It’s January 5th 2019 and we’re about five months into our daily cold-water immersion routine. So far, this alternative approach to a “chronic cold & cough free” winter seems to work. Our kids (Elvin and Viivi) are pretty determined to proof us wrong though. Every day they consistently smother us with a fresh dose of “highly trained bacteria” ready to infiltrate deep inside our bodies. Now here’s the thing, in the past we simply used whatever was available from the pharmacy to prevent us from getting sick. But…. more than often we ended up being sick anyway… so last September (basically after ÖtillÖ) we decided to try something else and rely on a more natural approach to stay health. As far as cold water therapy is concerned the experts say that it raises the amount of white blood cells that in turn boosts your metabolic speed rate. So, besides the (side) benefit of losing weight (white fat) it also triggers a process that is more effective in fighting off unwanted diseases and infections. Eureka! This is exactly what we are interested in: 1) staying healthy and 2) injury free. Now the question is: Does it work? Well, in our case we have not been sick for five months so I guess there is some truth in it, provided you do it the right way…but more about that later.
I guess for me it all started when I was a kid suffering from chronic bronchitis. My mom used to put me in a bath tub and while playing with ”some ducks in the water” she would sneak up from behind with a bucket of ice cold water suddenly throwing it on top of me. The net effect, besides screaming like a pig, was that the cold-water shock opened up my lungs to it’s full capacity! Without knowing it my mom was actually 40 years ahead of her time with the “positive healing effects of deep breathing”. Since then my bronchitis symptoms have significantly reduced. Thanks mom! The other thing that cold-water exposure does is the generation of brown fat which function is essentially to generate heath and keep the body warm. So that’s great news for us endurance athletes who often have very low fat percentages. That extra little fat layer will make you float better and keep you warm as well! I noticed that people’s first reaction is the fear of “cold water shock”. Yes it’s part of the deal and starting your cold water experiment “cold turkey” in the middle of winter, without any prior experience or knowledge can be dangerous, especially if you have a heart condition. So if you decide to do it, start in the fall and gradually expose yourself to colder water, improving your breathing technique and mental focus along the way. Don’t make the beginners mistake to jump in a zero degree Celcius sea after sauna and see what happens…. there is an increased risk that you will suffer arrythmia or even a stroke.
So, what is this cold water shock all about? Well, the easiest way to describe it is when you turn the shower suddenly from hot to ice cold. Instantly your heart rate goes up and you start to breath heavily, pumping oxygenated blood mainly to your essential internal organs to keep them warm. If you immerse yourself in a barrel with ice cold water your extremities (especially hands, feet and neck will start to feel numb in no time. It can be quite painful so sometimes people choose to wear socks and gloves in order to stay longer immersed.
So how long should you stay immersed? Well, it depends when and how you do it. Assuming that the water temperature is around zero, as we have here in Finland throughout the winter, we tend to go every morning before having coffee. It has become a ritual and we stay in “the barrel” anywhere between 20 seconds to max 60 seconds. If we take a sauna we go to the barrel three times (in between löylö) and stay there anywhere between 30 seconds to 75 seconds. It makes a big difference if you move or sit still in the water. If you sit still your body will generate a microfilm of warmer water around your skin but if you move around (like swimming) your immersion time will be cut in half. The more you practice cold water immersion to less you feel the cold shock and the longer you can stay in the water. The only feeling that doesn’t really go away is the sensation of feeling numb and cold immediately after getting out. However, after 5 minutes or so your body has already started to warm-up and you get this overwhelming sensation of feeling simply great which lasts for most of the day!
Reading a lot about the subject: the benefits do not come by staying longer in the water (if you skip a day) but more by doing it consistently (i.e. every day). The only negative side effect in my view is that my hands don’t get as warm anymore as they used to but my overall sensation of feeling cold during the winter has gone down which means that the actual room temperature in our house is actually pretty low and hovers between 15 and 18 degrees C. great news for our monthly electricity bill!
In case you don’t feel like a full body immersion then you can always stand in a barrel of ice cold water to speed up muscle recovery and remove lactic acid out of your system. It’s best to do this right after an intense training when you feel your muscles are tired and painful.
One other (less known) benefit is directly linked to your lymphatic system which is designed to carry out waste from your cells which is key to fight infections of all sorts. So even taking a daily cold shower or alternating exposure to hot and cold water unblocks waste build-up in your lymph vessels which are often the cause for symptoms such as frequent colds, infections and joint pains.
The reason we don’t necessarily need to use pharmaceutical products when we start to feel “under the moon” is because we actually have our own little chemical factory and as such are able to produce all sorts of substances such as: noradrenaline which plays a vital role in alleviating depression and improved sleep quality and glutathione and uric acid levels which balance each other out to improve your emotional resilience against fear, stress, anxiety (i.e. will power and self-control).
Besides our cold water routine we have also cut back our run volume. In fact, we barely ran 50% of the distance we did last year before New Year. Let’s face it with the lack of sunlight in the Nordics right now, we both have less energy to spare, so we put whatever we have in quality training which in our case means lots of technique, gym and drills rather than speed and volume. We both feel that this approach is less consuming on our bodies and immune system essentially reducing the risk for injuries and sickness. Well, that’s it for now. Goodluck with your swimrun season preparation and hopefully see you in Utö.
Me: Thomas Schreven
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