NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – A dip in chilly water can help endurance athletes recover faster after a tough workout, while alternating between cold and hot water immersion is also beneficial, according to new research published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine.

On the other hand, soaking in hot water was only slightly better than resting for the same amount of time in helping athletes to maintain performance, Dr. Joanna Valle, of the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, and her colleagues found.

All three types of water immersion are becoming increasingly popular for helping athletes in many sports recover after exertion, Valle and her team note. She and her colleagues sought to compare their effectiveness in maintaining cyclists’ performance across five days of strenuous exercise, similar to the “demanding and consistent performances on multiple days” required in stage racing.

They had 12 male cyclists complete a five-day “fatigue-inducing” cycle of exercises, four times each, with nine days’ rest between each cycle. The athletes used one of four recovery strategies after each day of exercise: immersion in a 15 degree C (59 degree F) pool for 14 minutes; immersion in 38 degree C (100.4 degree F) water for 14 minutes; alternating between cool and hot water every minute for 14 minutes; or 14 minutes of rest.

Cyclists’ sprint and time trial performance was maintained or slightly improved with cool water immersion and contrast water therapy, but both declined with hot water dips or rest only, the researchers found.

Cold water improved sprint performance by 0.5 to 2.2 percent and time trial performance by 0.1 to 1.0 percent, while contrast water therapy improved sprint and time trial performance by 0.1 to 1.4 percent and 0.0 to 1.7 percent, respectively. Sprint performance fell by up to 3.7 percent with hot water immersion, and time trial performance dropped by up to 3.4 percent, only slightly less than was seen with rest only.

The findings “suggest that cold water immersion and contrast water therapy may be beneficial recovery interventions following and between events such as track cycling where the task requires short maximal efforts, as well as longer events such as stage races where the task requires continuous high-intensity efforts on successive days,” the researchers conclude.

SOURCE: International Journal of Sports Medicine, July 2008.