Is cold exposure good for health and performance?September 9, 2022 2022-10-06 6:14
Is cold exposure good for health and performance?
Is cold exposure good for health and performance?
Let’s start off with, how cold is cold enough?
This is a common question and the truth is that it’s always difficult to answer because everybody handles it differently. I have heard that going super cold, ie. Into ice cold water can limit the recovery process if that is the goal as it causes vasoconstriction to occur, so around 10 degrees is about optimal in that case. I believe if you are after all of the other benefits then just getting in the water that you feel to be cold and that gives you a bit of a shock is just about perfect.
If you want to get the most out of this method you should expose yourself to cold as regularly as possible. The fast-forward button would be that shower every morning to start with and get you used to the cold. I prefer to have the shower close to the back of my neck or my head as the running water down my back is just annoying and uncomfortable. Research has found that intense and long-lasting increases in dopamine levels happen in people when they’re immersed for about an hour up to their neck in cool water with their heads above the water. Other research has described significant increases in epinephrine from just 20 seconds in very cold water. The more you embrace the cold, the easier it gets to confidently explore it and let go of past fears. As we will discover later in the article you don’t have to go to the extremes to get the benefits either.
Once you do get used to the cold you will be looking for ways to increase your exposure with your current setup. One way that I noticed makes it much harder is to keep moving when you are submerged, this breaks up the thermal barrier between your skin layer and the water. When moving you will have to heat up the water each time it passes over the skin so this will make it much colder and add a deeper level to the experience. Possibly knowing this is good information if you were ever caught out in cold water, staying still can actually keep you warmer it would seem.
What is the best method of cold exposure?
As with a lot of things we are not lab rats at home and don’t have easy access to a lot of the equipment they have in the labs for these experiments. I wouldn’t let that put you off as you don’t need an ice cryotherapy chamber to get all the benefits. My advice is to start with washing your hands and face in cold water, really feel it on your face, you can even add in a few ice cubes and wash it over.
The next step would be to start and take cold showers every morning, I have seen some pretty neat research that has shown it only takes 11 minutes of cold exposure a WEEK to get some of the awesome health benefits. That’s 2 minutes in your shower each day, it is not that difficult to get started and I can tell you how good you feel after that two minutes. After you have gotten used to the shower you will be after full submersion. If you live near the sea, perfect! Just get in there for a nice sea swim, but make sure you don’t go alone and never go out of your depth as cold exposure can turn ugly for some people pretty quickly. If the sea is too far then the next best option is the bath, outside is much better than indoors as you can fill it up and in winter it will stay as cold as you will ever need.
What benefits do we get from cold exposure?
Science has recently discovered that when faced with a cold environment, we are flooded with both epinephrine and norepinephrine. These chemicals make us feel alert and can cause us to lack restlessness or the need to move at all. The cold can make you feel pretty good thanks to the high levels of energy & focus you experience post-exposure. This is what I talk about in my article, “5 Inspiring Ways to Stay Healthy During Winter.”
By motivating yourself to do what you are frightened of (i.e., stress!), you control a more deep-reaching part of your brain that regulates reflex states. Coupled with your prefrontal cortex – an area of the brain involved in planning and suppressing impulsivity – this top-down control process forms the basis of what people refer to when they mention a person’s mental toughness & acuity. Cold exposure isn’t just for people who live in climates with reduced temperature; it is a valuable skill that you can use to stay calm & focused across many scenarios acting as an enabler to build resilience.
The conclusion that cold exposure causes a prolonged release of dopamine is only true for some stressors. Although dopamine is a powerful molecule, it can also elevate mood and enhance focus, attention, and goal-directed behavior. Being physically colder for periods of time, or even in cold environments has been shown to enhance mood, energy, and focus levels.
Exposure to cold increases metabolism in the short term. In the process, you consume more calories as your body tries to adjust its temperature. Scientific studies show that cold exposure does not burn a lot of calories. However, some hypothesize that it could lead to the conversion of the white fat into beige or brown fat and this can provide benefits such as:
- Cold Adaptation – becoming used to a cold environment.
- Helping you to trigger deeper, more sustained increases in your metabolism.
A recent science-backed protocol you can use at home.
Cold exposure can be done in short intervals or two longer sessions spread out during the week and should last for about eleven minutes total as mentioned earlier. The water temperature should not be too cold but very uncomfortable in order to benefit from the exposure. A good start would be doing 2-5 minutes of cold exposure 2-4 times per week. If you do not have the time to do a longer exposure then you can try some really quick ones at a really cold temperature (4 degrees), you will just have to work with it and see how you do.
Studies have shown that cold exposure can be a really effective recovery tool after high-intensity or endurance training. Short cold water immersions lead to better post-exposure performance, increased recovery, and reduced muscle soreness. This is partly because it reduces the number of creatine kinases that are circulating in your blood, but as mentioned at the beginning I reckon around 10 degrees would be optimal here.
While cold water submersion can restrict some of the gains in muscle growth, stamina, or endurance if done in the time after exercising, hot water immersion is a great way to recover by relaxing tight muscles and clearing inflammation. The best time to take cold water immersion would be 6 to 8 hours after training. However, if your goal has nothing to do with adaptation (this is common when you’re in a competition mode and don’t want any further improvement) then taking it before your workout is perfectly fine.
There is another principle or method called, “end with cold” or the Søeberg Principle. It is pretty intense and something only experienced cold-waternauts should be taking part in. I have done it a good few times but if you mess it up I believe you could possibly go into hypothermia so I will leave out the main details for now and keep it in the member’s area only. One take away though is the “end with cold”, so if you are going from hot to cold or aren’t worried about gains after training then finish with cold, the idea being that the body will increase its metabolism to raise the core temperature among with other health benefits both physical and mental.
What time of day for cold exposure?
What I have found and the research would align with my personal experience is that the best way to use cold exposure would be in the morning and/or as early as you can in the day. The cold is great for waking us up and all the benefits I have listed earlier.
At night you don’t want to use cold as it will have the opposite effect on what you want when going to sleep so a hot bath that will switch your body into a cooling zone is better as it is the cooling of the brain that allows us to drop into sleep.
I hope this has given you some insight into using cold training as part of your daily routine and within your training practice. If you are interested to learn and talk more about this subject and many others then why not check out the membership where we have group zoom calls monthly to discuss training and all things health and fitness.
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If you want to get started then this would be a good way to get going for a relatively small cost. I have built an outdoor plunge pool for swimming and cold therapy with old wood, but if you don’t have much space this little gem will get you started.
If you are interested in a tub just follow this link for one I think would be excellent if you are short of space. https://amzn.to/3R06IDD
As a general rule, stay out of the water which can be dangerous. You should also avoid hyperventilation before and during any type of water activity. Start with a comfortable temperature – cold shock is possible. The right temperature will depend on your preferences, but safety should still be the priority.