Contrast Hydrotherapy for Recovery

Inspired by an excellent post on Recovery after Martial Arts Training over on the MarksTraining blog, I thought I’d post an article on Contrast Hydrotherapy that I’ve previously posted over on the website for my dojo.

Have you ever experienced muscular soreness and stiffness following a grueling training session? Not the type caused by actually injuring yourself, but the type that reminds you that your muscles and connective tissue have been working, and that they now need to recover. If so, then you might want to consider contrast hydrotherapy as a form of active recovery.

Sometime ago I attended a 2 day kettlebell instructors course here in Sydney, Australia, conducted by Don Stevenson of Octogen Fitness, Australia’s leading kettlebell instructor. Although I’d been keenly using kettlebells for 8 months (at the time I originally wrote the article several years ago) as an augmentation of my karate training, this course worked at a level of intensity that had me feeling pretty sore and stiff.

During the training session, Don mentioned that he sometimes advises his personal training clients to undertake contrast hydrotherapy to aid in recovery. Maybe it was just me – I was in a group of fitness professionals that know a lot about this stuff – but the term contrast hydrotherapy was new to me.

Pretty much as soon as I got home I could feel the soreness levels rising, and I knew that the next day I’d really be feeling it. So, not wanting to climb the stairs to my office, I grabbed my wife’s computer and Google’d the term.

I found a couple of articles discussing contrast hydrotherapy as a form of treatment for acute conditions, but it took a little bit longer to find something discussing it as a strategy for recovery. When I did, I hit gold, with an article disucssing its merits and the protocol apparently used by the Australian Institute of Sport.

The protocol is this – alternate a period of exposure to hot water with one of exposure to cold water, and repeat. Twice.

There are 2 versions of the protocol – one where you have a bath or spa available, and the other for where you just have a shower.

Bath Protocol

  • Bath for 3-4 minutes in a hot bath (37C-43C)
  • Shower for 30-60 seconds in a cold shower (12C-15C)
  • Repeat two more times (for a total of three circuits)

Shower Protocol

  • Shower under hot water for 1-2 minutes
  • Shower under cold water for 10-30 seconds
  • Repeat two more times (for a total of three circuits)

How did it work? Well, for me, very well indeed. Where my soreness was around 7-8 (on a scale of 10) in several major muscle groups, immediately after the shower it reduced to around 3-4. The next day, when I would traditionally “feel it” the most, it was still around 3-4.

Now, as I understand it, there are few studies proving that contrast hydrotherapy works. And to date I can only provide personal anecdotal evidence of a single experience. So it may not work for you. But I reckon its worth a try…..

2 thoughts on “Contrast Hydrotherapy for Recovery

  1. Hello!

    Nice post. I never heard about this kind of therapy before. I wonder how does it work actually? What happens in the body when you shower in hot water and later in cold water?

    I never cared much about recovery, it was always something that indicated that the training was good. But reducing the soreness could be worth trying. Thank you for this post!

    John Steczko

  2. Hi John

    Thanks so much for dropping by and commenting. As I understand it, the heating/cooling process helps to loosen and tighten the affected muscles, generally relaxing the muscles and promoting blood flow that helps repair.

    You aren't alone in the karate world in never having cared much about recovery. If you watch the way that Japanese and Okinawans behave, however, you'll see that they put focus on nutrition and recovery aspects. Modern sports science bears that out.

    Plus it feels good.



Leave a Reply