Why do Olympic divers hop in that hot tub after completing a dive?

(L-R) Kristian Ipsen and Troy Dumais of the United States compete in the Men's Synchronised 3m Springboard final on Day 5 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre on August 1, 2012 in London, England. (Adam Pretty/GETTY IMAGES)

I’ve found it amusing to see those sleek divers, male and female alike, climb out of the big pool and lower themselves into the tiny tub nearby. But I was curious to know whether the hot tub provided any particular benefit to the athletes, other than just feeling good.

I asked former Rutgers University diver David Feigley, now a professor of sport psychology at that school. To his knowledge, the hot-tub dip is “not an ergogenic aid,” meaning it doesn’t necessarily enhance performance. Bottom line, Feigley says, the water in the big pool is cold, and “Divers don’t like cold water.” And from a sports psychology point of view, the tub allows divers to “relax and focus,” which can indeed contribute to better diving.

Still, the warm-water soak’s not vital to the  sport. When he was co-captain of the diving team, back in 1966, Feigley told me, there were no hot tubs. Between dives, “I just stood there and shivered.” 

I caught Ralph Reiff, an athletic trainer and executive director of St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, on his cell phone at the airport en route to London for the Olympics. “It’s a long tradition for divers to get out of the diving well and warm up” in a hot tub, whirlpool or shower. He concurs with Feigley that “the water in the diving well is a bit chilly,” and the hot tub (or whirlpool) is “a convenient way for the athlete to warm up.”

“It’s no different from track and field events where the athletes put sweats on and take a jog around the track,” Reiff says. “It keeps their muscles limber, and it’s certainly part of their mental routine.”

Doug Beavers, program director at the Montgomery Dive Club, explains that hot tubs are particularly helpful in big competitions. “In a facility with a ton of spectators,” he says, it’s important to manage the air temperature. “Anticipating the heat from a whole lot of bodies, they drop the air temperature way down, and the pools have water cooler than the divers like.” The hot tub, typically kept at about 100 degrees (according to Beavers), is an ideal place for divers to “keep their muscles warm and loose,” especially during events in which an individual’s dives may be 20 or 30 minutes apart.

Beyond that, Beavers agrees that the hot-tub soak may be an important part of a diver’s routine – “and routine is a big deal.”

“These divers very likely have a hot tub at their normal training facility,” Beavers explains, and using it can become a key element of an athlete’s competition ritual. Such rituals can help athletes stay focused, despite being in an unfamiliar setting.

But every athlete develops his or her own rituals. “Some divers do put on a sweat suit” between dives, Beavers says, sometimes after soaking in the hot tub and toweling off. But that comes with a risk, he warns. “If your suit is still a bit wet when you put your sweats on, you’ll get a big wet spot on your butt. That doesn’t look so good” on the awards platform, he notes.