Some of my readers may not be familiar with the term ‘biohacking’. Healthline defines biohacking as ‘do-it-yourself biology. For many “biohackers,” this consists of making small, incremental diet or lifestyle changes to make small improvements in your health and well-being.’ — Healthline. Seems simple enough, right? This definition falls in line with what I perceive to be a sustainable approach to making long lasting lifestyle changes over time. One problem: a key to this definition that I seem to have missed when I started down this path last year was the part where it says ‘making small, incremental’ changes. Woops… I kind of dove in headfirst (so to speak).
This brings me back to the main subject of this piece… diving into a cold pool all winter long. When I started learning more about these so called ‘biohacks’ one hack that continually arose in the discussion was the various health benefits of ice bathing (also known as cold plunging, cryotherapy, ice-bathing, polar bear plunging). The podcasters, online gurus, and athletic performance coaches all seemed to tout similar benefits such as but not limited to:
- Immune support
- Parasympathetic stimulating (improves your mood)
- Promotes quality sleep
- Improves circulation
- Fat mobilization (non-metabolically active brown fat to metabolically active white fat)
Wow! That’s a lot of very good potential results for the small price of sitting in a freezing cold pool for 5 minutes a day. I’m never one to read or listen to something and blindly trust it, I’m more of the trial by fire (or ice) kind of thinker. And this laundry list of potential benefits piqued my interest enough that I needed to put cold plunging to the test. So, I dove in my 40-degree pool every day in the 2019–2020 winter and here’s what I learned.
Remember above when I said I tend to dive headfirst into new things? Well I learned that cold plunging is one of those things you should ease into. You don’t need a 40-degree swimming pool, or a chest freezer filled with water to cold plunge successfully. A simple cold shower while you’re working up to colder temperatures will suffice to get you acclimated. As you develop your tolerance you can add more time in the cold shower or turn the water temperature slightly cooler with each plunge. Once you are comfortable, then work your way up to an ice-cold pool and follow the same principles… stay in for short times initially and work your way up to longer plunges. This will help to make the experience tolerable and one you care to repeat day in and day out… read on to see why repetition matters.
Breathwork is Key
If you think that you are going to dive headfirst into ice cold water with zero preparation and NOT hyperventilate, then you need to rethink your plan. The first time I dove in, I thought I was going to die. My breath went out, I started hyperventilating and I lasted about 30 seconds before I climbed out.
This was a huge lesson for me on day one of this experiment. I had to control my breath. I am a competitive athlete, so I am not unfamiliar with breathwork, but this was a new level for me. For my next attempt at cold plunging, I brought my attention firmly to my breath and focused simply on two phrases the entire time I was in the water: “breathe in” and “breathe out”. This was game changing and made the subsequent cold plunges far more manageable experiences.
Here’s the neat thing that I didn’t even realize was happening as a result. This experience was teaching me to use breathwork in a highly sympathetic (fight or flight) situation in order to stay calm and collected so that I could manage that stress adequately to survive the moment. This has proven to be a highly transferrable skill to many other aspects of my life including work stress, physical stress during athletic competition, family stress, and even random stressors like traffic on the freeway. This experience helped me to simply say and do the following when I need to take a step forward but don’t want to: “breathe in” and “breathe out”.
This has become a buzzword in the health and wellness industry, but I think it does hold some weight. Without a good amount of mental toughness, it can be difficult to persevere through challenging situations (like standing in ice cold water for 5 minutes at a time). Cold plunging definitively helped me to develop my ‘mental-toughness’. My initial cold plunge lasted all of 30 seconds (and that was in 50+ degree water in September). By the end of winter, I was consistently staying immersed in 40-degree water for 4–5 minutes at a time.
Like anything, mental toughness, is not something that we just inherently have. It is something that takes practice and commitment to develop. With each passing cold plunge, I would force myself to stay in for just a few seconds longer than the last time. Considering that the water temperature was getting colder as the winter progressed, this was no easy task. It paid off though. The next point will explain why.
No one ever got obese by eating one pizza and no one ever got lean by eating one salad. On either side of that scale, the result generally comes from consistent behaviors over time that yield an outcome. Much the same with cold plunging… one ice bath is not going to solve all of your health issues. One must cold plunge consistently over time in order to get long term results.
The first few cold plunges did yield some quick and noticeable results like cooling my core temperature and helping me relax. But the true benefits weren’t really notable until a couple of months into this personal experiment. While subtle, I gradually started to notice:
- performance improvements in my athletics (I tie this back to the breathwork, and mental toughness mentioned above)
- better sleep quality (over time consistent cold plunging helped to regulate my parasympathetic nervous system which helps to control sleep cycles)
- increased fat mobilization (this was actually measured as my body fat reduced from 15% down to 11% during this experiment and the only aspect of my routine changed was the addition of consistent cold plunging)
This is all to say that these changes did not arise overnight from one cold plunge. It took months of building the consistent behavior of diving in that water every evening for me to truly start to see the benefits. I will say that as these benefits became noticeable my desire to dive in that water increased in direct proportion.
You can search ‘cold therapy’ online and find a wide variety of articles that list the benefits of cold plunging. I didn’t want to write just another article listing health benefits. Rather I wanted to offer some actionable advice if cold plunging is something you are considering. That being said, these experiences are anecdotal and not meant to be interpreted as medical advice on any level. If cold plunging is on your list of health hacks to attempt, I hope the advice above helps you get started.
PERSONALIZE YOUR FEED
Article written by:
Passionate Health and Nutrition Coach who believes everyone can lead a healthy life and reach their goals through intentionally building new habits.