Cold plunging, also known as cold water therapy, is an ancient practice that has recently gained a ton of popularity. It is the new fitness fad and you’ve probably seen athletes use an ice bath or cold plunge pool as part of their post-recovery process. But what is cold water immersion? And are there health benefits that you can get from cold plunging?
What is Cold Plunging?
Cold plunges are one of the most popular recovery methods that are relied on by athletes and fitness enthusiasts. Recovery is a crucial part of training as it helps to reduce the risk of injuries and potential hazards of overtraining. At the same time, using an ice bath or cold plunge pool is believed to promote physical and psychological readiness.
There are many names used to refer to cold plunge but it basically requires an individual to soak in a cold tub or any tub that is filled with cold water. The practice requires the use of water that is at least 15 degrees C in temperature or lower. As mentioned above, it is an ancient practice that dates back to a couple of millennia. There have been many variations of this approach to recovery such as the use of ice baths and cold showers.
The act of submerging one’s body in a cold plunge tank or tub is an attempt to speed up the process of recovery of the muscles. Depending on the intensity of the physical activity or training, this can cause fatigue to the muscoskeletal and nervous systems of the body (to a certain degree). Aside from fatigue, intense physical activity is also known to bring about microscopic tears on the muscle tissues in the body, which is better known as exercise-induced muscle damage.
The perceived effectiveness of cold water therapy as a recovery process is based on a number of factors. The exposure to extremely low temperature can cause a delay on the onset of muscle soreness. At the same time, it is believed to control the levels of C-reactive protein, blood lactate-levels and creatine-kinase in your muscleskeletal system.
Benefits of Cold Plunging
Proponents of the cold plunge therapy for faster recovery claim that it has plenty of benefits to offer. There is also a growing body of research that provides additional support and evidence that this method of recovery from training is indeed effective.
These are some of the science-backed benefits to cold water therapy:
Reduce muscle soreness
Muscle soreness is a common complaint among athletes. When the muscles are fatigued, it becomes sore and this can impact your ability to perform or train. To aid in faster muscle recovery, a cold water immersion is the recommended post-workout or training recovery method as it helps with delayed onset muscle soreness.
A study conducted in 2016 shows how athletes reported less muscle soreness after soaking in cold plunge pools versus those who did not undergo cold water therapy. Medical experts believe that cold water makes your muscle cope with pain as it helps to constrict the blood vessels. In the process, there is a reduction of blood flow to the area to discourage inflammation and swelling.
But still, you cannot expect to recover from muscle soreness entirely with cold water immersion. It is still important to stretch and perform active recovery after training.
Immune system boost
Another science-backed benefit to doing cold therapy is a boost in your immune system. A study conducted by Dutch researchers provide evidence that doing a cold plunge can be just as beneficial as deep breathing and meditation in improving ability to fight illnesses.
According to the same research, exposing your body to cold temperatures help with building resistance against stress over time making it better able to combat illnesses.
Ice baths also help to reduce inflammation by affecting your blood flow. It causes the temperature in the damaged tissues to drop and cause blood vessel constriction. This process is responsible for reducing the possibility of swelling, especially in an injured area of the body. The cold temperature also causes the nerve endings to numb so you can get immediate relief from any pain, too.
Cold therapy – whether in the form of a cold plunge or cold showers – is known to increase blood circulation. This is one of the reasons why medical experts recommend cold plunge tub for recovery. When your body is exposed to the cold, it promotes circulation on the deeper tissues of your body to aid in faster healing and recovery.
Tips for Using a Cold Plunge Tub
If you want to use cold therapy in helping you recover faster from training or athletic performance, make sure you do it correctly in order to facilitate in the recovery process and improve the quality of your training. Here are a few tips that you can use in order to maximize the ice bath benefits:
1. Make sure you get the appropriate temperature level on the water.
The ideal temperature of the cold water is at least 15 degrees C. You can always make the water colder but it is best to start with this range and adjust according to your comfort level. It is not recommended that you go lower than 15 degrees if this is your first time. A cold tub immersion can put your body into shock, especially if you are not used to the cold.
It is important to note that you can’t use water that is higher than 15 degrees in temperature, though. You have to remember that the point is to make your body uncomfortable enough so that it can do its work in facilitating recovery. The key lesson here is to know your tolerance level and work with that.
2. Use a cold plunge tub for this.
This is the recommended method for you to do the cold water immersion. This will enable you to fully soak your body in cold water and to expose your muscoskeletal and nervous system to cold temperatures.
If you don’t have a cold plunge tub, you can improvise with your own cold plunge tank – or any equipment that will allow you to soak your entire body in it.
If you cannot build your own tank or tub for this, you may check out PLUNGE. They offer a revolutionary cold plunge pool that you can use to conveniently soak in an ice bath at home. It has a plug-and-plunge design so you can conveniently get into an ice bath when you need to.
3. Fill it with the right amount of water.
You need to fill your cold tub with enough water that will allow you to submerge your entire body in it. It is very common for most people to submerge only their lower bodies and the part from the neck up are exposed. It is important that you soak your neck, particularly the thyroid area, so that your whole body temperature is properly regulated. It is also a great way to keep your entire body submerged in the cold water.
If you want to experience the full benefits of ice baths, then a total body dip is definitely recommended. After initially dipping your entire body, you can just periodically dip your face into the water. This will continue to trigger a response from your nervous system to promote healing and recovery.
When filling your cold plunge pool with water, try not to fill it up to the brim. Keep in mind that the water will raise to the surface as soon as you step inside the pool or tub. Also, the less water you use, the less amount of ice is required to lower its temperature. Even if you try to fill the tank with water and ice, the displacement will just put most of that to waste as soon as your body is submerged.
4. Soak for at least 3 minutes.
Another crucial element to experiencing the benefits of a cold therapy is knowing the right length to soak your body in cold water. Experts agree that you should soak your body in an ice bath for at least 3 minutes. A lot of people try the cold water immersion and then last for no more than 30 seconds in. When you do it this fast, you won’t be able to enjoy the benefits of doing an ice bath in the first place.
The 3-minute rule is enough so your body can experience the benefits of the cold plunge pool but not too long as you shiver in the cold. It also depends on the water temperature. If it’s at 15 degrees C, then you can go longer than 3 minutes. But if it’s less than 12 degrees C, then you should try not to overdo the 3-minute protocol.
Again, it is all about knowing your body and understanding the effects of cold water in it. If ever you feel uncomfortable, don’t feel like you need to push yourself longer.
5. Prepare your mind and body.
The use of a cold plunge technique for recovery might seem like a completely physical experience – it’s not. It is also a mental exercise. Before you step into an ice bath, keep your nervous system calm. Inhale and exhale deeply. It is important that you relax your muscles so that your body can fully experience the benefits of the cold water therapy.
Even while your body is soaked in an ice bath, you need to stay relaxed. Always practice a breathing cycle of inhaling and exhaling deeply.
Safety Tips When Doing Cold Plunge
Using a cold plunge pool for recovery is a seemingly harmless practice. After all, many athletes do it all the time!
However, you need to remember that exposing your body to extreme temperature (both high and low) can cause a strain on your key organ systems. The human body is designed to operate at a specific temperature level – anything beyond that can cause your basic body functions to go awry.
You need to follow these safety tips before you go into a cold plunge pool:
• Consult with your doctor first. Submerging yourself in cold water can affect key body functions such as your blood pressure, heart rate, and circulation. If you subject your body to extremely low water temperature, it can put you at risk for suffering cardiac arrest. There have been numerous cases of people who died from or suffered injury from cold therapy. Make sure you talk to your doctor and are aware of the potential risks.
• Do not go beyond the recommended period of immersion. The ideal time for immersion in cold plunge pools is 3 minutes. If you are new to doing cold water therapy, then you shouldn’t go beyond that. It only takes a few minutes of immersion to experience faster recovery and other health benefits so there is no point in making this process longer.
• Do not do it alone. When using a cold tub for immersion, it is important that you have someone else to observe. Never ever do it alone especially since submerging in cold water can be dangerous to your health.
• Warm up quickly as soon as you get off the ice bath. You need to quickly raise the level of your body’s temperature after doing the cold plunge. If not, you are at risk for developing hypothermia. You need to gradually and safely warm your body such as putting on gloves and a hat, taking your wet clothes off and putting on warm and dry ones, or drinking a warm beverage.
The Bottom Line
Cold water therapy might be the craze now. But you need to remember that the athletes who use cold water immersion for recovery do so under the supervision of trained professionals. If you are doing it yourself at home, you need to be extra careful as there are potential risks, too.
Follow the safety tips recommended above and always pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you do it right, then you will most definitely enjoy the benefits of a cold water therapy.