Injury Prevention

The Cold Plunge


How It All Started

We were cold. We were cold because we were thinking about being cold and the impending prospect of being out in the open ocean, with water temperatures at 37 degrees and northeast winds at 35 mph made us feel cold in our minds. And in the end, that’s what it was all about, how long we could manage this thing in our minds.

It was a cold plunge in the Atlantic in January and it was 6 AM and hot coffee wasn’t being served yet. Of the 36 people who came to the New Hampshire Coast on a business retreat, only eight stood quietly in the lobby that morning. One of us had done this before, in fact one of us had done this for thirty days in a row and the grin he wore while watching us all eye each other pensively, swaying with more than a little bit of unease, was readily apparent. For him it had started, I think, with “The Iceman” – the Dutchman Wim Hof who challenged conventional wisdom and had pushed the limits of human physiology through a unique combination of breathing techniques, meditation, and cold exposure. The sort of guy people look to for extreme self-empowerment and encouragement. “It’s about challenging your own limits and living a life of purpose and happiness” our experienced friend once said, holding court by the watercooler. So here we were ready for it. To experience the entire philosophy and live the message in the flesh with all the neurological and scientific benefits to boot. But what are they exactly? 

Cold Plunge Benefits

Reduces Inflammation

Speeds Up Recovery

Improves Performance

Promotes Mental and Physical Resilience

Boosts the Immune System

But how? Let’s start with inflammation. Inflammation is a natural response of the body to injury or stress, and it can also be a response to intense physical activity. Cold plunging helps reduce inflammation by reducing the flow of blood to the affected areas and lowering the body’s metabolic rate. This allows the body to reduce its natural inflammation response and promotes healing. This sounds like recovery. Yup. Cold plunging helps speed up the recovery process by reducing the body’s metabolic rate, which allows the body to direct more energy and resources towards repairing damaged tissues. But here we were traveling down a small coastal road, with the low din of NPR feeling exactly like the uniform blue grey dawn which made this morning almost indistinguishable from dusk, and I’m not certain I cared about my body’s metabolic rate.

We parked at a place called Bass Beach besides a tall embankment of stones and gravel that were clearly hauled to keep a violent ocean at bay. We prepared our small cache of towels, dry clothes and sandals for the return with the sounds of the lapping shore marking time like a metronome. As we walked along the rocky shore to “the spot” we were clearly on the precipice of experiencing something wonderful or dangerous or both. This was the mental and physical resilience bit. “Cold plunging helps the body deal with stress more effectively” I said dialoguing with myself. “Cold plunging can help reduce fatigue and increase energy levels, which can help to boost overall mental and physical resilience.” Got it.

The First Step

It was dodgy at first. The waves came in with a carpet of surf that made entry entirely difficult and awkward. One by one we submerged ourselves. It hits you in the first minute, and the science agrees:

  1. The body reacts to the sudden change in temperature by increasing heart rate, blood flow, and breathing rate.
  2. The body starts to shiver as a way to generate heat to counteract the cold.
  3. The adrenal glands release adrenaline, noradrenaline, and other hormones that boost the immune system and increase energy levels.
  4. The result is a rush of excitement, as the sudden jolt of cold water stimulates the body and mind. The body continues to release endorphins and other natural mood enhancers.

Then, like the curtain being pulled away or a fog burning off in the early morning, everything became more manageable. The next three minutes will impart themselves on your consciousness with a clarity I can only hint at.

Don’t read about this, just do it.

The Big Finish

After five minutes we were tugged back to reality with the call to return to shore. Here, dear reader, is where I probably recommend investing in one of any fine cold plunge tubs on the market. Why you ask? Because in the minutes that followed each of us battled current and waves that may have left us for dead. There are moments in your life in which you become acutely aware that outcomes could have turned out differently. This was one of those moments. With adrenaline and fight pulsing, each of us swam back and stumbled out of the cold back to our embankment. With humming engines and electric heat beckoning, we wrapped chattering teeth and blue lips in towels that conveniently converted onto our car seats.

Had we actually boosted our immune system by stimulating the production of white blood cells like the science says? Did we reduce stress and improve our overall health? Maybe. But regardless, I think we could all see how a disciplined approach to cold immersion could bear some real fruit. In the end this was just a moment for us, a sliver of transcendence that was both a bit harrowing and a bit beautiful. All in all, I’d probably opt for the tub, but I’m glad I started a day of meetings with some near-death therapy. It’s the sort of recovery protocol you probably never knew you needed. Now go get it.

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