Hydrotherapy vs. Active Recovery: Which Is More Effective?

Despite recent studies that have questioned the effectiveness of ice baths, a new study shows that hydrotheraphy is a more effective recovery method than active recovery.

Recovery from sporting events and workouts is the name of the athletic game.Better recovery means more workouts and enhanced results. Imagine if your recovery routine was so much better that you could get in one extra workout per week with as much intensity as the others. Over the course of a year that would be more than fifty extra workouts. Assuming you were able to fully recover, that extra work would make a massive difference in your results.

However, it’s not easy to know how to achieve that level of recovery. Beginners often try to rely on muscle soreness as an indicator of both progress and recovery, but it’s actually a poor measure of both. Directly measuring certain enzymes like creatine kinase that are markers for exercise-induced stress are more accurate, but require a precision that’s not practical for most of us in everyday life. Thank goodness for researchers who investigate this stuff for us. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning addressed the best way to recover.

In the study, the researchers compared recovery methods of professional rugby players. The players were tested for performance recovery based on a counter-movement jump, which was chosen because of its neurological demand. Neurological recovery is the most elusive kind of recovery to study. The researchers also looked at the creatine kinase activity as a chemical method for determining how recovered the players were from their matches. The researchers even measured the difficulty of each match, since recovery achieved is relative to recovery needed.

Each participant in the study was his own control. Each player used one of three recovery methods after each of three games. All the players did all three routines one at a time in a random order. One method was cold water immersion, or the dreaded ice bath. Another method was contrasting water immersion, which involves switching back and forth between an ice bath and a hot bath. The final method was active recovery. The athletes in this group recovered by cycling on an exercise bike to improve blood flow.

Both the cold water immersion and the contrasting water immersion had better effects on performance, creatine kinase levels, and soreness than active recovery by two days after the games. The contrasting therapy also outperformed cold water alone in creatine kinase and soreness reduction.

One limitation of the study was that the methods used were not randomized, since the facilities used after each game didn’t allow for all methods. This is a restriction in real life, too. For example, a contrasting shower might be more accessible to the average athlete than hot and cold tubs, but a shower might not be as effective as a tub. Indeed, the researchers noted their results in contrasting therapy were different from prior studies in which showers were used.

In the end, as far is as using cold immersion alone or hot and cold tubs together, the answer is that both are obviously effective. If you have access to these methods, then they should be utilized. When it comes to which specific immersion times produce the best results or ways to make more practical methods like showers as effective as tubs, we will need to wait for answers.


1. NP Webb, et. al., “The Relative Efficacy of Three Recovery Modalities After Professional Rugby League Matches,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 27(9), 2013.

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