The Powerful Benefits of Ice Baths and Cold Showers

The Benefits of Ice Baths and Cold Showers

Cultures throughout history have instinctively used cold water exposure to take advantage of its many benefits. It has only been recently that it has been making a resurgence in interest for athletes that are looking to tap into the ways that it can improve their recovery between training sessions.

What Is Cold Water Immersion Therapy?

Cold-water Immersion Therapy (CWI) exposes your body to cold water with temperatures ranging anywhere from 49-60° Fahrenheit. 

Most commonly, you can practice cold-water immersion by either cold showers or ice baths. We’ll talk about how to use both later in the article.

How Ice Baths And Cold Showers Work

Your body naturally responds to cold exposure in many ways. First through the skin, then your breathing response, and ultimately your muscles and your blood vessels through something called vasoconstriction, which in simple terms is the tightening of your blood vessels. 

This process affects both the vascular system through blood flow as well as the lymphatic system and can help flush out the waste products left over during your body’s metabolic process.

This is what makes freezing water great at activating the sympathetic nervous system (the stress response.) Your body begins to adjust to the new stressor and stimulates the vagus nerve. It then accelerates the parasympathetic activation in your body (the relaxation, digestion, and regeneration response.) It also promotes the creation of cold shock proteins, which hold similar benefits to the positive effects of heat shock proteins you get from the sauna.

What Are The Benefits of Cold Showers and Ice Baths

The science around CWI is still developing. Luckily, a re-discovered interest in the subject has rejuvenated the demand for more intensive study.

Here are some of the potential benefits of Cold-Water Immersion Therapy:

  1. Reduces Swelling And Inflammation – Like grabbing an ice pack is a standard method for local pain, swelling, and inflammation reduction, cold water therapy applies the same principle over more surface areas of your body. 
  2. Workout and Training Recovery – Because it may affect how fluids flow through the body and inflammation reduction, cold water therapy has found itself to be a go-to for many athletes. 
  3. Improved Immune System – study involving renowned “Ice Man” Wim Hof showed that cold water exposure combined with a specific breathing exercise protocol improved the participants’ immune system’s response when injected with an endotoxin. 
  4. Weight Loss – Because cold exposure can trigger your body to create more brown fat (a dense type of fat that ‘burns hotter’ to help with body temperature regulation), which also burns more calories. 
  5. Mental Resiliency And Willpower – Getting into an ice bath or cold shower isn’t a pleasant idea for beginners. You’re voluntarily exposing yourself to stress. That’s what makes it an excellent tool for battling that ‘little voice in the back of your mind’ that also tries to get you to quit a workout early or get started on the tasks you’ve been avoiding. 
  6. Feeling Of Well-Being – While the fantastic feeling many get after an ice bath may be subjective. Some studies have indicated that cold water therapy positively affects mood, anxiety, and depression. Although more studies are needed to test the hypothesis vigorously, it’s a promising indication of the mental health benefits that cold water therapy could provide. 

How to Start Taking Cold Showers and Ice Baths 

The thought of hopping in that first cold shower or sinking yourself into an ice bath may seem like a challenging mental obstacle to overcome, but there are ways that you can ease yourself into it.

Once your body adapts to how it responds to cold, it becomes much easier over time. You’ll find yourself capable of comfortably withstanding colder temperatures for responsibly longer times. 

So let’s go through a way to increase your tolerance to cold water immersion gradually. 

Beginner to Advanced Progression

As always, consult your doctor or healthcare professional before taking on any new fitness or recovery protocol. Since cold exposure is a stress response, it makes it all the more important to do so.

Start With Cold Showers:

Cold showers are much more accessible than ice baths and provide a much easier way to ease into it than the shock of immersing yourself in a tub full of ice and water. 

Here’s a step-by-step example of how to ease yourself into it:

  1. Take your usual warm shower. At the end of your shower, turn the faucet to cold for 30 seconds. When you get out of the shower let your body warm back up naturally instead of turning the water back to warm before getting out.
  2. Gradually extend the time at the end of your warm shower. It only takes 2-5 minutes to begin experiencing the benefits. Aim for that timeframe as a target. 
  3. Now that you can comfortably stay in for 2-5 minutes at the end of a warm shower, it’s time to start with the faucet on cold and get in without first taking a warm shower. The beginning is the hardest, but aim for staying in for 30 seconds.
  4. Gradually extend the time until you can stay in for the same 2-5 minutes.

Move On to Ice Baths

Now that your body has begun to adapt to cold water exposure, the ice bath experience will feel much more manageable. The real challenge is talking yourself into it. Just remember, the longer you think about it, the harder it becomes. 

  1. Start by aiming for the same 2-5 minutes in the ice bath. Once you get in, focus on controlling your breathing and feeling the water around your body begin to heat up.
  2. For your next ice bath, try to keep slightly moving your body around. Your body’s thermogenic response creates a small bubble of heat around your body (what you were focusing on in step one.) Moving your body breaks that bubble and makes more contact with the cold water.
  3. Now you’re at a place where you can gradually extend the time you spend in each ice bath. 

Final Thoughts

When first starting, spending time in cold water can be very uncomfortable. But that’s precisely what makes it such a powerful tool to make your mind and body more resilient. 

As the legendary Wim Hof himself says, “The cold is your teacher!” And there are many lessons you can learn in the moments of feeling uncomfortable in the cold. 

But once your body begins to adapt, you begin to have a different relationship with the cold. You start to look forward to not only how you feel after you get out of a freezing-cold shower or ice bath.

You begin to look forward to the process itself, and the cold begins to rejuvenate you. 

If you want to find an additional way to jumpstart your recovery with cold therapy – take a look at our articles on cryotherapy and the benefits of adding colder temperatures to you mattress while you sleep.

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