Water Immersion Recovery for Athletes: Effect on Exercise Performance and Practical Recommendations

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Water Immersion Recovery for Athletes: Effect on Exercise Performance and Practical Recommendations.


This article will review the water immersion recovery protocols and it’s effects on performance recovery, briefly outline the potential mechanisms involved and provide practical recommendations for their use by athletes.


Water immersion has been divided into four techniques according to water temperature:

  • cold water immersion (CWI; B20 °C),
  • hot water immersion (HWI; C36 °C),
  • contrast water therapy (CWT; alternating CWI and HWI)
  • thermoneutral water immersion (TWI; [20 to\36 °C).


Performance effects.

Most have reported that CWI can assist performance recovery (cycling, running, climbling, vertical jump and leg strength tests), or has no significant effect, while only a few have reported a detrimental effect on recovery following fatiguing exercise.

Furthermore, these performance improvements have been reported to last for minutes to days. Post-CWI, probably depending on the intensity and mode of exercise. Studies that have found CWI to assist recovery of exercise performance have typically examined immersion in 10–15 °C water, however, only two studies have attempted to determine the ideal temperature by directly comparing different CWI temperatures.

Comparison of Water Immersion Recovery Techniques Performance Effects

To optimize the recovery of exercise performance, athletes need to know which water immersion technique will provide them with the greatest recovery benefits. Further- more, it is possible that the optimal immersion technique may differ between sports, because certain recovery tech- niques may assist recovery from some forms of exercise more than others. Vaile et al not only suggest that CWI and CWT are likely to provide athletes with the greatest recovery benefits, but also that the recovery benefits may be greater following muscle-damaging exercise than cycling.

Practical Recommendations

Water Immersion Techniques

CWI and CWT should assist recovery of exercise performance more than HWI and TWI when performed appropriately. Athletes with an elevated core temperature (often caused by sustained high- intensity exercise in hot conditions) should perform CWI as first preference, as it is likely to cause the greatest rate of decrease in core temperature, but CWT may be preferable for athletes with a lower core temperature to limit further decline

Water Temperatures and Immersion Durations

The optimal temperature for CWI appears to be in the range of 10–15 °C. The ideal CWI duration is likely to be in the range of 5–15 min; however, this probably depends on the water temperature (the lower the water temperature, the shorter the immersion duration). The ideal CWT duration is uncertain; although the available data suggests it is up to 15 min in total.

Timing of Water Immersion Post-Exercise

It is recommended that athletes perform water immersion techniques as soon as practical post-exercise to obtain the greatest recovery benefits

Time to Subsequent Exercise

Following CWI and CWT, athletes should allow sufficient time for internal body temperatures to increase so subsequent exercise performance is not compromised. If exercise is performed soon after (B45 min) water immersion, CWI and CWT may decrease exercise performance, particularly if the exercise is high-intensity or explosive in nature. However, when exercising in a warm-to-hot environment, pre-cooling might enhance subsequent exercise perfor- mance and therefore be desired, principally for prolonged exercise. In this case, athletes should perform an appro- priate sports-specific warm-up so subsequent exercise performance is not compromised.


Most of the literature investigating post-exercise water immersion for recovery of exercise performance has focused on CWI and CWT, with few studies examining HWI and TWI. Based on the current literature, both CWI and CWT can assist recovery of exercise performance when conducted appropriately; however, it is unclear which technique is more effective. Due to the lack of literature and contrasting findings, it is uncertain whether HWI and TWI assist performance recovery. Future research should aim to determine whether water immersion techniques are more effective at assisting recovery from some forms of fatigue than others, and should answer key practical questions that have yet to be resolved.


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