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Contrast Therapy

How and why you can get setup for hot and cold therapy at home.

Contrast Therapy

Chances are you’ve seen the cold plunge craze as of late, whether it’s from Joe Rogan, Wim Hoff, Laird Hamilton & Gabriel Reece or the barrage of social media posts of people sitting in freezing cold water as a badge of honor. This cold plunge, combined with the infrared sauna, is known as contrast therapy. Although it’s been mainly used for athletes over the years, Contrast Therapy has been absolutely booming in popularity for anyone looking to improve their recovery. 

Ironmaster, Iron Blog, Contrast Therapy

Soaking in natural hot springs, steam rooms, and hot baths has been popular in many cultures, such as the ancient Greeks and Romans. Finland has also been using a sauna and cold plunge contrast therapy for hundreds of years. This may seem like a new fad, but as with most things in fitness, it's been around for a while and is just making its natural return in the cycle of things. 

What exactly is contrast therapy?

Ok, so it seems relatively simple, right? Contrast therapy is a recovery tool where you expose your body to hot and cold temperatures to take advantage of the synergy between the two. Both methods have benefits, but when used together, they are a perfect match, like peanut butter and jelly. 

We are going to dive deeper into the benefits. Still, your main takeaway is that this therapy does wonders for reducing inflammation and creating better circulation near injuries or areas of chronic pain. That’s worth the feeling of sitting in ice-cold water for a few minutes. You get toughness points and bragging rights for sitting in freezing water. 

There are many ways to perform this therapy, and it will take some trial and error on your part to see what works for you. Having said that, there are some guidelines you can follow that will set you up for success. First, you will start with the cold therapy and sit in that water like Jack from the Titanic movie for 1-3 minutes. You will build a tolerance over time, so don’t feel bad if you barely make it a minute the first few times. Then you will go to the infrared sauna for 1-3 minutes. You will then repeat this cycle anywhere from 3-6 times. Again, remember that you will improve at this like you would progress a deadlift from week to week. Your goal is to increase your time or your rounds from week to week, and your body will indeed thank you.

Let’s step back and see what each of these does, how they do it, and how they combine to bring you so many incredible benefits. 

Breaking down the cold plunge

The cold plunge portion of contrast therapy will have you submerging your body in water that is less than 59 degrees Fahrenheit but not any colder than 38 degrees, as there are diminishing returns from that point on. Now you may be wondering how to get this temperature to that point. If you are simply using an ice barrel, one of the top products available, you’ll be throwing ice in the water and playing a bit of a guessing game. Rest assured, the product is top-notch quality and will be cold enough. If you’re looking for a more high-tech option, the cold plunge tub (here's an 'affordable' unit) can heat and cool the water to whatever temperature you desire. It also comes with state-of-the-art filtration to remove any impurities. 

On to the benefits!

Cold therapy will cause your blood vessels to narrow, known as vasoconstriction. This will reduce the flow of blood toward an injury which helps reduce swelling and inflammation1. It also triggers your body’s immune system, increasing white blood cell production. These fantastic little helpers fight disease, infection, or anything foreign to our bodies. This exposure causes your body to adapt to the oxidative stress and, in a way, makes it mutate/adapt to develop an improved ability to resist these effects of stress. 

On top of that, it will release a massive amount of norepinephrine, which regulates your mood. This has been shown to fight anxiety and depression symptoms and increase dopamine following the plunge2. 

The most impressive hidden benefit is that the cold plunge will build resilience for your everyday life. It’s difficult to convince yourself to willingly sit in a freezing cold ice bath in your free time. This will teach your body to safely return to its normal state faster over time when something extreme happens. That first plunge will be brutal, but you gain more confidence each time it gets more doable. This can be applied to anything. You may even notice that you can calm down faster than usual at work the next time someone irritates you. 

Let’s talk heat next!

Infrared Sauna benefits 

A traditional sauna uses chambers made of heat-resistant wood and heated by an electric or wood-burning stove. Water is poured on rocks on top of the heating element to create steam. They will heat the air to temperatures between 175 and 195 degrees. The steam and dense air causes the body to sweat, promoting relaxation and pain relief. 

Infrared saunas are still made of wood but usually feature ceramic or carbon panels that use infrared radiation to heat the space. They will get up to 155 degrees. The infrared is a naturally occurring wavelength of energy. This wavelength penetrates your body through your skin up to 1.5 inches. The same heat comes off your body when you’re hot or when the sidewalk is roasting on a hot day. These saunas are smaller, don’t use as much energy, and cost less than traditional saunas. The Hemlock infrared sauna and the Dynamic Vittoria infrared sauna are two of the top products available. You can even order the Vittoria from Costco. You'll drop at least $2k.

Let’s get to the good stuff. 

As the heat soothes and stimulates your body, it raises your core temperature to increase blood flow and create a deep sweat that pushes out toxins and delivers oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. This will also cause a rush of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins3. You will get a rush of all the feel-good neurotransmitters for your brain while your muscles thank you for the pain relief, increased range of motion, and enhanced recovery from your workouts. You also will get the added benefit of clearer skin from flushing out all toxins trapped in your pores and improving heart health as your blood vessels widen and your heart rate increases. 

Let’s bring it full circle. 

Fire and ice 

Combining these two therapies gives you the fantastic benefits of vasoconstriction and vasodilation. This real money maker causes a pumping effect in your body which helps move lymphatic fluid efficiently throughout your system. This means that the cold water causes the blood vessels to constrict, and then the heat causes them to widen. Remember that the lymphatic system is like your body’s sewer system. If the lymphatic fluid gets stagnant, increased inflammation and illnesses can occur. This also affects the muscles with a pumping sensation similar to aerobic activity. It will help remove metabolic waste from the muscles and into the bloodstream so your body can get rid of it while replacing it with nutrient and oxygen-rich blood that jump-starts the recovery and feeling-good process5. 

If you've ever had an ankle sprain, you know how long and frustrating the recovery process can be. Contrast therapy has significantly reduced pain and swelling while increasing the range of motion after injuries like an ankle sprain4. Even if you don’t have a significant injury, contrast therapy has been shown to decrease delayed onset muscle soreness from challenging workouts while increasing strength by the next session6.

Contrast therapy has been proven to be a superior method of recovery. Although it was once seen as a method for top athletes only, it’s undoubtedly something everyone can benefit from, no matter their fitness level. 

Wrapping up

You would enjoy some fantastic benefits if you could do even one of these methods. By now, you should see just how dynamic the pairing of these two actually is. I know it can be brutal to sit in that cold water, but I promise it gets better each time you do it, and the sense of accomplishment you get from being able to handle that extreme cold is a fantastic feeling. Your body is going to heal faster, your mood is going to improve, and you’re going to be more resilient to getting sick. 

I know the price point might of these tools might not be in the cards for everyone right at the moment. At the very least, you could alternate hot and cold showers or fill your bathtub with water and ice and hit the warm shower afterward; you will still certainly see some benefits even if you don’t have your own personal sauna and ice bath. 

Either way, the combination of heat and cold is an excellent addition to your recovery routine, no matter who you are. 

About the Author

Travis Halena is a personal trainer with 14 years of experience that includes training professional athletes, teaching group fitness classes, designing programming and choreography for gyms, and one-on-one sessions with every type of client you can imagine. He is constantly learning and evolving to see what works and what doesn’t so he can help clients sift through the never-ending fitness content that’s available today. Travis aims to help everyone move pain-free, feel like an athlete, and look good doing it while fighting father time. After playing baseball and basketball at a high level, he now trains in Jiu-Jitsu when he isn’t with his family and dogs.


1. Siems WG, Brenke R, Sommerburg O, Grune T. Improved antioxidative protection in winter swimmers. QJM: monthly journal of the Association of Physicians. 1999;92(4):193-198. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/92.4.193
2. Shevchuk NA. Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Medical Hypotheses. 2008;70(5):995-1001. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2007.04.052
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6. Vaile JM, Gill ND, Blazevich AJ. The Effect of Contrast Water Therapy on Symptoms of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2007;21(3):697. doi:https://doi.org/10.1519/r-1935...

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