Most people come to deliberate cold exposure for the metabolic benefits.
But that wasn’t me.
I started my cold exposure practice with cold showers, because Mike Cernovich recommended them in his popular self-improvement book Gorilla Mindset.
I hated every single second. I used to curse Mike Cernovich and clench my teeth and suffer through every cold shower as if self torture was somehow the secret to my self-improvement.
It wasn’t until I read about Wim Hof breathing techniques that I realized:
The real secret to cold water immersion is to relax.
Once I learned to slow my breath and calm my fight-or-flight response, I began to understand that the real benefit in the cold showers was not in the voluntary suffering, but in training my body to adapt to that suffering.
Now, I’m often asked, “How cold should I set the temperature of my ice bath?” and I usually answer, “Cold enough to scare you.”
The people who watched me drop my weight from 250lbs to 195lbs are usually curious about whether ice baths can help them lose weight, too. The fact is they don’t need an ice bath for that. Any cold exposure that causes them to shiver is activating thermogenesis, stimulating their metabolism, stabilizing their thyroid, producing ketones, and clearing glucose from their bloodstream.
That means the ideal ice bath temperature is going to be different for every person, depending upon their metabolism, their acclimation to the cold, and how much brown fat they’ve built up.
And none of that matters when I’m staring into the icy waters of my 34F Forge, because at that temperature, I still feel anxiety.
My own fears seem to be different than those that other people have for me. Sometimes, people concerned for my safety ask “Aren’t you afraid your heart will stop?”
I am not.
These people may be referring to a condition called “cold water shock” in which it has been reported that people with heart disease will go into cardiac arrest because of the extra stress placed on the heart by vasoconstriction (in which non-skeletal muscles squeeze blood vessels to prevent the flow of blood to extremities, thereby conserving heat and protecting internal organs).
My heart is healthy. I’m fortunate to have a blood pressure at the bottom of the “normal” range and a resting pulse of under 60 beats per minute, both of which are indicators of a strong cardiovascular system.
What’s more dangerous about an involuntary cold water immersion (such as falling thru ice on a frozen lake) is the panic, which can sometimes lead to drowning.
Entering freezing cold water creates an involuntary gasp reflex.
In response to the shock of the cold, we typically suck in our breath, hold it for a second, and tense all of our muscles.
When I get into the ice bath (always feet first), I still get all the automatic panic responses that my body is programmed with. My heart races, my blood pressure spikes, and a series of physical responses are triggered by my autonomic nervous system (specifically, the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight or flight response to stress). For example, the cold stress causes the release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which stimulates a host of biochemical responses, including the brown fat cells that metabolize white fat to generate heat in a process called thermogenesis.
The first thing I do is take control of my breathing.
This is the same technique that yogis and others use in meditation to gain control of what would otherwise be unconscious physical functions, such as pulse. My current understanding is that breathing exists somewhere between involuntary and voluntary.
We have automatic breathing responses to strenuous exercise or to stress — i.e., we don’t have to think about our breathing to do it, but we can also choose to hold, slow, or hasten our breath.
By controlling my breath, I calm my entire body and strengthen my parasympathetic nervous system, which complements and works in opposition to the sympathetic.
Two of my companions who have been doing ice baths, Jason Stauffer and Boyd Branch, have experimented with using Muse to measure their brainwaves while immersed in the freezing water. They find that the alpha wave state that is associated with a meditative sense of calm is much easier to achieve in the ice bath than it is on a warm, dry mat.
Our experience with people who are trying an ice bath for the first time is that it takes about 30 seconds for them to overcome the initial panic, because that’s about the time it takes for mood-changing hormones like norepinephrine (Smith 1990) to reach the brain.
Many of the elite athletes an body builders whom we’ve worked with can barely last in the ice water that long. This video (below) of a body-building bikini competition champion is a good example. In the left frame, she is using the adrenal response we call “fighting the ice” that works so well for her during her workouts.
Notice how she begins shaking her head “No,” almost as soon as she enters the freezing water?
Her head shaking protests are part of the story she tells herself, which is “I can’t do it.”
However, in her second attempt (right frame) she learns to surrender to the feeling of the cold. She relaxes, takes control of her breathing, and her experience improves.
Cold water immersion sets off a cascade of involuntary hormonal reactions with both short-term and longer-lasting effects.
Sometimes find myself craving an ice bath. Perhaps that’s because we experience high temperatures over 115F in Phoenix AZ, where I live, and the ice bath offers hours of relief from heat.
To the extent that anyone can love pain and panic, I love cold water immersion. There are no competitions. No ribbons or trophies. No prize money, and no extrinsic motivators that would cause me to continue to plunge.
My real motivation is coming from some vague idea of the person I want to become. And that person is a better version of myself — someone capable of keeping his “cool” even when events out of my control might cause stress or setbacks.
Painted on the wall of my daughter’s Krav Maga studio is a motivational quote that might be paraphrased from words first said, or at least popularized by, the famous National Football League wide receiver Jerry Rice:
“Do today what others won’t, so you can do tomorrow what others can’t.”
– Jerry Rice
My experiences in the Forge have trained me for adversity. I’ve done as much as 22 minutes in freezing cold ice water. Like Tim Ferriss suggests, I think I can probably handle whatever warm, dry land throws my way.
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