Updated: Nov 18, 2021
Cold exposure can be very good for your health. It improves your cardiovascular system and immune system and it also just makes you feel great. An ice bath is in general very safe and beneficial. At the same time the cold is still a powerful force that should be approached with care. In this article I will share my most important safety tips for your icebath practice. Some (often forgotten) common sense and some tips that I wish I would have known before and learned the hard way.
1. Be careful when you have health problems
While cold exposure can be very good for your health, it is good to be careful when you have a weaker health. Just like sport, ice bathes stresses your body for a short time, which leads to many positive improvements. If you are sick or have a weaker immune system, you don’t want to put too much stress on the system. Therefore it is wise to skip ice baths when you are sick. Also be more careful when you have health problems and consult your doctor first if ice bathing could be potentially be harmful in your case.
The most important contra indications for ice baths are:
- Severe high blood pressure (without taking medicine)
- Heart failure
- Raynaud syndrome type 2: (bad circulation in the extremities, caused by an underlying illness)
- Cold urticaria (an allergy to the cold)
It is also important to be extra careful with:
- Any cardiovascular problems
- Raynaud syndrome type 1 (it is fine to keep the hands out of the water, or use neoprene gloves). Take it easy and see if it improves or gets worse. Training the hands or feet separately could be benificial.
- Pregnancy – basically there is not enough knowledge on whether it could be beneficial or harmful. If you choose to do cold exposure, take it easy and listen to your body.
2. Start easy and built it up gradually
When you have decided that you like to take ice baths, don’t overdo it. Just like when you start with a running practice, you don’t want to run a marathon on your first day. It is better to start easy, to give your body and mind time to adjust. This is especially important in case of health problems, so that you can see how you react to the cold and what the right dose of cold exposure is for you (how long and how often).
You can start as simple as with cold showers. For example with this cold shower challenge.
Then you can start with cold baths and make them colder and colder. A great way to built it up (or should I say built it down), is starting your practice in autumn and then with the season, the water automatically gets colder.
3. Learn to relax in the cold water
For me cold water is a great relaxation exercise. It is like a harder massage. Challenging at times, but when you can surrender into it, very relaxing. When you are able to relax, it takes a lot of stress away form both your body and mind and it is a lot more enjoyable😊. A relaxed body and mind can also deal with the cold better, which prevents a lot of unpleasant sensations. The tips in this article, can also be applied to other kinds of cold exposure.
4. Take somebody with you
Especially when you are a beginner, don’t go alone. It is both calming and an extra security measure to have somebody with you. Of course it is ideal to have an experienced instructor who can coach you to relax into the water. If you can’t find an instructor, go with an experienced cold bather or a friend you feel comfortable with.
5. Choose your bathing place wisely
Not every water is perfect for ice bathing. Some things to take into account:
- Choose a place where you can stand. Swimming can be difficult when your body is more stiff or you need to gasp for air.
- Choose a spot where you can easily get in and out: If you need to climb to get out, it can be challenging with cold hands.
- Choose a place where you feel comfortable: whatever this means to you, it makes it easier to relax when you feel at ease. For example a place with not too many people passing by.
- Be careful with ice: Ice is great and adds to the experience, but it can be tricky too. It can cut, it can be challenging to get out and you especially want to avoid to get under the ice.
- Be aware of the current: a place with a lot of waves and strong current is not ideal for an easy ice bath.
6. be aware of the after drop
A common mistake of beginners is to stay too long in the water. After you have overcome your fears and find a way to relax, it is very easy to stay for a long time in the cold water, it is not very wise though. If you stay for too long, then when you get out of the water, you will start to shiver very much and feel cold. You will feel colder than you felt in the water. Often this starts about 10 minutes after getting out of the water.
The reason for this is that when you go into the cold, your blood vessels constrict, which reduces the blood flow to the extremities (skin, hands, feet, etc.). This way the core of your body (with all the vital organs) can stay warm, while your extremities cool down. A great protection mechanism of the body. When you come out of the water, the blood vessels open again, which brings more cold from the extremities to the core of the body. This helps to warm the extremities again, but also brings more coldness to the core of the body. When you have been in the cold for a long time, the coldness from the extremities will drop the temperature of the core. This is the so called afterdrop.
If you want to prevent the afterdrop. It is wise to not stay too long. It is difficult to feel how long you can stay in the water, without having a strong afterdrop afterwards. A good time guideline, is to stay in for a maximum of 2 minutes. You don’t need to stay longer for more health benefits, but if you like to extend your time in the water. Built it up gradually, so that you learn with how much time in the water, you still feel good afterwards.
If you accidently have stayed too long in the water and you feel very cold afterwards, it is important to warm up gradually. When you jump into a sauna or hot shower, the blood vessels open up even more, bringing more coldness from the extremities of the body to the core. It doesn’t feel comfortable, I can tell you.
Also bringing up your heart rate with sport is not a good idea when you feel very cold. This will also bring the cold from the extremities faster to the core of the body.
7. Learn to feel what you need
With ice baths, no one day is the same. The mind plays a strong role and also the state of your body makes a difference in how easy or hard it is to deal with the cold. Cold exposure when hungry, tired and stressed is much more difficult than when you feel relaxed and healthy. So it is important to listen to your body and feel what you need. Find the right dose for you (how often, how cold and how long). Enough that you can reap its benefits, but not too much, that it becomes exhausting. More is not always better. Some people swear by daily ice baths, others just get exhausted from it and paradoxically get worse at dealing with the cold. Find the right mix of overcoming your excuses and just doing it, while also being kind to yourself and giving yourself a break when needed.
Enjoy and be safe!