Does jumping into an ice cold lake sound impossible right now? Maybe you just need a good sauna session first. It’s said that the right time to leave the sauna is when the idea of jumping in an ice cold lake sounds like about the best idea you’ve ever heard.
Hot-Cold exposure training is catching on with elite athletes, but the sauna cold plunge is nothing new. The Finnish people have always enjoyed jumping in the lake between sauna sessions. They sauna hard, and they stay in long enough that ice water sounds enjoyable.
Like the sauna itself, the Finns were onto some major health benefits, whether or not they knew it.
Cold exposure, or ice baths, are excellent for recovery, the vascular system, and the mind. The ability to withstand cold increases with practice and improves the bodies ability to regulate heat, circulation, and mental toughness.
Indeed, traditional Finnish saunas are outdoor structures (not connected to the home) that are near a lake or river when possible. Some Finnish sauna bathers take a cold plunge between each round, even if there’s ice on the lake.
Training Thermal Regulation Improves Performance
Usually, when an athletes performance starts to deteriorate it is due to overheating. Pro surfer Laird Hamilton and his wife Gabby are experts in thermal regulation training and contribute much of their success to their ability to thermoregulate.
Thermal regulation, the ability to heat the body up and cool the body off, is among the most energy consuming processing the body is ever tasked with.
By alternating between cold and hot, your body will get much better at regulating temperature when under pressure from athletic exertion.
- Cold is a hormone regulator
- Cold boosts testosterone (but may reduce sperm count)
- Cold makes immune system more powerful
- Reduces inflammation
- Improves Circulation
- Improves thermal regulation
- Improves athletic performance by preventing overheating
What is cold exposure?
The thermal regulation system can actually be built up and improved by training it by exposure to extreme temperatures. We know sauna is effective at one extreme, but if you want to really maximize the benefits you also need cold exposure.
Cold exposure can be achieved by ice baths, laying in snow, jumping in nearly frozen water, or just being outside in freezing temperatures with minimal clothing.
Training Your Cold (Fat) Muscles for Thermogenesis
Thermogenesis is your bodies ability to create heat. Bodies always produce heat, usually from organs such as the heart, liver, and brain.
Normal fat, or white fat cells, can keep you warm by literally adding insulation.
Humans store a special kind of fat that the body can use to rapidly create heat on demand. Brown fat, also called brown adipose is a type of body fat that is activated when cold. Brown fat keeps babies, who cannot shiver, alive. It was recently discovered that adults still store brown fat, and we may be able to increase it.
Learning to harness brown fat makes it easier to access whenever needed. When activated, the body has an incredible warming sensation even in freezing water.
Brown fat location is highly personalized, but it’s often in your neck, abdomen, and down your spine. Tiny amounts of brown fat can heat your entire body from within. It’s what Wim Hof calls “the inner fire”, and harnessing it helped him beat world records in cold exposure.
Sauna Cold Plunge Routine
When you’re starting out, a typical routing will be 10-15 minutes in the sauna and 30 seconds to two minutes in the cold plunge. Try to slow down your breathing in the ice. You will feel your heart slow down, and get into a meditative state if you are able to control your breathing.
More advanced routines may incorporate exercise (bike riding or yoga) in the sauna and cold exposure up to 15 minutes.
Always end your session in the heat if you’re going to workout or train, and in the cold if you’re looking to recover. Listen to your body and work with a qualified trainer.
Cold Plunge Options and Ideas
When possible, the best option for a cold plunge is the most natural one – a river, ocean, or lake. If that’s not an option, here are our reviews of the best cold plunge baths for outdoors.
Otherwise you’re going to need a large outdoor ice bath. Here are a few options.
The chest freezer ice bath is an environmentally friendly option for an ice bath, as you can reuse the same water for several weeks. The freezers are well insulated and a bag or two of ice before your session should do the trick. Many people find them used on Craigslist or eBay but make sure they don’t have bad odors, which may never come out.
Ice trough Ice Bath
Using a trough is a popular and good looking choice for taking ice baths. Simply fill with water and ice. If you want to get fancy like music producer Rick Rubin, you can rig it up with sensors and chillers to maintain the perfect temperature without adding ice. They also look great next to barrel saunas.