s well documented how he dives into a large tub of icy water following an intense workout.
It’s up to you whether you believe in the power of cold showers or not, but with the world’s top sportsmen endorsing them, they must be worth a try. All you can do is see for yourself whether you feel the health benefits after incorporating them into your training routine for a few weeks.
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