“…and have a great life.”
Breath work was over.
We’d followed Wim Hof’s breathing pattern on YouTube. His dutch-accented, closing words were already fading.
It was cold bath time. Full body, cold water immersion (9 degrees) up to the neck for 10 mins.
The tension in the room was rising.
“When you get in a cold bath for the first time, you’ll feel awful. Your mind will scream at you that you’re dying, that you can’t breathe, that you have to get out of there.”
“That’s completely normal.”
“And that’s where breath kicks in.”
“We’ll focus on our breath by counting. We’ll breathe in shorter cycles when we first get in. In for 2 and out for 2.”
“Then we’ll gradually extend that to Dr Andrew Weil’s breath pattern: in for 4, hold for 7, out for 8. We’ll maintain that for the remainder of our time in the cold.”
“I’ll be in the bath with you, so just follow my prompts for the breathing to focus.”
“This’ll be great!”
Suddenly along with the tension, there was a huge dump of scepticism.
“How the hell can this possibly be great? What on earth are we doing? Why did I agree to this?”
Why I love cold water
There are some people I’ll never convince to join me in a cold bath (you know who you are!). But I love water and I love cold water – baths, oceans, lakes or streams. I don’t know when it first started. What presumably kicked off as an ego-centric tough test with mates years ago, has become one of my favourite weekly rituals.
While sometimes I still dread getting in, especially if I’m feeling tired, distracted, or worried, I always feel good getting out.
When I combine it with breath work (like Wim Hof or 4-7-8), it’s like an extended mindfulness session.
And when I share the experience with friends then that’s the icing on the cake.
[NB: Breath, water and cold are a powerful combination. I never do this kind of thing alone. And you should always check with your doctor if you decide to try.]
While the claims of cold bath benefits can be grand, the science is actually pretty thin (more on that below).
But if nothing else, I find a cold bath is an excellent tool for practicing both mindfulness and sitting with discomfort.
As I’ve said previously, mindfulness is the scalpel that sits between my reaction (which I can’t control) and my response (which I can choose).
Reaction: There’s dread, anxiety, excitement, the physical jolt of the cold water, the tension in my breath and chest, the shallow breathing as I get in.
Mindfulness: Then I focus on my breath.
Response: Then, after a few breaths, I say to myself: “Welcome the cold.” I begin to invite the cold and the discomfort in. I start to notice the experience of the cold against my skin. Where can I feel it most? Can I break it down into single sparks of sensation in specific parts of my body?
Sometimes I’ll play music. I love listening to Ludovico Einaudi’s beautiful piano in the cold. My favourite track: Nuvole Bianche from his album Una Mattina. I’ve also experimented with trance albums like Paul Van Dyke’s Guiding Light. This can also be a practice in mindfulness – listening to the distinct notes in the music.
Other times I’ll talk with friends, or count newcomers through the breathing patterns.
It’s also pretty delightful just to sit in silence.
It’s taken a bit of practice to get to this level of enjoyment but when it comes to my diary management, this is one weekly ritual that I truly defend.
The benefits, science and safety of cold water
While I love my cold baths, the science is a long way from definitive when it comes to the benefits of cold water immersion.
There are many claims including:
- improved circulation,
- deeper sleep,
- spiked energy levels,
- reduced inflammation in your body,
- and weight loss.
Most are unsubstantiated to date as far as I can see.
Some studies I could find around cold and cold water benefits, basically conclude that it’s still too soon to know whether the claimed benefits above are valid.
Here are some studies that you might find interesting:
- Reduction in muscle soreness (note: this same anti-inflammatory response may negatively impact muscle growth and strength development.) [National Institutes of Health]
- Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. [pubMed – National Institutes of Health]
- Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system to improve immune responses (when combined with breathing exercises and meditation). [National Institutes of Health]
- Increased metabolism [British Journal of Sports Medicine]
- How brown fat improves metabolism (activated by cold temperatures) [National Institutes of Health]
So while I’ve experienced some of the anecdotal benefits, I’ve come to see the primary value for me as being an extended mindfulness session in the middle of my week that helps me reset for the sprint to the weekend.
(If you’re interested, there’s a great list of mindfulness science studies here.)
The science is, however, pretty clear on the risks of cold water immersion:
And this is why all cold water facilities I’ve been to require a signed waiver. So know your limits and check with a medical professional if you choose to try something like this.
Architecting recovery and periodisation
Water polo drilled into me the importance of recovery. In fact, the better I performed, the more important it became.
If I wanted to survive, let alone benefit from, the compound effect of repeated, high quality, high intensity physical training, I came to realise that I’d better nail my recovery between sessions.
There are amazing stories of Steffi Graf pioneering the focus on recovery between each point in her tennis matches. When you’re applying recovery principles to that degree of detail, you know you’re getting to the pointy end of performance!
More formally in a physical training setting this is called periodisation.
Periodization is defined as the planned manipulation of training variables (load, sets, and repetitions) in order to maximize training adaptations and to prevent the onset of overtraining syndrome.
I think this is one aspect of high performance sport that is only just making it across into how we consider our time at home and at work.
It’s not just about how hard we work, but how intentionally we recover. This can give us huge gains of productivity or energy to invest in the people and situations that truly matter.
I view my cold baths, mindfulness and physical training as intentional recovery periods to be a better husband, dad, coach, colleague, brother, son and friend in my day to day.
Then, more tactically, I use them for specific situations.
Recently I flew through the night from Singapore to make it home for a lunchtime work shop. I landed in Brisbane at 10:30am having had a grand total of 3 hours sleep. I raced from the airport to the cold bath, had 5 minutes in the cold, got to the workshop 15 mins early and then downed a long black coffee.
While my handshakes were cold for the participants, I couldn’t have felt better if I’d had 12 hours sleep in my own bed.
Active recovery rituals
An important note here: recovery is not about doing nothing.
As much as my mind might rebel at the idea, sometimes recovery means doing more. But it’s not just more of anything. It’s reconnecting to what matters and what brings me energy (a 3 min activity if you’re interested) and doing more of that.
Sport calls this active recovery and the principle applies at work and at home.
When water polo was my training, surfing was my recovery. When I was tired from an overnight flight, the cold tub and coffee were far more effective than having a 20 min sleep in the car.
So while cold water might not be your thing, I love to hear from you:
- What are your rituals?
- Do you have a way to practice discomfort?
- How do you intentionally recover before you need it, so you can have the best chance of bringing the best of you to whatever situation arises?
Let me know in the comments.