Wellness practices are constantly evolving in the world of health and fitness. With athletes and enthusiasts always seeking innovative ways to optimise their performance, recover faster, and boost their overall wellbeing, it should come as no surprise that the concept of submerging yourself in frigid water is no longer an irritating inconvenience to avoid at all costs, but a popular wellness trend with practitioners across the globe.
Wim Hof, aptly nicknamed ‘The Iceman’, is a trailblazer in the realm of cold water immersion. The Dutchman has helped popularise the wellness practice across the globe, and ice baths have become an integral aspect of many people’s daily routines. Whether it’s a revitalising wake-up call to start the day, or a soothing cool-down after a high-intensity workout, ice baths are chiselling out a regular spot in fitness routines,.
Far from an occasion to lament, cold water immersion can have extensive benefits for your physical and mental health. As advocates of the practice will likely tell you, the next time the hot water cuts out half-way through your shower, you should consider relishing in the plight, rather than avoiding it.
A quick personal anecdote here. Throughout my childhood, my father routinely woke me up at the crack of dawn to do what he called ‘freshening up’, or what could more accurately be described as suffering through an icy morning swim before the sun had come up and the frost had melted (did anyone else’s dad do this?) Turns out he was not the irritable, ungodly hour-waking goblin that I thought he was, but actually something of a trendsetter. Thanks dad.
Cold water immersion therapy, the more scientific-sounding name for ice baths, can help reduce muscle soreness, increase blood circulation, and, as some studies have shown, boost your immune system. But the practice is not without risks. If you’re considering taking the plunge but aren’t convinced of the benefits, we’ve got you covered. This is everything you need to know about ice baths.
What is an ice bath?
First, a fairly plain speech definition. While the specifics differ, in its most simple form, an ice bath involves submerging most or all of your body in cold water. Typically, the water is between 10°C and 15°C (so not actually ice producing levels), and you’ll stay in it for around 10 to 15 minutes. The body of water used for immersion is up to the participant. It could be a literal bath full of ice, or simply the frigid ocean.
The purpose of an ice bath is to reduce muscle soreness and inflammation while accelerating recovery after intense physical activity. Ice baths can do this by changing the way blood flows throughout the body. Cold water immersion forces your blood vessels to constrict and then dilate upon getting out getting out. There’s also the mental aspect of the plunge. Due to the immense willpower it takes just to get into an ice bath, the act is said to sharpen resolve and build resilience.
What are the benefits of ice baths?
The benefits of ice baths are numerous and the practice dates back centuries. With the earliest known usage in 3500BC, the ancient Greeks are the source of much of our knowledge on the earliest instances of cold water immersion. Hippocrates himself was a keen partaker of the practice, even stating that “the water can cure everything.” We wouldn’t go that far, as scientists are still working to provide concrete evidence on many of the benefits of ice baths, but Hippocrates was at least partially correct. These are some of the proven benefits of ice baths.
Reduced muscle soreness:
One of the most significant benefits of ice baths is the reduction of muscle soreness. The cold temperature constricts blood vessels and decreases the inflammatory response, which can alleviate post-workout aches and pains.
For a long time, high performance athletes have opted for ice baths to expedite the recovery process. Cold-water immersion helps flush out waste products like lactic acid from the muscles, promoting faster healing and allowing you to get back to training sooner.
Improved blood circulation:
Immersing in cold water triggers vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels) and vasodilation (widening of blood vessels) as the body attempts to maintain its core temperature. This process may improve overall blood circulation.
Increased mental strength:
Ice baths can also provide mental benefits by reducing stress and promoting relaxation. The shock of the cold water can stimulate the release of endorphins, improving mood and mental clarity.
Immune system boost:
Some evidence suggests that ice baths can activate the immune system, helping it fight against illnesses. A 1996 study showed that long-term exposure to cold water can lead to small, but significant increases in immune system stimulation due to the elevated metabolic rate caused by shivering. However, the long-term immune system benefits were ultimately minimal.
What are the risks of ice baths?
While ice baths offer numerous benefits, they also come with certain risks that should be considered before engaging in the practice. Cold water immersion triggers the body’s shock response, and unless you’ve built up a tolerance to colder temperatures, ice baths can actually be dangerous. These are the most common risks associated with ice baths.
Prolonged exposure to extremely cold water can lead to hypothermia. Ice baths are supposed to be kept at temperatures above freezing levels and participants should only submerge themselves for brief periods, but mistakes can still happen. It’s crucial to monitor your time in the bath and maintain the water temperature within the recommended range.
Cold shock response:
The initial shock of entering cold water can lead to hyperventilation and a sudden increase in heart rate. To avoid this, ease into the ice bath gradually, and do not submerge your head.
Individuals with certain medical conditions, such as Raynaud’s disease or circulatory problems, should avoid ice baths. Always consult with a healthcare professional before starting an ice bath routine.
Each person’s tolerance for cold differs, and what works for one may not work for another. Pay attention to your body and adjust your ice bath duration and temperature accordingly. You may find that ice baths are unsuitable for you altogether.
How do you use ice baths safely?
You might be chomping at the bit to get into an ice bath and continue your wellness journey, but it’s important that you know how to do so safely. Here’s an easy to follow guide to ice baths for beginners.
Start gradually: Begin with shorter sessions in moderately cold water and gradually increase both the time and the coldness of the water as your body adapts. These initial sessions don’t even need to be in an ice bath. You can start off by simply lowering the temperature in the shower.
Use a thermometer: Invest in a reliable water thermometer to ensure the water remains within the recommended temperature range. There’s no nobility in guess work, especially when the potential outcome is hypothermia.
Rehydrate and refuel: After an ice bath, it’s essential to rehydrate and refuel with a healthy snack and fluids to replenish lost nutrients and energy.
Stay warm afterwards: After the ice bath, stay warm with layers of clothing to raise your body temperature back up.
Listen to your body: If you experience discomfort or pain during the ice bath, get out immediately. An ice bath should not be a painful experience, but a soothing one.