If you are an athlete looking for a natural and effective way to boost your performance, recovery, and health, consider cold plunge therapy. It is a practice that involves submerging your body in cold water for an extended period of time. Cold plunges are popular among elite athletes, celebrities, influencers, and wellness enthusiasts who swear by its benefits.
But why exactly is everyone losing their minds over cold plunge therapy?
It is time for answers!
How Does Cold Plunge Therapy Work?
Cold plunge therapy exposes your body to a sudden and intense cold stimulus that triggers various physiological and psychological responses.
When you immerse yourself in cold water, your blood vessels constrict, slowing blood flow and reducing inflammation. This process helps remove metabolic waste from muscles and tissues, which speeds up recovery and reduces soreness after working out.
Cold water also stimulates the nervous system, causing a surge of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine, which can enhance alertness, mood, and energy levels.
Ice baths also stimulate the immune system, increasing the production of white blood cells and anti-inflammatory cytokines, which help fight off infections and diseases.
One caveat of cold plunge therapy is endocrine system stimulation, mainly in increasing testosterone, growth hormone, and thyroid hormone, which can improve muscle growth, strength, and metabolism. You can see why athletes, especially combat sports athletes, are mad about almost freezing themselves.
Why are Cold Plunges Popular?
Cold plunges are popular because they offer a natural and holistic way to improve physical and mental health.
Many people who practice cold plunge therapy report feeling more energized, refreshed, and invigorated after a session. They also claim that cold plunges help them cope with stress better, improve their mood and confidence, and enhance their performance in various domains of life.
Furthermore, cold plunges and ice baths are accessible and affordable, so people opt to try them out and get hooked. You don’t need expensive or complicated equipment for cold plunge therapy. Any source of cold water available to you will do the trick, such as a bathtub filled with ice cubes or a nearby lake or river.
You can, of course, opt for specially designed tanks or barrels that circulate cold water at a constant temperature.
Cold Tub Recommendations
Cold plunges are also popular because they present a challenge for most people. It is a blatant push outside your comfort zone, leaving you feeling proud for doing something difficult and with a sense of accomplishment.
The Top 10 Cold Plunge Benefits for Athletes
As an athlete, you might wonder how cold plunge therapy can benefit you. Most pro athletes use them, and given the accessibility of cold therapy, there’s no reason why even a hobbyist grappler wouldn’t turn to this incredible tool.
After all, there are plenty of reasons to integrate cold plunges into your routine. Here are 10 of the most important ones:
#1 Faster recovery: One of the main benefits of cold plunge therapy for athletes is that it can help you recover faster from your workouts or competitions. By reducing inflammation and muscle damage caused by exercise-induced stress, cold plunge therapy can help you heal quicker and prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
In other words, you can train more frequently and intensely and improve your performance over time.
#2 Reduced Pain: Another benefit of cold plunge therapy for athletes is that it can help you reduce pain and discomfort associated with injuries or chronic conditions. Cold plunge therapy can temporarily relieve acute or chronic pain by numbing the nerve endings and blocking pain signals to the brain. I somehow feel that this is the most valuable benefit to Jiu Jitsu folks.
#3 Improved Circulation: By constricting and dilating your blood vessels alternately, cold plunges can create a pumping effect that increases blood flow to your organs and tissues. This increases oxygen and nutrient delivery to cells and improves waste removal.
#4 Enhanced Immunity: After the pandemic, this one catches everyone’s eye. And for good reason, given that jumping in a cold pool or ice bath stimulates the production of white blood cells and anti-inflammatory cytokines, boosting your body’s natural defense against pathogens. It’s way better than a flu vaccine.
#5 Increased Testosterone: Here we go. Contender for number one with reduced pain, the promise of increased testosterone levels is the best way to get athletes to buy something, only there’s nothing to buy with cold plunge therapy, so it must work.
It works by lowering the temperature of your testicles, which results in higher production of testosterone by the Leydig cells in there. It translates to increased testosterone, leading to faster muscle growth, increased strength, and improved performance.
The side effects here are also cool, featuring less body fat, increased sexual function, and a great libido.
#6 Higher Growth Hormone: Cold plunge therapy can also stimulate the release of growth hormone by the pituitary gland, helping you repair and regenerate your muscles and tissues and slow down the aging process.
#7 Better Metabolism: Cold therapy activates the brown adipose tissue, a type of fat that generates heat by burning calories. Cold plunge can increase your energy expenditure and thermogenesis, starting brown fat and getting rid of it in the process.
#8 Improved Mood: You know that great feeling you have after finishing a 2-hour-long rolling session? If you opt for cold therapy, you can have more of it without Jiu Jitsu.
How? It increases neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, which elevate your mood, motivation, and pleasure, just like BJJ but without sweat.
#9 Enhanced Cognition: A ninth benefit of cold plunge therapy for athletes is that it can help you improve your brain function by boosting the production of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which promotes neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. In simpler terms, this helps your memory, learning, creativity, and problem-solving skills.
The smart grapplers now found their favorite cold plunge benefit.
#10 Greater Resilience: Finally, greater resilience and mental toughness are developed. By exposing yourself to a challenging and uncomfortable stimulus that triggers the fight-or-flight response, cold plunge therapy can train your mind to cope with stress better.
What are the Risks and Drawbacks of Cold Plunge Therapy?
While cold plunge therapy has many benefits for athletes, it also carries some risks and drawbacks that you should be aware of before trying it. Some of the potential disadvantages of cold plunge therapy include:
Hypothermia: Cold plunge therapy carries the risk of hypothermia, a condition where body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, confusion, drowsiness, slurred speech, slow breathing, weak pulse, and loss of consciousness. In severe cases, it can even lead to death.
To prevent hypothermia, limit your exposure to cold water to no more than 15 minutes at a time, wear appropriate clothing or insulation, monitor your body temperature with a thermometer, and warm up gradually after a session.
Cold Shock: One potential danger of cold plunge therapy is cold shock. It occurs when the body reacts to a sudden drop in temperature by increasing the heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. Cold shock can lead to panic, hyperventilation, cardiac arrest, or drowning. It’s essential to be aware of this risk before attempting cold plunge therapy.
To prevent cold shock, you should avoid jumping or diving into cold water and instead enter slowly and gradually. Breathing is also vital, with calm and deep breaths being the standard.
Unpleasant Sensation: This can vary from person to person, depending on their tolerance and preference for cold water. Still, it might affect your motivation and adherence to cold plunge therapy and your mood and well-being.
To prevent it, start with mild temperatures and short durations of cold plunge therapy and gradually increase them as you get used to it.
How can you do Cold Plunge Therapy Safely and Effectively?
Now that you know the benefits and risks of cold plunge for athletes, you might wonder how to do it safely and effectively. Here are some general guidelines that you can follow:
Consult your Doctor: Before starting cold plunge therapy, you should consult your doctor to ensure it is safe and suitable for you.
Choose a Safe Method: Instead of picking an ice-cold river deep in a forest, start in a spa or gym that offers cold therapy. That way, you are under the guidance and care of trained staff if anything happens.
Prepare Yourself: Before doing cold plunge therapy, you should prepare yourself physically and mentally. Hydrate yourself well by drinking plenty of water, avoid consuming alcohol or caffeine before a session, and remember to wear your favorite swimsuit.
Mentally, be ready to roll. You’ll get your butt kicked the first few times, but it gets better.
Start Slowly and Gradually: When doing cold plunge therapy, avoid jumping or diving into cold water, and instead enter slowly and steadily.
Begin with mild temperatures (around 68 degrees Fahrenheit or 20 degrees Celsius) and short durations (approximately 1 to 2 minutes) of cold plunge therapy, and gradually increase them as you get used to it.
Don’t Hold your Breath: Be mindful about holding your breath or gasping for air, and avoid them as much as possible. Focus on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, using your diaphragm and belly.
Warm up Gradually: Going straight into a sauna after a cold plunge is a bad idea, as this can cause blood vessel dilation and blood pressure drop, leading to fainting or shock. Focus instead on passive methods such as dry clothes, blankets, or warm drinks to warm up your body.
Benefits of Cold Plunge FAQs
Here are a few more things people usually ask in terms of cold plunge therapy and the benefits of ice baths:
Cold Plunge vs. Cold Shower: What is the difference?
A common question is whether cold plunge therapy differs from a cold shower. The answer is yes. There are some differences between the two methods of exposing yourself to cold water.
The main difference is the intensity of the cold stimulus. Cold plunge therapy involves submerging your body in cold water below 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius). It is an intense and uniform cold stimulus that affects your whole body at once.
Cold showers involve spraying cold water on your body that is usually above 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius), which is less intense and variable.
How Long Should You Stay in a Cold Plunge?
The answer to this question depends on several factors, such as your preference, tolerance, goal, and condition. There is no definitive answer that applies to everyone, but here are some general guidelines that you can follow:
Start with 1 to 2 minutes: This will allow you to get used to the cold water and avoid overdoing it.
Aim for 5 to 15 minutes: You should not exceed 15 minutes per session, which can increase the risk of hypothermia or other complications.
Listen to your Body: Stop if you feel too cold, uncomfortable, or unwell. You should also monitor your body temperature with a thermometer and stop if it drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius).
How Much of Your Body Should You Submerge?
The answer to this question also depends on several factors, mainly the tank you have at your disposal. The general rule of thumb is to submerge as much as possible to create a more intense and uniform cold stimulus that will affect your whole body at once.
How Often Should I Cold Plunge?
Start with once or twice a week if you’ve never done it before. Aim for three to five times a week, sticking to the duration recommendations stated above.
Is it OK to Cold Plunge Every Day?
There are conflicting opinions and evidence on this topic. The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer that applies to everyone.
Therefore, experiment and find out what works best for you. Start with the recommendations above, and if/when you can be in a cold plunge 15 minutes per session five times a week, try seeing if doing it every day makes a difference.
Cold plunge therapy is a natural and effective way to improve your physical and mental health as an athlete. It can help you recover faster, reduce pain, improve circulation, enhance immunity, increase testosterone, boost growth hormone, improve metabolism, elevate mood, enhance cognition, and develop resilience.
However, cold plunge therapy also has some risks and drawbacks that you should be aware of before trying. It can cause hypothermia, cold shock, infection, impaired performance, or unpleasant sensations.
If you stick to the safety guidelines and precautions mentioned above to avoid these complications, you’ll do great and are in for one hell of an experience (pun intended).
Ogi is a black belt that does Jiu Jitsu full time and is very passionate about anything grappling-related.
He is also the head coach of Enso Jiu Jitsu in Macedonia and an aspiring Globetrotter.