Can You Handle LeBron James’ Secret Recovery Weapon?

Brandon Hall STACK

Stumble into LeBron James’ hotel room on a random night during the NBA season, and you might think you’re about to get a kidney stolen.

The temperature’s chilly. The window blocked, creating total darkness. And the bath tub, brimming with ice.

While the thermostat setting and absence of light relate to James’ desire to achieve the most deep REM sleep possible, the third relates to one of his favorite modes of recovery—the contrast bath.

On a recent appearance on Nike’s podcast Trained, James and his long-time personal trainer, Mike Mancias, explained their affinity for the modality.

“The contrast that we do is either pre-game or post-game, pre-practice or post-practice. It consists of a hot tub or a cold tub, or an ice tub (and) a hot shower—on the road, you have to be resourceful. The basics of it is starting hot for five minutes, (next) you go to cold for five minutes, then you do about three cycles of that,” says Mancias.

LeBron says contrast baths are one recovery method that make him feel “especially good.”

“That’s one of the methods that when I’m in heavy-duty training, I try to find (it). Especially if I’m on the road, there’s times that to this day Mike will, if they don’t have one at the facility or something, Mike will fill up my bathtub in the hotel room with all ice. Ice and water. He’s like, ‘OK, you gotta get in there, then get in the shower, then get back in there, then finish it off in the shower.’ We’re just always trying to figure out ways that even if it’s not there for us the way we’re accustomed to, we can figure it out,” says James.

2013 meta-analysis published in the journal PLOS One concluded “the current evidence base suggests that (contrast water therapy) is superior to using passive recovery or rest after various forms of exhausting or damaging exercise. The benefits relate to a reduction in muscle soreness, and improved muscle function due to an attenuation of muscle strength loss and muscle power loss after exercise.”

While the magnitude of these effects seems to be fairly small, there’s reason to believe their significance is amplified when the athlete truly believes in their value—a.k.a., the “placebo effect.”

LeBron certainly seems sold on their effectiveness, so I have little doubt they help him feel and perform better.

“(The baths) just help the body and when the body feels fresh, then the mind feels fresh, as well. They work in tandem,” says James.

If you’re going to give the method a shot, just how hot and cold should your water be?

It depends on the individual, but most studies have utilized temperatures of between 93-106° F for the hot water and 45-68° F for the cold water. The hot water should be plenty hot, but obviously not so searing that it burns you, while the cold water should be uncomfortably chilly, but not so freezing it makes you instinctively hop out of it.

While certain facilities will have both hot and cold tubs located in close proximity to one another, the most easily accessible form of a contrast water therapy is a simple contrast shower.

This is where you simply stand in the shower and alternate the water temperature from hot to cold several times over a 5 or 10-minute span. There’s little downside to this type of therapy and if you believe that it’s helping you, then it probably is.