If you’ve been reading my blogs and receiving emails from XE then you may remember a previous piece I wrote about my personal experiences of cold water immersion aka: dipping. I was sceptical at 1st and initially agreed to go along to support my wife. I have however become an advocate of this routine/experience and have gone on to research it more thoroughly. If you’re interested but a little unsure or anxious then here’s some of my thoughts below on how and when to incorporate it into your week.
Definition: Deliberate cold water immersion. Firstly the cold exposure has to be intentional and sustained volitionally until the decision is made to end the ‘dip’. I still hate being cold in general but love the challenge and reward of a dip.
Why would you do it?
Here’s some of the main reasons you may be interested:
- To feel good or improve your sense of wellbeing.
- To develop mental resilience or grit.
- To boost the cardiovascular system.
- To promote calorie burn/metabolism.
- For recovery from exercise.
I think the majority of people fall into category 1 and possibly category 2.
Does it matter why I’m doing it?
It’s certainly not essential; it’s more important to simply DO IT and to do it SAFELY. But having a goal for for the cold may lead you to manipulating certain aspects of the experience in order to maximise the benefits and achieve that goal.
I want to give most focus to points and 1 and 2 and so let’s skim through 3-5 first.
- Cardiovascular benefits are possible from the circulatory effects of cold exposure. Blood is shunted from the peripheries deeper inside the body to the vital organs. The blood vessels both contract and relax at various points, essentially giving them a workout. For athletes or those who work out regularly the benefits of this will overlap greatly with the benefits of exercise but for more sedentary people this could be a great way to access their cardiovascular system. Contrast bathing (alternating hot and cold) is often used when circulatory benefits are the main goal.
- There seem to be 2 possible methods that deliberate cold exposure can increase metabolic or calorie burn. Firstly, shivering during or after cold exposure requires energy and your body will burn more calories as it warms itself up. Secondly, repeated exposure to the cold is likely to trigger conversion of some of the ‘white’ fat in your body to ‘brown’ fat. Brown fat is actually metabolically active (it contains mitochondria which give it the brown colour) and therefore will raise your resting metabolic rate (RMR). The key here is that the cold exposure needs to be sufficient enough to cause shivering and you should aim to allow your body to re-heat itself rather than jumping into a warm bath or shower.
- The use of cold or cryotherapy for recovery from exercise is extensively covered elsewhere. It’s safe to say that this typically only involves bathing the lower limb muscles in most cases and not the whole body. This isn’t the principle reason to consider whole body immersion.
Ok, so let’s get to number 1. You may want to immerse yourself in cold water for the purported improvements in mood, happiness, sense of wellbeing etc… Again there are a number of pathways at work here that could or should leave you feeling good afterwards. They mainly come down to the action of hormones that are stimulated by the experience of being cold. The factors that go into feeling good include:
- Overcoming a challenge – cold water is daunting and you never truly get used to it. Each time you manage to get in and stay in for a while you will benefit from a release of dopamine (the feel good chemical). The amount of dopamine is said to be relative to the size of the challenge so this may mean progressing to colder water, staying in for longer, moving around in the water, dunking your head briefly etc…
- Activation of the stress response – similar to above, the cold causes activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS - fight or flight) and therefore the release of adrenalin. This again leads to an increase in dopamine within the brain. The shock of the cold water against your skin and the perceived threat will result in the adrenalin surge.
- Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS - rest and digest) – the feeling of calm and relaxation is also activated by the cold through the most important activator of the PNS; the vagus nerve. This is most superficial in the lower neck and so the main aspect to consider here is to submerge yourself up to the neck in order to maximally impact this nerve. Another reason for a sense of calm and often tiredness after a dip is the huge stimulation of the SNS at the time is often followed a rebound activation of the PNS leaving you content but possibly sleepy a little while afterwards.
- Nature – this is now well recognised as an important aspect in health and wellbeing. Human beings respond well to time spent in nature and away from man-made concrete jungles. So there is likely greater benefit from a dip in a lake or stream than perhaps a cold shower, bath or garden bin. Take in those vistas, look at the flora and fauna while your dipping.
- Social interaction – many community groups have been set up with up to 50 or so people coming together to dip. These take a variety of forms but all are likely to provide another key aspect of wellbeing and that’s meaningful social interaction. The chance to share the challenge with others and to build relationships will raise oxytocin levels. This is another feel good chemical linked to time spent with loved ones in meaningful interaction or through eye contact…
So if you REALLY want to FEEL GOOD then consider trying to get as many of these factors into your dips.
Finally, number 2. You want to develop mental resilience or grit? This skill has been shown to develop through deliberate cold practice and it seems to cross-over into other aspects of your life too. In this area, discomfort is the key factor! But, if you improve your ability to tolerate the cold then in theory you will become more resilient to mental stressors at work or when training and racing too. Now in this realm you may wish to utilise cold showers as they are easy to implement on a daily basis. Turning the shower to cold when you’re nice and warm takes mental strength and holding it there takes perseverance. The key concept is overcoming the negative mental chatter here. Each time you get the urge to get out of the shower, turn to a suitable technique to allow you to stay in a little longer. This could be positive self-talk, mindfulness, distraction, breathing techniques etc… Aim to overcome 2-3 such episodes every time you use the cold and on say the third impulse to get out then allow yourself to do so. In this way you don’t have to time yourself in the shower, bath or lake as you may be able to tolerate 5mins on Monday and only 4 on Thursday but this isn’t failure here so long as you task yourself to work through the desire to stop. You may start with a cold shower and move to a controlled environment like a bath or garden bin but then move your dip out into the wild! Perhaps choosing days with snow on the ground or when it’s raining. You may choose to dunk your head under a number of times too.
Please note I am in no way an expert on this subject but these are my current thoughts on this newly emerging health trend. Please do it both cautiously and safely.