The use of deliberate cold exposure has found more popularity recently, with an upsurgence in ice baths, cold water swimming and cold showers being just some of the ideas more regularly splashed around social media and the news.
Deliberate cold exposure can come with huge benefits, not least the ability to have a stronger, more flexible and resilient nervous system, along with possible metabolism upregulation and increases in dopamine. This means deliberate cold exposure can help us recover better, have more capacity when we workout, have a stronger and happier mindset and cope with stress better.
It’s worth mentioning that most of the research currently looks at ice baths: submersion up to the neck in cold water, simply due to being able to control more variables than with a cold shower. What’s best for you is not necessarily what’s ‘optimal’; I encourage you to look at what you can do with what you have that allows you to do it consistently, rather than perfectly every once in a while! Go with whatever is available to you.
Firstly, please don’t plunge yourself into cold water without talking to your doctor, especially if you have underlying health conditions, are pregnant etc.
For everyone: start small and cautiously, and build slowly.
There is not one specific set temperature for everyone. The temperature you should be working at is one that is uncomfortable enough that you want to get out, but that is safe for you to remain in.
If you’re looking for a benchmark to aim for, then the research suggests 11 minutes across the course of a week is enough to receive the benefits. This doesn’t not have to be in one session, but rather that 11 minutes can be spread across multiple sessions during the week.
Note that your body has a regular 24-hour temperature cycle: your body temperature is at its lowest about a couple of hours before you wake up, with your temperature climbing from then and then decreasing as you prepare for sleep again. This temperature reduction is necessary for the onset of sleep.
Because of this, and the way that your body responds to cold water immersion, timing might be more important for sleep-sensitive individuals. Getting into the cold water will cause your core body temperature to rise and therefore sleep might be more difficult for the 4-6 hours afterwards.
A morning cold practice might therefore be best suited to that natural internal temperature cycle; gaining the benefits but not losing sleep.
How to progress?
You could monitor time and temperature e.g. doing 30 seconds one week, and then building that time up, then lowering the temperature etc. However, this method comes with drawbacks as you are likely to ‘bottom out’. There’s a limit to how much time you probably want to allot to this practice per week, and a limit to how cold you are able to (safely) make it.
Instead, another way to progress - and arguably a much better way that mimics your ability to cope with stress in real life - is to use ‘walls’. These ‘walls’ are the resistance you feel in your mind to either getting in or staying in the cold water. For many people, me included, the first wall is indeed before I get on the water - I really do not want to do it!! As you then get in, the discomfort will begin to subside slightly until you really want to get out again (but if you are safe to remain in) - this would be the second ‘wall’. Measuring your progress in terms of ‘walls’ allows you to adapt to the capacity your mind, body and nervous system has that day/week.
Should I move?
If you don’t move, then the body your heat radiates will create a small layer of warmer water around your body. Moving your body whilst you are in the cold water will dissipate this warmer layer and make that temperature feel a lot colder.
This gives you more options without having to constantly lower the temperature of the water. You can make the same temperature feel a lot harder to stay in just by moving your body more as opposed to staying still.
Should I warm up afterwards?
Nope. If you can, try not to then switch to a warm shower or hot tub etc straight afterwards. Research shows that the best adaptations happen when you allow your body to warm up naturally afterwards.
An obvious exception would be hypothermia (but of course you shouldn’t get there with cold water therapy, the emphasis is always on the temperature of the water is cold enough to be uncomfortable but safe enough to stay in).
If quick warming up of the body is needed, then (of course a blanket) but also apply warmth to the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet and the top part of the face. These glabrous parts of the skin are the most effective at changing your core body temperature quickly.
If you’d like to dive (much) deeper into the science and studies backing the use of deliberate cold exposure, then Dr Andrew Huberman’s podcast is a great, accessible way to understand more: Using Deliberate Cold Exposure for Health and Performance - Huberman Lab
What are your favourite ways to do cold exposure?
What is the worst or best part about it for you?
What’s stopping you trying it?
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