Wear a Stop Watch in the Shower

Picture of me after a shower

Yes, the title is clickbait, but you really should wear a (water resistant) stopwatch in the shower. Here’s why.

If you have ever spent any time reading and studying training methodologies of high level athletes in what I refer to as “performance sports,” such as weightlifting, track and field, or endurance sports, you would understand the value those athletes place on recovery. If athletes only focused on training and ignored recovery efforts they would likely find themselves in an overtrained state. Recovery modalities allow the body’s physiology to make the needed adaptations to the stress of training in order to enhance performance, strength, and endurance.

One of the critical factors of recovery is improving circulation and vascularity to allow the body to eliminate inflammatory markers which accompany the damage inflicted upon the musculoskeletal system following training. A time tested means of manipulating circulation in this manner that has been tested scientifically and anecdotally is contrast therapy.

Contrast therapy is a means of exposing the body to bouts of extreme temperatures in a systematic way. Athletes, weightlifters in particular (because that is a sport I’m very familiar with), would often times sit in a sauna then follow it immediately with a cold shower or ice bath, then get back in the sauna and repeat the cycle. There are even stories of soviet athletes sitting in a sauna and heading outside to roll in the snow (often times naked) then head back to the sauna. In addition to the hot/cold extremes, some athletes would actually whip each other with a switch off of a pine tree to further stimulate the autonomic nervous system. I’m not advocating this.

I am however advocating contrast therapy regardless of your athletic prowess.

Modern humans in western society are pretty coddled when it comes to temperature. We live in relative year round comfort of 70 degrees thanks to heating and air conditioning in our houses, cars, and workplaces. Living here in the midwest, we love to complain about the weather, but lets face it, unless your job keeps you outside much of the day, we are really only exposed to weather extremes for the short amount of time it takes us to get from house to car and car to office. This is vastly opposite to how humans evolved.

The human body evolved under austere conditions. Modern comforts are just that; modern. In the grand scheme of human history the ability to exist at 70 degrees year round is a relatively recent phenomena. Prior to central heating and A/C humans had to adapt to extremes in temps (which is probably why so many early humans settled near the equator). Ever notice how your appetite increases in the fall and early winter? This is likely an evolutionary instinct that our bodies undergo in order to retain calories and body fat to deal with the upcoming cold months. Ever get goose bumps? This is the body’s attempt to retain heat in the core. Ever sweat? That is the body’s attempt at cooling off. These are all simple adaptations that we take for granted.

By now, you may be thinking, “so what, technology has allowed us to remain safe in extreme temps, why are these adaptive mechanisms so important anymore?” Great question.

Just because we have modern conveniences doesn’t mean we can ignore the conditions under which humans evolved. The ability to adapt to hot and cold was not only a survival benefit; research suggests that it can still confer physiological benefits for us today. Exposure to heat and cold alters metabolism and improves physiology. Think of it this way. Stress is good. Otherwise, why would we exercise? Exercise is a stress. Stress on your physiology allows your body to make an adaptation which improves fitness. Think about a first time marathon runner. The first time they set out to do ten miles it was likely incredibly difficult. By the end of 16-18 weeks, ten miles feels like a walk in the park because they have been exposed to as much as 22-26 miles. This is a positive adaptation.

Hot and cold are also stressors. The first time you (willingly) expose yourself to temperature extremes in a shower, it will take your breath away and you will feel like you can not do it much longer than a few seconds. However, repeated exposures will allow your body to acclimate and 2-3 minutes in a freezing cold shower will seem like child’s play. Dare I say, you will even come to enjoy it.

So why wear a stop watch in the shower?

Next time you take a shower, stand under hot water for two minutes (obviously not scalding, but hot enough to make the skin a little red). Then turn the water cold for 1 minute. After your 1 minute (you can do it) turn the water back to hot for 2 minutes and repeat the cycle and be sure to end on cold. Try to repeat this cycle for 10-15 minutes then note how your body feels afterwards.

Contrast showers have shown many anecdotal and scientifically measured benefits. Will it work for you? Try it. You have very little to lose except for maybe a slightly higher water bill.

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