JUST A FEW years ago, the idea of submerging yourself in a body of frigid water would be enough to see you question your sanity. Our interactions with cold water weren’t something to seek out but rather an inconvenience to bemoan: Hot water cutting out in an apartment, the gym shower that seems to never heat up no matter how long you shiver under the faucet.
But thanks in large part to Wim Hof—otherwise known as the Dutch ‘Iceman’—ice baths, showers and ocean dips are now a ritual for many. Whether it’s what pulls you up in the morning or serves as part of your recovery routine, the benefits are impossible to ignore as cold immersion therapy helps to reduce muscle soreness, improve mood, and can even help with your immune system and metabolism.
It’s not surprising, then, that ice baths have been popping up around the world. What might have once been a private activity has now become mainstream, with recovery centres and public spaces all offering such services to satiate a growing audience. If you’ve ever felt the urge to take the plunge but still can’t bring yourself to dip a toe in the water, consider this your guide to ice baths.
What are ice baths and how do they work?
Cold water therapy refers to the practice of submerging the body in water that’s around 15 degrees Celsius. Otherwise known as cold hydrotherapy, ice baths are a popular choice, however other options include daily showers, outdoor swims and cold-water immersion therapy sessions.
Long touted for their effective recovery properties, ice baths work by changing the way blood flows through your body. When submerged in cold water, your blood vessels constrict. Upon getting out, they dilate. This process and improved blood flow not only helps flush away metabolic waste, but also floods cells with nutrients and oxygen. Aside from the physical changes, ice baths also have a strong link to the mind as the sheer willpower it takes to stay in them sharpens one’s resolve and helps build resilience that can be applied to all aspects of life.
What are the benefits of ice baths?
Cold-water therapy isn’t a new concept and the benefits date back to centuries. According to the ABC, even Hippocrates proclaimed the benefits, celebrating cold water therapy’s ability to “allay weariness.” Though there is still much research to be done when it comes to concrete scientific facts that can be applied to ice baths, those who support the practice are quick to note that their circulation has been improved, they sleep better, they have a spike in energy levels and see reduced inflammation in the body.
These are the biggest touted benefits of the practice:
Ice baths have widely been used for post-exercise recovery, with athletes taking to locker rooms where they will submerge themselves for minutes at a time. A 2016 study of 20 participants found that athletes who soaked in a pool of cold water (12 to 15 degrees Celsius) reported less muscle soreness than those who did not choose hydrotherapy after exercise. Experts note that cold water causes blood vessels to constrict, reducing blood flow to an area. This, in turn, helps reduce swelling and inflammation, benefitting muscle recovery.
After an intense workout or run, ice baths can also help with cooling down—something that’s particularly beneficial in our current climate where we’re seeing heatwaves scorch most parts of the world. Cold water immersion can help lower body temperature much faster than simply resting in an air-conditioned room.
Boost immune system
Some evidence suggests cold water therapy can stimulate the body’s immune system and help fight against illness. According to a Dutch study, those who practised cold water immersion techniques and then exposed to a bacterial infection saw their bodies better able to produce anti-inflammatory chemicals in response. However, researchers also noted that these participants engaged in deep breathing exercises, which could also have proven influential.
Some research suggests that cold exposure can boost one’s calorie-burning capabilities, however research is lacking in this area. According to a 2009 research review, brief immersions of five minutes in water less than 15 degrees Celsius did increase metabolism.
Are there risks associated with ice baths?
Like anything that triggers a shock response, there are risks involved when it comes to ice baths. If you haven’t developed a tolerance for cold water immersion, this response can lead to hyperventilating and, in some instances, increase cardiac arrhythmias. Aside from building tolerance gradually, it’s important to remember to breathe normally while submerged in an ice bath as holding your breath can lead to a greater risk of arrythmias.
Ultimately, you should talk to your doctor first as ice baths affect your blood pressure, heart rate and circulation, while also having the potential to cause cardiac stress. It’s also recommended to have an observer with you when starting out to monitor your condition.
Related: Summer bodies are made in winter
When should you take an ice bath?
Currently, there’s no evidence to suggest when is the best time to take an ice bath. Naturally, if you’ve just done an intense workout and are looking to improve recovery, then the sooner you can hop into a tub, the better. But for those who simply want an energy boost, an ice bath can be taken whenever needed, and for many it’s how they like to start their morning.
Related: Summer bodies are made in winter
How can you safely take an ice bath at home?
Though you might be rearing to start your wellness journey and embrace a life of daily ice baths, it’s important to note that you don’t need to go all in at the get-go. As Wim Hof instructs, you can avoid the bath entirely for the first few days as you build up a tolerance for cold water immersion. Start in the shower with 30 seconds of cold water. As your tolerance grows, increase the time spent in cold water from one minute to five. Then, go to the ice bath.
Enter the water slowly and limit immersion to under 10 minutes. Most importantly, remember to breathe normally. We know, it’s easier said than done when your body turns rigid from the cold, but it’ll help not only keep your mind present, but also ensure you avoid any risks. Ultimately, ice baths never quite get easier: The body still experiences freezing temperatures and reacts accordingly. But with each venture into those frigid depths, one’s willpower is sharpened and the mind triumphs over the urge to get out immediately and prostrate yourself before a heater. For many, it’s this that proves most compelling.