During the warmer months of summer, the whole MUD\WTR team is taking part in a cold exposure challenge.
It's pretty simple: take a cold shower (or plunge) for at least one unbroken minute, for 66 out of 90 days in the quarter.
The benefits are backed by research, but more importantly, most people feel them immediately. So don't be surprised if a difficult minute turns into five by the end.
Have you got the minerals? Join the MUD\WTR team in our 66-day Cold Exposure Challenge by signing up for our group chat on Telegram.
As I write this, most of the people I know are getting reacquainted with the pleasures of the outside world: concerts, movie theaters, crappy Tinder dates. Meanwhile, I’m still indoors, hiding out from the plague. I’ve been calling this extended period of self-imposed lockdown the Boring Man festival, because even though I’ve got plenty of artistic pursuits keeping me fulfilled, life is a few loop-de-loops short of a thrill ride right now.
Maybe that’s why I was so quick to accept a challenge from Trends w/ Benefits to take 15 consecutive cold showers. Not the type to do things halfway, I’ve elected to use the coldest possible setting. That might not sound like such a big deal to you, but trust me: With the dial at hard right, my shower water is North-Pole, death-threats-from-Putin, Christmas-in-Hell cold.
It’s also probably why, as a complete newcomer to deliberate cold exposure, I’m feeling more curiosity than trepidation as I head toward the shower to begin the experiment. It’s just now hitting me that some warped part of my psyche is craving the novelty—any novelty.
At the same time, there’s another part of me that feels like a gold medal contender in the Asshole Olympics for going through with this. As I reach for the dial, I’m visited by visions of disadvantaged folks all over the world who would give their femurs for a hot shower. In my imagination, they’re looking at me the way you’d look at someone who was brushing his teeth with a spear of broccoli.
If you’re wondering why anybody would willfully forgo the comfort of hot water, the short answer is that this practice supposedly unlocks all kinds of health benefits for the mind and body. Athletes have long used cold water immersion for post-performance recovery, and if we’re to believe the Wim Hof Method, deliberate exposure to the cold promotes fat loss, heightened immunity, better sleep and a big, CVS receipt-length list of other stuff. Some of these claims are borne out by science, and others, quite frankly, I find a little dubious … but then, I’m a huge fan of not putting my body in punishingly cold water, so that might be coloring my perception a little.
Nevertheless, duty calls. Let the one-man Ice Age reenactment begin.
Naked and Afraid
I start with chilly, but not unbearable, water, first anointing just my arms, then my legs, then my torso, and finally my whole body. Each time I submerge a new sector of flesh, the stab of bleak Arctic wrongness hits afresh, and I make The Sound—you know, the exact one you’d make if your sense of calm were abruptly punctured by a frigid blast of FUCK THIS.
Thankfully, the body adjusts quickly. Once you get past that first ruthless jolt, it’s invigorating—fun, even. I laugh aloud at the broken robot dance I’m doing. Rapid-fire exhales through semi-closed lips make a sound that horses would probably find sexy.
When the discomfort has died down to maybe a six or so, I turn the dial as far toward Guantanamo Bay as it will go, and the pageantry of unpleasantry starts all over again.
Pain—literal, factory-certified pain—nags my upper body as I flail like a fish in pudding. My mouth reflexively pushes out whoopee cushion noises, as if I think I can breathe the cold out of my body. I have no one but myself to blame here. Experts have warned that newbies like me should start with moderate temperatures and immersion times, and I've given their advice all the careful consideration that a wayward kangaroo might give a “keep off the grass” sign.
A couple of minutes of this are all I can take. Aaaaaand … scene.
Maybe it’s more relief than anything else, but I like the feeling of aliveness that’s singing in my cells—a lot. The chill has sent the same message to every organ, every bodily system: “May I have your attention, please?” I emerge from the shower ready to hunt a jaguar.
This feeling isn’t particularly long-lasting, though. Ten or 15 minutes later, I’m back to baseline.
The Benefits of Cold Water Immersion
The next few cold showers aren’t notably different from the first, with one important exception: They all bring immediate and dramatic relief from some fairly serious pain in my lower back from a weightlifting injury.
By day five, the back pain is almost completely gone. I’ve also stopped wiggling in discomfort when the cold water hits. My body is adjusting more quickly, the rapid exhaling is much milder and I’m able to stay in the coldest water for four or five minutes. And, yes, I'm probably pushing it a little there. Beginners are advised to stay in for no more than a few minutes. At the pro level, the cutoff time is 10 to 15 minutes, but it goes without saying that I'm not there yet.
As my reactivity gets less intense, so does the energy boost. The cold showers are still making me less groggy, but the take-on-the-world feeling I had on day one is nowhere to be found.
On the seventh day, I discover an all-important secret: Ratchet the temperature down in very tiny increments at a time, all the way to the lowest setting. When I do it this way, I don’t feel a need to exhale rapidly, and I don’t gasp or recoil at each transition. It’s sort of the frog in boiling water principle in reverse.
By day nine, the coldest setting isn’t so bad. It’s still uncomfortable, but in a toes-poking-through-your-sock sort of way, as opposed to a meat-tenderizer-tapping-on-your-muscles kind of thing.
I precede my 13th cold shower with a circular breathing exercise that’s recommended for these kinds of situations. Honestly, if it’s making a difference, I can’t really tell.
Once in, I follow breathworker/cold training expert Jesse Coomer’s advice to lengthen the exhale during deliberate cold exposure. This turns out to be a great way to relax and find a place of non-reactivity.
The fast, closed-lipped exhales are now a thing of the past. Each new turn of the dial elicits a “whew!”, but the adjustment is almost instantaneous. Despite the small discomfort—maybe a three out of 10—the cold feels refreshing, as if it’s quenching inflammation I didn’t even know was there. The coldest water still makes my muscles stiffen, but it doesn’t sting anymore.
Would I Recommend Cold Showers?
By the time of my 15th and final immersion, I’ve built up a decent tolerance to the cold. Rather than taking the process in steps, I waste little time putting my entire body in the water. This feels exhilarating, and the loud exhales now feel more like whoops of joy.
I think I get why Dr. Andrew Huberman says the uncomfortable temperature is where the benefits of cold exposure are. That first invasive blast is what brings the zing. Now, when my body adapts and gets semi-comfortable, I’m eager to move to a colder temperature to get that feeling of aliveness.
Wouldn’t you know it—now that I get to stop doing this, I’m starting to enjoy it. I can see why people find this addictive. At its best, it’s a celebration of life, a rejection of complacency and a glorious force-ejection from the comfort zone.
Would I recommend this to other people? For someone seeking relief from the pain of an athletic injury, abso-freezing-lutely. For those who are looking for extra energy, improved health or escape from stagnation, I’d suggest comparing my experience to others and making up your own mind. In all cases, remember that results will vary, and that there are risks to be assessed and protocols to be followed.
As for me, my next shower will be a hot one. It’s a luxury not everyone has, and in times of upheaval, sometimes the comfort zone isn’t such a terrible place to be.
Damon Orion is a writer, musician, artist and teacher based in Santa Cruz, CA. Read more of his work at damonorion.com.
Header image by Jorge Fernández via Unsplash.
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