A Beginner's Guide to Cold Water Therapy - Men's Health Magazine Australia

A Beginner’s Guide to Cold Water Therapy

Joel Pilgrim, the founder and CEO of surf therapy charity Waves of Wellness, a mental health occupational therapist, and an avid surfer, shares why cold water therapy has taken over the world, and how you can get involved.

Photo: Chris Prestidge (@atdusk)

Taking an ice-cold bath may sound painful, but some believe cold water therapy one of the easiest, quickest ways to soothe post-workout pains. 

“You only have to spend a short amount of time in cold water, and you’ll feel the benefits all day long,” says Joel Pilgrim, co-founder and CEO of mental health charity, the Waves of Wellness (WOW) Foundation “After an ocean swim in winter, you sometimes get a temporary natural high when you get out. This is due to the release of hormones including endorphins that have a positive impact on your mood.”

If you’re tempted to channel your inner Wim Hof but need a little convincing before you embrace the chill, an emerging body of scientific evidence makes a case for turning the temperature dial 180 degrees. You needn’t go full Iceman to fire up the most potent cold shower benefits, either – 21 degrees Celsius or lower is cool enough. 

The first time you try it, you might hate it. Relax, keep your breathing steady, focus your mind and stick with it. It will help you build the mental fortitude you need when committing to a tough training programme. Plus, once it’s over, you will have completed the hardest part of your workout. It’s unlikely you’ll skip the rest.

There’s also further benefits for your brain, says Pilgrim. “The cold sends electrical impulses to the brain that helps you ‘switch on’. If you’re feeling sluggish, cold water can instantly give you energy, and make you feel super-charged. It can also improve alertness, so if you’re having trouble concentrating at work, or experiencing a creative block, a cold water break could be the answer.”

Pilgrim shares with Men’s Health a few ways you can get started with cold water therapy below.

3 ways to get cold (quickly!)

1. Ice bath

A host of A-listers, models, and athletes swear by the benefits of taking regular ice baths, and have even taken to Instagram to document their chilly dips. As part of her pre- and post-show routine, Gaga has a ten-minute ice bath dip, that for her, helps ease chronic pain, fatigue and poor sleep. “It helps me to keep doing my passion, job, and the things I love even on days when I feel like I can’t get out of bed,” Gaga posted, in a dip after rehearsals for the MTV Video Music Awards. Singer Madonna has also shared a clip in the past of her post-show routine, which includes taking an ice bath.

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A post shared by Madonna (@madonna)

In her Instagram documentation of the bath, Madonna posted: “Shall we start an ice bath challenge? 41 degrees. Best treatment for injuries.” In the clip, dressed in a sports top and hot pants with rubber socks, Madonna shows off a bruise on her leg and said that taking a dip in the ice water is the best way to cure it, and after sitting in the tub for a while, pulls off her rubber socks to show the difference. “That’s so you know how cold it is.” 

After world-famous tennis player Andy Murray won a grueling match at the U.S. Open in New York in 2021, all he longed for afterwards was an “emergency” ice bath, and fellow tennis player Naomi Osaka is a fan, too: “I just want to go into an ice bath,” she said after finishing three sets at the open. In fact, ice baths span plenty of sports, with ice baths in training rooms everywhere – some football clubs even make do, filling an esky or garbage bin with ice to create a cool post-match cocktail for the players. 

So how does an ice bath feel? People say it’s a shock at first, with a pins-and-needles like sensation taking over your body – which we know already after watching the shocked reactions from the social media Ice Bucket Challenge in recent years. The body goes numb to the pain after 30 seconds, so after that, it’s mind over matter, as your brain comes to the realisation of what’s happening, and alcimatises to the discomfort. This is when breathing exercises, such as those pioneered by Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof, can really come into their own. 

2. Ocean/ dam/ river/ pool dip

In Spring in Australia, the water temps sit at a cool 17 degrees, so a dip in the ocean is a fantastic way to receive the benefits of cold water therapy. Many of us are lucky to live within driving distance to a coastline, and we have beautiful oceans, with soft sand and sparkling water, in Australia, and there’s no better feeling than jumping in. 

Former Ducktober participant and Bondi Rescue lifeguard Deano Gladstone says, “As a Bondi Lifeguard, we understand the therapeutic and healing benefits of getting in the water. We have to jump in the ocean all year round and there is no better feeling.” 

If you’re planning to spend a decent amount of time in the water, rather than just a ‘quick dip’, be sure to bring an ocean swimming companion with you to be extra safe. If you’re hesitant about the open ocean, an ocean pool is a perfect place to dip in without waves. 

Pilgrim suggests having a warm up plan for when you jump out of the icy waters. “It’s important to ensure you warm up in the correct way to give yourself the best recovery. It’s not recommended to take a hot shower directly afterwards because our bodies don’t do so well with the sudden extreme changes in temperature. It’s better to let our bodies warm up on their own, only take a warm shower if you have to.

3. Cold shower 

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson takes a cold shower every day, and cold showers are key to those learning the Wim Hof Method, Hof’s science-backed program that combines breathing technique, controlled exposure to cold, and commitment. Hof might have swum underneath ice for 66 metres, and run a half marathon around the Arctic Circle barefoot in shorts, but there’s a gentler way to reap the benefits of Hof’s controlled exposure to cold, right in your own home. 

Wim Hof advocates incorporating cold showers into your daily routine, suggesting to start with a regular shower and finish the last 30 seconds cold, then gradually build up the duration and intensity until you can tolerate the cold more and more. 

Waves of Wellness have launched a ‘cold water therapy’ challenge, Ducktober, and are encouraging Australians everywhere to challenge themselves to a ‘quick duck’ into cold water for 20 days in a row this October, to represent the 20% of Aussies currently living with mental illness. At the same time, participants have the chance to raise funds for Waves of Wellness’ clinical-based surf therapy programs, that are offered free of charge at beaches across Australia.  

Funds raised from Ducktober will enable WOW’s mental health surf therapy programs to continue running free of charge, as well as expand to reach more people. You can make a donation at https://ducktober2022.raisely.com/ If you could benefit from surf therapy, sign up at https://www.foundationwow.org/

By Nikolina Ilic

Nikolina is the former Digital Editor at Men's Health Australia, responsible for all things social media and .com. A lover of boxing, she has written for Women's Health, esquire, GQ and Vogue magazine.

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