Saturday, January 19, 2013

For the Love of Ice Water!

I LOVE cold showers and ice baths. It took me a very long time to incorporate them into my life, but once I made of habit of it I find it to be an indispensable routine, and take almost nothing but cold showers, and an ice bath at least once a week. I love the shivering, the tingling, the burning skin, the brain feeling like it going to expand out of your ears, going buggy-eyed, and hyperventilating. Don't you?

You don't? . . . No I think *you're* ridiculous! Let me get you into them!

In pursuit of a better body I had stumbled upon some information (here, too) about the benefits of cold-water therapy, the practice of taking ice cold showers or baths for 10-20 minutes to induce certain health benefits. They're even a cultural staple in some parts of the world, such as the banya where they sweat it out in a sauna and then jump through holes in the ice. I discovered all this back in Michigan and was persuaded to try it, and while it's not at all an easy process the benefits are amazing. Good and convincing enough that cold bathing is all I ever do practically now, with few exceptions.


When I had first started I didn't expect much. Since it was Michigan the northern climate cooled the plumbing severely, and my first ice shower sessions were TREMENDOUS. I could not control my swallowing reflex, shivered violently, felt a brand new shock each inch I turned, and overall could not stand it for more than five minutes. It was too incredible to handle: That water must've been 45F or lower.

Yet, in getting out I got this tingly comfort all over my skin and actually went into euphoria. A great urge to sleep overwhelmed me, and in no time I was under, and slept wondrously. What persuaded me to keep up the practice is that I noticed that my skin was much softer -- as opposed to the tightness I get from hot showers -- my hair was softer and stayed down and some skin conditions went away. No matter how well my healthy eating did to get rid of the acne on my face and back, it stayed on my upper arms and hips, and I had no idea what to do. About two cold showers got rid of them. Additionally, I had an ugly and very apparent blue bruise on my lower back caused by improper sitting, which a doctor said I would have to live with for the rest of my life; one to two cold showers later and it was gone. Furthermore, I got far less sore from my workouts, and my sexual appetite really took an upward climb. A dunk in an ice bath after shaving is excellent too: putting the head under stops all bleeding and prevents red irritation. There were just so many good effects on my sense of well-being that I became hooked and committed to doing this as a life-long practice. I even only do cold water shaving now too.

Though, I regret not taking advantage of the Michigan temperatures as much as I could of. I only readopted and became super serious about the practice in Texas when I read the Art of Manliness post on James Bond showers, as in Michigan I was too much of a wimp to continue on. I regret that since it's harder to achieve the same cold temperatures in Texas since the climate warms the plumbing up so much. It's not even possible to take a cold shower in summer, so unfortunately I can only take effective showers in winter and dump lots of ice into the bathtub for baths. Nonetheless I'm committed to keeping this up, and want to try other cold therapy, such as swimming in an ice cold lake, bathing in a water fall, or cryotherapy. All wonderful stuff.

I do all this because it all contributes towards my goal of having a more fit body, towards my ideal physical state, and also because the frigid experience is good conditioning for your mind, too (which will be shouting at you to stop). Nonetheless I can understand why someone else would hesitate to want to adapt this, and offer some extensive thinking to motivate you, as I've noticed lots of differences in various ways of going about it, which can have a huge impact on your resolve to do it.

First off, why choose between cold showers and ice baths? What's the difference? (Of course, assume we speak of waters of equal temperatures.)

Well, for one, in my opinion they're vastly different in what kind of mindset they'll induce. I think cold showers are more difficult to bear because the constant running water saps your body heat continuously, so your body never really gets the time to adapt to the whole process. On the other hand, it doesn't coat your whole body, so it isn't as thorough or as overall extreme, especially since you can selectively expose body parts . . . but then again you might be tempted into cheating. Ice baths, on the flip side, have a much bigger initial temperature shock when you first get in -- oh you'll hyperventilate all right! -- but they're easier to adjust to and get calm in, and more thorough, though it can be annoying to have to shift around in them to get both your legs and upper half, unless you have some alternative means. They both probably provide different health benefits given the difference -- the absolute thoroughness of a bath versus a bigger heat-sapping shower -- so vary them up.

Your cold water therapy ability will vary from climate to climate, but the luckiest amongst you will live in northern places with frigid plumbing all year around. For people like me down here in Texas, it's only possible to do cold showers in winter -- the summer heats the plumbing WAY up -- and otherwise I have to dump lots of ice into the bathwater. If you're in a hotter climate, you can resort to alternatives such as a local banya or gym with a cold plunge tank, or cryotherapy. Otherwise, you can buy big bags of ice to dump into the bath -- and it'll take about three to four for sufficient cooling -- or freeze your own. (Personally, I freeze a bunch of discs in a pie tin since they're easy to stack in the freezer door, and just as I'm about to run out of space I fill up a huge mixing bowl for a giant dome of ice. The discs have lots of surface area, so they melt quickly; I once tried freezing water balloons and they took way too long to melt.)

When you first start keep in mind that the beginning of your practice is going to feel way different than when you sustain it over a long time. I've been doing it for over a year and have been amazed at how differently my body reacts to it now. Consequently, you should readjust your practices as your body changes.

To start, unless you want to be really tough and go all out the coldest you can get it, focus on just exposing yourself to water about 10-15 degrees (Fahrenheit) colder than what you're used to for 10-15 minutes. That means if you're in a northern climate where your in-house temp may be 70F, try water in the 60's, or down to 55F. For someone like me (in Texas) who keeps the apartment at 80F in the summer, 70-65F would be a good starter. Given your body's adjustment to the specific climate you'll still get a temperature shock either way.

While down to an extent your body will never get totally comfortable with it, within weeks or months you'll notice that a certain temperature range will get less and less uncomfortable, and that's when you move down the temperature scale. 60F used to make me shiver like mad; now my body can adapt to it so rapidly it literally feels like room temperature, even though there might be a twenty degree difference between the air and water. My body just adapted so well that I can't sense the difference, don't shiver, and don't even feel cool. The same applies to lower parts of the spectrum, as my body gradually gets used to them.

Additionally, I would recommend starting your practice at night about one to two hours before bed. Cold showers and whatnot may have a reputation for inducing wakefulness, but I think that's only if you've adapted to them, though, of course, they're super wakeful DURING the session. At start, they may make you exhausted. My beginning sessions made me immensely sleepy, as if I had been taking sleeping drugs, and I had to go under immediately. This could be annoying if you're trying this before work or school -- you don't want to be hit by a spell while driving!! -- so try it before bed. At worst it won't interfere with your sleep, as you'll have plenty of time to warm up and relax. You might also get euphoric or a deep sense of well-being, but I find that effect quickly fades away as you adapt, though there's still plenty of other emotional benefits.

Now, I've done lots of thinking on techniques . . . yes, there are techniques . . . that really affect my psychology during a cold water therapy session, so try some of these methods if you're having a hard time doing it.

* * * * *

* Heat up first: The warmer I am before I start, the easier it is to jump into it, no matter how harsh the temperatures. If I'm even one degree too warm I will embrace an ice bath with open arms; one degree too cold, and it's hard as hell to motivate myself. If you're going to do cold-water therapy at a place like a gym, use a sauna first. Or if you're just simply doing a cold shower at home, start out with a hot stream, even if for just three seconds, and then plunge the temperature down. (For me, that's especially hard: *Walking into* a cold shower. It's easier to walk into a semi-warm stream and just shoot the temperature down from there, as I'll already be covered by the water.)

* Rinse your legs: A friend told me that running cold water over your legs is called a "De Vany Rinse." If you've done a really intense leg workout and just want cold water therapy for exercise benefit, then maybe doing cold water therapy on your legs is all you'll want. I've always found it easier to chill the legs, even in an ice bath, though that involves the pelvis and privates too, of course.

* Crab drop: My biggest pitfall in ice baths is having a hard time getting my upper half under the water. I can get my legs in just fine, but once they're in my mindset has totally changed and it takes tremendous courage to lower the rest of myself in. Sometimes I've done just a leg rinse out of cowardice.

For the crab drop, what I do is position myself into the crab walk stance on the bathtub edge and lower myself in back first. It's awkward and unpleasant, but getting my upper half in first takes advantage of my being at full body temperature and having a stronger mindset getting in. What if you fall? Well, good!

* Rapid submersion: The faster you get into an ice bath the better. Don't think or inch: Just get your whole body under as quick as you can. That delays the temperature shock for a moment and delays the inevitably cowardly mindset that will come after your body is in.

* Move: Kind of an expert and distraction technique. I worry that some of the health benefits of an ice bath might be negated by a sort of "heat shield" that forms up by the skin if you stay absolutely still in the bathwater, so if I can bear it I swish myself around to prevent the shield from forming, which does drastically increase the chill factor. However, you can wait until your body gets more and more comfortable at the practice, which will inevitably make this much easier to do down the road.

But if you have something bigger available to you like an ice cold lake then moving around can serve as a decent distraction to how cold things are. I myself wish I'd had access to one, for while I'm sitting in an ice bath all there is to do is focus on how cold things are; in a lake I could swim and distract myself. Or hey, if you've got a big barrel full of water you can twirl and cause a cyclone.

* Jump in: I have no means of doing this myself, unfortunately, but if you can, say, safely jump off something high into a body of icy water, like off a diving board into a cold pool, then it can be used as a discipline tool. Once you jump there's no reversing gravity, so into the ice water you go, like it or not. That you have to swim to get out only ensures you'll spend time in it rather than wimping out. Sure beats having to courageously lower yourself into a shallow bathtub.

* Imagine your heroes: As one last encouragement technique, try thinking about any heroes in similarly icy conditions. Sometimes I imagine that scene in the James Bond movie Skyfall where he falls through a hole in the ice, and think to myself that he didn't complain about being forced into sub-thirties temperatures; he just bared it like a man. I should be able to as well.

* * * * *

Hopefully I persuaded you to at least try this practice out. It's been a staple of my life for over a year now, and I intend to keep it that for the rest of my life, trying waterfall bathing in snowy winters, morning swimming in a lake, cold plunge tanks, cryotherapy . . . I want to try it all! Get freezing!

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