By Awesome Supplements, Read time: 5 minutes
A while ago, I wrote an article asking if it was the end of an era for ice therapy.
This article referred to a vast amount of evidence-based research suggesting that icing injuries for sustained periods, or jumping into an ice bath after a heavy training session may not necessarily be the best things to do in terms of physical adaptations or optimal recovery for our bodies.
But time has passed since I wrote this blog and a lot has happened over the past twelve months. So I decided to revisit the cold therapy question but this time with a slightly different approach. We understand that in terms of hypertrophy or even fast repair of injuries, icing may not be the right thing to do. But what about our general health? Our minds and bodies must surely get some benefit from the cold?
Before I go any further, I need to point out that currently, research on what I am talking about is extremely limited. Much of what I have read and heard is anecdotal and based on my own experience. There is of course some science behind what I’m talking about but please keep an open mind until more is published. Early research seems to be being done in the US by Andrew Hubermans lab, which you can explore HERE.
The past 24 months have been the most surreal in our history and something I sincerely hope will never happen again. We were locked down with little or no access to the every day things that we used to rely on to keep us sane. Visits to the gym, playing football in the park with friends, going for a swim after work before sweating out in the sauna for example.
For some of us, this had an enormous effect on both our mental and physical health. Lots of us started reaching out on the internet for ideas to combat this. One recurring theme that kept creeping into my timelines was ice or cold water therapy.
Now, some of you may reel in horror at the thought of this (remember the ice bucket challenge?!), but allow me to share with you both my research and my experience.
So firstly, what exactly is it?
Well, there’s no hard and fast rule but it could be as simple as turning your shower from hot to cold for a good 30 seconds. It could mean having a full set up in your garden where you immerse yourself in a tank of cold water to start your day. You could even join one of the ever-growing groups of early morning swimmers who head to the coast at sunrise and brave the elements. But why would anyone do this?
Have you ever taken part in Tough Mudder? It’s a well-known obstacle event which is set to challenge the mind as well as the body. One of the obstacles, aptly named the Arctic Enema gets participants hurtling down a slide into an ice bath. Competitors will tell you it’s both exhilarating and terrifying but proves one big thing - and that is that (providing we are fit and healthy), we can survive it.
Ask anyone who braves the sea in the middle of the winter and they’ll tell you that once they’ve submerged themselves in the icy water, the whole mind and body will focus on one thing - survival. Gaining control.
Our bodies have evolved to do everything they can to survive. You may have heard of the fight or flight response that we have when exposed to situations that appear dangerous or stressful. Our bodies release the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline to help us react to life-threatening events. So when exposed to cold water, our bodies will start to adapt to the environment. Our heart will beat faster, our breathing will become more rapid and and our blood pressure will become raised. Basically, we’re in shock
When we release these hormones, particularly noradrenaline, we become more alert and our levels of concentration are given a massive boost. So this is my first big take home point from cold water therapy - improved mental alertness. I certainly feel that my mind has been reset after my daily cold shower (Started with ice baths as part of recovery from long covid, but for ease I now do 90s cold shower after my warm shower as I’ve moved house and its got a waterfall shower, which is nicer and easier as its an immersive shower).
I feel a genuine sense of euphoria which stays with me long after a cold shower. Not to mention the sharp mental focus you have, like you could conquer anything.
As well as improving our mental resilience, the release of so many feel-good hormones are very likely to also have an effect on our overall mood. Noradrenaline plays a big part in our mood and ability to concentrate, so it will come as no surprise to learn that many people who use cold water therapy will report back that they feel more confident and less anxious. Again, an awesome benefit from just a few minutes effort.
Ask anyone about the physical effects of cold water therapy and you’re bound to be told about the positive effect it can have on our immune system. It is thought that this happens as we produce more white blood cells and antioxidants through exposure to cold water. The more of these we produce, the better chance we give our body to fight anything the comes our way. So as well as the mental resilience I’ve gained, there’s the added bonus of physical resilience.
Improved circulation is something else to consider when discussing the positives of cold water therapy. When we are initially exposed to this cold water, our heart starts to beat more rapidly, which in turn pushes more blood to the organs, improving our circulation, brightening our skin and giving us that awesome burning sensation. Even though I’m sometimes tempted to give it a miss, I never regret my an ice bath or cold shower. The feeling of being alive is something I find impossible to replicate (and yes, every time I think about dipping in or turning the shower cold I think “argggg”, but its so worth it).
If you’re a sports fan, you’ll know that ice baths have always played a big part in the recovery of rugby and football players post match. It’s the same at the Crossfit Games. After completing an intense workout, the athletes will head straight for an ice bath. As well as bringing their core body temperature down more quickly, the cold water will also reduce the amount of inflammation in their muscles so they feel less sore for their next event which is usually only a couple of hours away. If you partake in a lot of exercise or you compete, taking a quick dip in the ice can give you the much needed edge on your competitors by accelerating your recovery.
Remember, as I said in my first blog, ice therapy isn’t recommended during times when an athlete is trying to build muscle and make gains, but in terms of recovery, it is still the main go-to for athletes competing and training at an intense level, especially during times of competition where recovery is the aim, not adaptation.
So, all in all, despite the lack of much scientific evidence, it’s clear that many people, myself included are experiencing positive gains from cold water therapy. Personally, the effect it has had on both my mind and body since I started taking ice baths has been awesome. I recently made a post on Facebook about the benefits I have discovered since introducing cold therapy into my routine and received an overwhelming number of responses with like-minded people who have also been bowled over by the metal and physical changes they have experienced.
Before you jump into an ice bath or sign up with your local wild swimming group however, my advice is to ensure you are fit and healthy. It’s never a bad thing to have a quick chat with your GP. And although our bodies are quick to adapt to new behaviours, I’d also advise you to expose yourself to cold water slowly so that you avoid putting your body into too much immediate shock.
Slow and frequent exposure is usually best. So start with a short burst of literally a few seconds and build up gradually to a few minutes. The Wim Hof app is free to download and talks through how to start cold showers. I started putting my hands and feet into the cold but found getting under it and getting on with it was preferred, either way, do what feels right for you, just do it, promise you’ll benefit.
Like most things that we do to benefit our health and well-being, consistency is key, so in order to keep experiencing these awesome benefits, you need to keep doing it. And it’s not a lot to ask of yourself to do 90s of cold after your normal shower, is it?
As I have said, immersing myself in ice cold water has been a game-changer for me, so if you’re looking for more mental sharpness and resilience, want to improve your autoimmune system or just want to see what happens, give it a go!
And remember, getting in is horrendous, but the feeling you get once you’re done will override any reluctance and pain you initially felt!
I’m looking forward to reading about your experiences.
It will make you more AWESOME, promise.