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Will taking cold showers improve your running performance?

Ten very cold minutes a week is enough to create noticeable life changes

Ice baths have long been a go-to for runners hoping to improve recovery time and ease sore muscles and are a favourite topic of debate within the running community. Cold showers have recently taken over the conversation, as neuroscientists like Andrew Huberman say they may offer benefits both for your athletic ability and everyday life. While Huberman says cold plunges are the most effective way to maximize cold exposure, if you don’t have a frigid river out your back door, a cold shower is a worthwhile alternative. Here’s a few reasons why turning that shower dial all the way over and freezing for a few moments can help you be a better runner.

Cold showers (or plunges) improve resilience

One his podcast Huberman Lab, the neuroscientist and Stanford professor says that getting very cold for only a few minutes per week develops mental grit. By intentionally placing yourself in an uncomfortable environment for a few moments at a time, your brain learns how to regulate your mind and internal state under conditions of stress (when the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline are elevated in your body). When you’re running a hard race or training workout, no matter the distance, mental toughness is often what gets you through. “Deliberate cold exposure is an opportunity to stress our body on purpose, and learn to maintain mental clarity and calm while our body is in a state of stress,” says Huberman.

Mental performance can be improved with deliberate cold exposure

Deliberate cold exposure directly impacts the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. The release of dopamine, or the “high” that people get from cold plunges or a regular cold shower practice, is what studies say keeps people coming back. That feeling lasts much longer than the cold shower does. Huberman explains: “any stimulus that delivers more adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine to our system will sharpen our mental acuity and elevate our mood and will do so for a while.” He says the dopamine reward from a cold shower is similar to that from nicotine exposure, and will last much longer.

They can help with recovery if you time them correctly

Huberman says cold therapy can be effective to help with recovery, immediately after exercise. “Shorter durations of cold water exposure after training have been shown to improve outcomes in terms of reducing soreness and improving training efficacy,” he explains. While he doesn’t recommend full-body immersion for at least four hours after training if you have a strength-based goal, cold showers are fine.

By getting really cold for less than 12 minutes a week, you may be able to boost your mental stamina (both in running and when facing hard life situations), increase happy brain chemicals, and lessen recovery time. Huberman suggests timing cold showers as early in the day as possible to capitalize on the wakefulness and alertness that results, and to avoid having them very late in the evening and potentially disrupting sleep.

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