We’ve all seen them by now—videos of people submerging into oversized tin buckets filled with ice-cold water (ice cubes included) or diving into the ocean for a chilly early morning swim. You may have even heard a health expert or your favorite wellness girlie talking about cold plunging benefits on a podcast. It’s the latest trend in wellness and self-care, but is there any real benefit to subjecting yourself to just above-freezing water temperatures?
The short answer is a yes, but. Cold plunging benefits include both physical to mental perks. From improved athletic performance to mood boosts, there’s scientific evidence to back up this practice. But, subjecting your body to cold temperatures doesn’t come without its risks—and may not be right for you. Read on to get the 101 on cold plunging and see if it can be a fit.
What is cold plunging?
Cold plunging is the act of submerging yourself in cold water for at least a few minutes or longer. Anywhere from a 38-60°F water temperature will do, with 50-59 °F being the optimal temperature for reducing muscle soreness. Some take the plunge as a means of recovery (usually athletes), while others pursue it as a mental practice, looking to improve mood and energy.
Experts recommend those interested in cold plunging benefits gradually ease themselves in to slowly build their tolerance. If you’re brand new to cold plunging, start with 30-60 seconds, then slowly increase the duration as your exposure increases. Some experts argue that cold plunging benefits don’t kick in unless you’re in the water for at least 3 minutes, at which point the cold penetrates the skin and begins to have a neuromuscular effect.
For women and people with uteruses who experience PMS symptoms during their cycle, there is no evidence that cold plunging poses any major risks. Cold plunging can help control inflammation during menstruation, potentially helping to reduce cramping and period pain. Anecdotally, those who have periods and a cold plunging routine will sometimes skip plunging during their heaviest days or opt for a warmer temperature for ease of comfort. But it’s all up to you!
Physical benefits of cold plunging
There’s a reason cold plunging is so popular among elite athletes—it’s a super effective recovery modality. Here are some stand-out benefits:
- Reduced muscle soreness: Research shows that cold plunging is an effective tool in helping your muscles recover after high-intensity exercises, especially HIIT. The cold water causes your blood vessels to constrict which reduces post-workout swelling around your muscles.
- Reduced inflammation: Cold water slows down the flow of blood to the extremities, reducing overall swelling and inflammation after working out. Higher-intensity workouts like HIIT, sprinting, or a Power class all increase inflammation in the body, and the cold-plunge effect can get you back to baseline quicker.
- Improved athletic performance: There’s research supporting the theory that cold plunging helps improve your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) during workouts. Not only will tough workouts start to feel easier, but you’re likely to feel less drained or strained when hitting max performance. This can also push the ceiling of what your 10/10 looks like, boosting overall fitness.
- Energy boost: Nothing wakes you up like a cold shower, thanks to the resulting epinephrine spike. This neurochemical helps us feel more alert—and production increases from just 20 seconds in cold water. A proper cold plunge is like that effect on steroids.
Mental benefits of cold plunging
Cold plunging benefits go beyond the physical—your mental health can also improve from sustaining a routine. Here’s how:
- Improved stress response: Immersing your body in cold water has positive effects on stress regulation. As your body deals with the prolonged cold exposure, you begin building up resilience against various stressors. Translation: you’ll be able to deal with stress more efficiently, and it won’t set you back as much emotionally.
- Improved clarity and focus: Cold plunging causes a release in the neurochemicals dopamine and endorphins, which help you feel focused immediately after.
- Mood boost: Exposure to cold environments like a cold plunge can cause a prolonged release of the feel-good neurochemical dopamine, which can lift your mood and keep you feeling good post-plunge sesh.
Risks of cold plunging
The benefits outlined above don’t come without some risks. There’s a right and wrong way to plunge, and you’re encouraged to consult with a doctor before trying it for yourself.
Cold plunges can be especially dangerous for those with a history of cardiac problems. The initial shock of submerging in cold water can cause arrhythmias or even heart attacks. That risk is heightened if one puts their face under water during the initial cold shock, which can lead to hyperventilation. Experts recommend that those with a cardiac history, vascular disease, or conditions like high blood pressure avoid cold plunging entirely to be safe.
There’s also the risk of losing control of your muscles due to the cold temperatures and prolonged time underwater (think: 3+ minutes). Once you feel fatigued, you may not be able to control your arms or legs underwater. For this reason, it’s better to plunge with supervision, in a controlled environment like a bath, and keep your head above water.
Finally, hypothermia is not off the table—and the risk increases if you start testing out longer durations or colder temperatures.
Our verdict: There are more accessible forms of recovery
Although there are definitely some impressive cold plunging benefits, there’s no compelling reason to push yourself to try it if you’re hesitant. Unless you’re an athlete or actively pushing the limits of your fitness with super intense exercise, you can tap into many of the same benefits from gentler recovery modalities. (And P.S. A daily or weekly cold shower can also deliver a lot of the same cold plunging benefits with fewer risks.)
Active recovery options like foam rolling (which promotes myofascial release), breathwork, plain old walking, mobility work, or restorative yoga produce many of the same physical and mental effects—without the cold water. Plus, they also “count” towards your movement goals and help prevent injuries in the future, without any of the dangers mentioned above.
If you’re ready to take recovery more seriously, we recommend the 4-week Recovery Essentials mini-program, which offers 4 weekly classes to supplement with post-workout or on your rest days. For more information on why recovery is so important to your workout routine (and seeing the results you want!), read this quick guide.
That being said, if cold plunging is something you’re really excited about, go for it—so long as you don’t have a high-risk pre-existing condition. Just remember to ease into it, and only keep at it if it makes you feel good.
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