Cold Training: But Why?

Author: Nikki Stock, MS, LMT, CSCS; Coach and Massage Therapist at BG Powerhouse

*The following post is not a substitute for medical advice, nor a prescription. Consult a doctor before attempting the techniques discussed here.*

I would estimate most people, before they even begin reading, will affirm to themselves how little desire they have to purposely be cold. Perhaps you’ve chosen to read this post so you can use it as an anecdote the next time you want to talk about a ludicrous topic with your coworker. I was one of those people too. However, experiencing new things typically reaps positive benefits. What I will explain in this blog is a pathway in which we can train our minds to positively affect our physiology, and train our physiology to positively affect our minds. However crazy it may seem now, I encourage you to keep an open mind.

Cold therapy (also known as cryotherapy), is on the rise with athletes especially, thanks to the amazing feats of the Iceman, Wim Hof, who has world records involving ice baths and shirtless hikes on Everest, commercial Cryotherapy businesses popping up in most major cities (pricy and not discussed here), and other fitness practitioners on social media sharing their experiences and theories around mindful exposure to the cold.

So what’s the hype? How could the benefits outweigh the discomfort of cold? I’ll start with what the research and practitioners say. Summarizing the research done on different methods of cold training (cryo chambers, ice baths, etc.), the following are potential benefits, provided by the sources I’ve added at the end of this post:

  • Reduced perception of pain

  • Reduced muscle soreness

  • Reduced inflammation (actual physiological improvements)

  • Improved sense of well-being

  • Reduced DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness - the soreness that appears days after a tough workout, and tends to be more painful than general soreness that day after training)

  • Improved immune system

  • Improved metabolism

    • Improved lipid profile

    • Increased thermogenesis

    • Increased brown fat (simply put, this is good fat that helps mobilize more bad fat)

  • Ability to mentally influence the autonomic nervous system (previously thought to be completely independent of your conscious thought)

  • Reduced inflammation-induced bone damage

  • Improved sleep

  • Improved mood

  • Decreased stress

  • Increased focus

  • Increased resiliency

  • Reactivation of the parasympathetic nervous system

So how do we harness these benefits? I’ll start with my experience. Once I finally convinced myself to attempt a cold shower, I ended up making the duration too short, and I ended on cold water. I would go to bed feeling stimulated. The anti-inflammatory effects were still present. I felt better physically and noticed an improvement in my ability to handle discomfort (mental gains). But it wasn’t helping me sleep, which was supposed to be a benefit. Then in Massage Therapy school (Mind Body Institute, Nashville, TN), we talked about hydrotherapy (using hot and/or cold water for a therapeutic effect) and our instructor mentioned the effects of hot and cold are influenced by time; cold can be stimulating for under 60 seconds, and downregulating (calming) for longer than 60 seconds. Then I knew what adjustment to make. So the 1 minute cold showers became 1.5-2min cold showers. This reaped even better effects. I was sleeping better, and still getting anti-inflammatory benefits. At this point it was still warm outside and BG Powerhouse invested in a tub to use for ice baths. 4 bags of ice or more and we were having ice bath parties right there at the gym. Most ice bath veterans agree that baths are actually easier than cold showers. Standing under a faucet is just less comfortable than fully submerging and chilling out, pun intended. We were also able to get the full body in contact with cold water. These ice baths lasted anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes. We’d hop out, naturally warm up, and maybe hit another round or two. We convinced some rookies to join us along the way, all with positive reviews.

Contrast baths were also a topic in Massage School, which is alternating hot and cold submerges (usually just a foot or hand, but let’s be honest, fitness people intensify everything) and always beginning and ending with hot water. With the weather getting colder, I decided to incorporate this method since the cold weather added to my tension, limiting my benefits a bit. Two or three rounds of contrast, and I was feeling fantastic. Went to bed and slept soundly. Woke up feeling looser than usual, and less inflamed. Coach Burba and I are now on 9 sessions of weightlifting a week, so any recovery method that is cheap and effective is extremely valuable to us, as well as our athletes who are under our advisement.

So what’s best? Contrast showers or ice baths? The answer is yes.

What I’ve begun to notice through my experience and from my own research, is that both methods are extremely valuable for slightly different reasons. Plunging into an ice bath is a great way to work on the psychological aspects of training and influence physiological benefits. Mindfully challenging yourself to a calm ice bath can allow you take control of the sympathetic nervous system (active/stress state) and teach the body to avoid panicking during discomfort (especially in conjunction with specific breathwork, which will be discussed in future blogs). This can positively influence your ability to dig deep in your training sessions and raise your threshold. Simply put, the ice bath can train your brain to handle intensity, reactivate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest/flow state), and increase your performance in training. Wim Hof also relates this mental training to his happiness, resilience, and improved immune function. “The cold is your friend” he says. Similarly, contrast therapy (whether showers or somehow incorporating two tubs of hot and cold water) can be a fantastic way to train your physiology and create positive impacts on your psychology. As I mentioned, contrast therapy provides me distinct physical benefits including reduced soreness, improved sleep, and reduced inflammation. With those benefits come renewed energy for my next training session, better work efficacy, better concentration, motivation, and sense of well-being. With this explanation, it’s clear to see how both methods can have immense impacts on performance inside the gym and outside of it. My personal philosophy on coaching revolves around the value I put on performance in life as a whole. With the benefits discussed here, one can gain an edge in multiple aspects of the human experience.

With all that being said, this is my current cold shower and ice bath regimen:

Contrast shower:

  • shower as normal (if applicable, I do this post-workout, pre-bedtime)

  • turn shower as cold as it goes for 90 seconds or more while breathing in and out through my nose and suppressing the urge to shiver, until skin/muscles feel cold

  • turn the shower to hot (comfortable) for 90 seconds or more, letting my skin warm back up

  • repeat as desired, always ending on hot

  • go straight to bed, little to no stimulus (i.e. phone, tv, etc.)

Ice bath:

  • submerge up to neck in bath, begin nasal breathing or Wim Hof breathing, resist shivering

  • add ice, chill for 1-10 min, usually around 5 (we now keep the water in our tub at the gym, so no ice needed for the season)

  • hop out, towel off, warm up naturally until skin feels distinctly warmer

  • repeat as desired

Optional: once it’s cold outside, sit in front of a heater to warm faster and avoid adverse reaction

It is important to keep in mind that there are benefits and limitations to pretty much any therapeutic techniques, and I want to be sure to differentiate between science and personal experience in this blog. It is important to do your own research before implementing any recovery techniques. We (coaches at BG Powerhouse) have made personal discoveries as we follow some obscure figures in the human movement arena that are paving the way to naturopathic performance enhancement. Another term for this is bio-hacking. An important factor to consider when you are investigating biohacking (or anything exercise related for that matter), is that scientific research is behind the practitioners. You will not find a lot of published science around biohacking topics such as breath training, cold therapy, etc. Research methods are also difficult to design, and difficult to get approved. Scientific evidence is extremely important for validation of our practices, but it is not the end-all, be-all. Self-discovery can provide the most information, as long as you are safe, smart, and know your own limits. It’s all part of the human experience.

Below are some links to review articles that may help you understand where the current research stands: