'Ice baths are having a major moment, so I took one every day for 20 days'

ice bath challenge
My 20 day ice bath challengeCourtney Smith

If you'd asked me before COVID whether I'd be willing to do a twenty-day ice bath challenge in an insulated tub in my garden at the beginning of the year, chances are high that I would have said yes without even thinking about it.

Back then, I was a regular at the Ladies' Pond, and I willingly (although in hindsight, I can't say I know why) and from as early on as February signed myself up for scuba courses in a lake close to Heathrow with zero visibility and little to no aquatic life.

But a few years and a pandemic later, things are a little different. I am more anxious, find it harder to step outside of my comfort zone and wouldn't necessarily use 'adventurous' as one of the three words that best describe myself anymore. So, when the opportunity did arise, I kind of wanted to do it; I just wasn't sure how successful I would be.

Nevertheless, in an attempt to feel more like my former self and also discover just how much of the current hype around cold water therapy was warranted, I decided to dip my toe or, rather, my whole body somewhat hesitantly into the trend. Here's what I learnt along the way.

What is cold water therapy?

Cold water therapy generally refers to immersing the body in cold water to bring about positive health effects or recovery. This can take many forms, including ice baths, cold plunge pools, showers or cold water swims.

When it came time to choose my equipment, I didn't want travelling to be another barrier to what I guessed would be a barrier-filled undertaking, so I opted for the Recovery Pod from Lumi Therapy.

It was portable, didn't take up much space and wouldn't cost me thousands of pounds like some other options on the market. Plus, it was pretty easy to set up, which I discovered once I'd finally stopped procrastinating. Was mowing the lawn pre-set up a requirement? Probably not, since I put it on the patio, but I sure did convince myself otherwise.

Are ice baths good for you?

Type in the hashtag 'icebath' or 'coldwatertherapy' on TikTok, and you'll be flooded by clips of scantily clad human beings willingly immersing themselves in icy water whilst a voiceover lists the many supposed benefits of deliberate cold water immersion.

These range from improving cardiovascular health, boosting energy levels and strengthening your immune system to managing pain, reducing inflammation and bettering your mental health. But what do we know for sure?

As Dr Heather Massey, sports scientist, physiologist and lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, points out, we still have a long way to go, research-wise. 'There is lots of anecdotal evidence from people's experience of cold water immersion. At present, there is little in the way of research to support this. That is not to say what people report is not true; it is more a reflection on the pace that science is able to conduct experiments and provide findings.'

There are a few studies worth mentioning, though, that give us a glimpse of the possible mental and physical benefits. One such study involved a group of men (hands up if you're ready to see more female-focused research out there) who were submerged in water of varying temperatures for the same length of time.

The findings showed that at fourteen degrees Celsius, their blood dopamine levels increased by 250%, dopamine being the neurotransmitter responsible for making you feel good and increasing motivation. However, this was done for longer and at a higher temperature than what one would experience with an ice bath.

Then there is the research that Dr Susanna Søberg, scientist and founder of the Soeberg Institute and the 'Thermalist Approach', has done on the metabolic effects of cold and heat exposure.

Subjects spent 11 minutes in cold water and 57 minutes in the sauna each week. The results of which suggested that 'low doses of cold and heat increase the activation of brown fat, a healthy kind of fat, and this, in turn, increases caloric burn and thermogenesis', which is the body's ability to generate heat.

In other words? Cold and heat exposure may increase your metabolism. Although it is worth mentioning that this study included the use of heat, not just cold exposure.

ice bath challenge
Courtney Smith

Why do athletes take ice baths?

Some athletes use cold water therapy after exercise to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness, aka DOMS (the muscle pain and stiffness felt 24 to 72 hours after exercising) and to speed up their recovery.

These effects are thought to be brought about by reduced inflammation; as Dr Susanna Søberg explains, 'When you exercise, you disrupt the muscle tissue, and there will be an inflammatory response. So, in order to get rid of this, you could do a cold plunge to stop the process of inflammation in the muscle cells. That way, you will recover much quicker.'

Two different reviews have shown evidence that cold water immersion reduces DOMS and aids recovery after certain types of exercise. While several researchers suggest avoiding the icy plunge if your main goal is hypertrophy (an increase in muscle size), as there have been some findings that point to cold water therapy stunting your strength gains.

While it's clear that more research needs to be done on the relationship between exercise and cold water exposure, you can still use the fundamental theories behind these studies to get the most from your training according to your goals.

If you are competing, you may find it useful to take an ice bath after a workout to speed up recovery in preparation for the next event. At the same time, those who train for muscle gain may want to avoid exposure for a day or so after strength training. But those who aren't professional athletes and exercise for general health and well-being can have more flexibility.

How long should you stay in an ice bath?

Taking into account her research, Dr Susanna Søberg suggests 11 minutes per week spread across two or three days and adjusting the time you spend immersed according to the temperature of the water. So the lower the temperature, the shorter the duration and vice versa.

However, it is really important to err on the side of caution and listen to your body. As Dr Heather Massey points out, 'In the case of cold water exposure, more doesn't mean better.'

How many ice baths should you do a week?

Once again, this will depend on you as an individual. You may be completely new to cold water therapy and want to build up your exposure safely and gradually. Or you may not have unlimited access to a body of cold water, so your frequency will be based on what's practical.

Your goals will also affect how often you'll want to expose yourself. For some, merely entering the water at some point during the week will be accomplishment enough.

How cold should an ice bath be?

According to Dr Susanna Søberg, 'Anything below fifteen degrees Celsius that lasts from one second to a few minutes would qualify as cold water exposure.' But what's important is that you 'find a temperature colder than you find comfortable in order to see the positive effects.'

ice bath challenge
Courtney Smith

What to do after an ice bath?

'Once we leave the water, we will continue to cool and can do so for about 30 minutes after. Therefore, we will be much colder than when we first get out,' says Dr Heather Massey.

With that in mind, you'll want to ensure you have what you need to warm up afterwards. Many ice bath users believe the best way to warm up is for the body to reheat naturally, but there are still ways you can do this effectively. 'If you are outside, dry off as soon as you exit the water, get out of your wet clothes and dress in easy-to-put-on, warm clothes.'

Are ice baths dangerous?

There are definite risks associated with cold water immersion, including cardiac arrest, hypothermia, and drowning. So, getting the ok from your GP before you begin is important, especially if you have any underlying health conditions or concerns.

Once you've been cleared by a medical professional, progressing gradually, listening to your body and warming up properly afterwards can decrease the chances of something going wrong.

If in doubt, stay for a shorter length of time. And if you are open-water swimming, take someone else with you and consider using a life jacket or flotation device.

The six things I learnt from my ice bath challenge

During my challenge, the water temperature ranged from eight to eleven degrees Celsius depending on the day, and I slowly built up my exposure time from one minute to about six minutes. These are the six things I figured out as I went.

1. Ease into it

Day one saw me snooze my alarm a record number of times, but eventually, when being late for work became a real possibility, I could avoid it no longer and hurried my resistant body and mind into a welcoming two degrees outside. At that point, I had yet to splurge on a thermometer, so I can't say what the water temperature was for sure, but if discomfort is the level you're meant to aim for, it was spot on.

I was immediately aware of the pain in my feet and hands, as well as my brain passionately urging me to remove myself from the situation. So, when I couldn't quite manage to get past my chest and submerge my shoulders, I decided, for a change, not to be too hard on myself. The victory had been in getting in at all, and there was plenty of time to improve. Plus, I felt pretty light and breezy as I made my breakfast afterwards, which made me think I got just the dose I needed.

Co-founder of Lumi Therapy, Gavin Teague, agrees on easing into it, 'I always recommend starting your journey slowly without forcing it. Remember, it is only for your own benefit, and everyone is different.'

2. Breathe

From the second day onwards, I was able to get my shoulders in, but I found that breathing slowly and calmly really helped with the process of submerging my upper body. Not only that but once I was in, if I was having a particularly tough time mentally accepting the environment I had put myself in, turning my attention to my breath gave me something other than my discomfort to focus on.

3. Timing isn't everything

While duration can often be seen as an indicator of progress, that isn't necessarily the case with cold water immersion. Dr Susanna Søberg says that low doses are all you need to reap the benefits and cautions that, 'at some point, you have to stop yourself and say, now I have almost crossed the line in terms of how much health I can get out of this.'

With that in mind, I looked at other ways to advance. Towards the end of my twenty-day experience, when the temperature started to feel less dire, but I didn't want to overdo it by staying in too long, I mixed things up by adding more ice, moving my arms and legs around or dunking my head in. Both were surefire ways to have me itching to get out again.

ice bath challenge
Courtney Smith

4. Go easy on yourself

I can be something of a perfectionist at times (ok, most times), but I wanted to approach this a little differently. So while pushing myself to a certain degree was important, I didn't want to end up disappointed by setting unrealistic and, more importantly, potentially unsafe targets. My aim was to get in the ice bath each day and challenge myself in the water, but I decided how long I stayed in and when I got in would be flexible.

I would have preferred to take the plunge at the start of each day, but if I happened to oversleep (who knew all it took to get more sleep was an ice bath challenge), I allowed myself to do it in the evenings without beating myself up about it. Plus, in most instances, this meant that by the time I got around to it, it was dark, and all I really wanted was to eat my dinner and watch a really average show on TV, so getting in required just as much, if not more will power.

On the days when the water was colder, I got out when I felt like I had reached my limit, regardless of whether that meant I was in for less time than the day before. Sometimes this happened even when the water temperature wasn't lower, but I tried not to be too self-critical about it, if at all.

5. It's more mental than physical

Before I started, I assumed the temperature would be the issue, but in reality, the mental aspect was much more challenging. Every day, I would stress myself out simply by thinking about how I'd have to enter the more-than-uncomfortable water at some stage. And every day, when I finally got in, it wouldn't be as bad as my brain had told me it would be.

6. Know your limits

Despite my determination to remain level-headed and ego-free, there was a day when I thought I had finally gotten the hang of things and stayed in a minute or so longer than I ever had, only to spend a good forty minutes trying to warm up once I'd left the water. After throwing my oats all over the counter, I retreated to the safe confines of my dryrobe to shiver it out and think on my faux pas (sans judgement OFC).

My ice bath review

Sure, on most days, I dreaded venturing into the chilly outdoors and then into the even chillier water of my little inflatable pod, but I can honestly say that I never once regretted it afterwards.

I left the water admittedly very cold but also energised and ready to take on the day with this overriding feeling that 'life was good', even if I couldn't quite explain why. And when things got stressful or didn't go to plan, as they undoubtedly do, it seemed like I was more capable and had more patience to deal with it all. After all, I had managed to conquer my extreme mental aversion to entering the water and sit with my discomfort once there, so really how hard could anything else be?

My stints in the ice bath also became a sort of daily meditation for me. In those moments when I was incredibly aware of the sensations in my body and using my breath to stay calm, it was hard not to be present, and I used this time to briefly escape my thoughts. Plus, starting off on what I viewed as a healthy note only encouraged me to continue this throughout the day.

I did attempt to get to the bottom of the DOMS theory by signing up for an F45 class that is notorious for bringing about that delayed onset muscle soreness in me (shoutout to the time I couldn't raise my arms for two days) but considering all the other variables (like the intensity of the class, the duration and how many eccentric exercises were involved, not to mention what I did afterwards) the fact that I had less pain and stiffness a few days later may be completely unrelated to the ice baths I took.

Post-challenge, I'll probably reduce my frequency to two or three times a week instead of every day, but now that I've started my cold water immersion journey, I'm excited to see where I can safely take it. Watch out, Wim Hof, there's a new ice(wo)man in town.

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