The thought of submerging my body in freezing water gave me slight anxiety weeks before I've actually got to do it, despite knowing how well cold exposure helps you recover from your workouts. I knew I had to do it; once I set my mind to trying something out, I tend to follow through with the plan no matter how stupid the idea is. Now that I have taken my first cold bath, I know how energising and fresh it feels, and I can't wait to do it again.
I was invited to the promo launch event of the New Wave Retreats, a wellness/fitness haven in the heart of Brighton. As part of the 24-hour overnight experience, we attended strength and HIIT training sessions, talked about how to improve ourselves, went bowling and, of course, sat in ice-cold water.
As it was explained to us, our little trial run was slightly different from what people who sign up for the retreat will experience; it was more of a snapshot of all the activities you might do over the course of many days. The small team of journalists – including me – who attended the event saw something more akin to a BootCamp. Should you want to try the NewWave Retreat, you'll feel more relaxed and rejuvenated than how I felt after my early morning HIIT and boxercise session at Devil's Dyke.
It would take forever for me to detail all the experiences I had, so I'll be focusing on the ice bath; that was the most exciting part, after all!
Why ice baths?
Taking ice baths is just one of the many ways you can expose yourself to cold, but the real question is, why would you want to expose yourself to cold in the first place? Our parents used to tell us we needed to wrap up before we headed out into the cold; otherwise, we might catch a cold. Now we are told that cold is actually good for you; what's going on?
Vim Hof is to blame for people wanting to go barefoot in subzero temperatures. The Dutch extreme athlete has several Guinness world records related to cold exposure and is famous for promoting the health benefits of cold. Even if you aren't into it, you've probably heard of the Wim Hof Method, a combination of breathing exercises, cold exposure and meditation that can cure a bunch of physical and mental illnesses – at least on paper.
I'm not qualified to prove or disprove any of the claims. That said, research is available on cold exposure, albeit mostly newer papers discuss the topic, such as this one from 2021 that says: "In healthy individuals, cold exposure can increase energy expenditure and whole-body glucose and fatty acid utilization. Repeated exposures can lower fasting glucose and insulin levels and improve dietary fatty acid handling, even in healthy individuals."
(Note the bit about "healthy individuals".)
"Little is known regarding the effects of cold exposure in populations for which this stimulation could benefit the most", the same paper adds, suggesting that ill people might not experience the same benefits from cold exposure as healthy people. However, the former group would benefit more from it. They might do; we just don't know it for sure.
Ice bath experience: Experience of a lifetime?
Much like how we were given a speedy tour of the retreat, we also only had a demo of the Wim Hof Method, presented by Matthew from Wise and Prime Training. It still went on for an hour and a half, mind, which in my opinion was plenty long.
The sessions started with Matthew explaining his and Wim's journey and how both of them found solace from their troubles by embracing the cold. He mentioned how hot showers are a relatively new thing and how "our ancestors" used to bathe in cold water.
Again, not going to overanalyse this but I'm pretty sure cavemen didn't have cold baths every day and they probably all huddled around fires when the weather turned cold. Maybe even made the connection between using fire and warming up water.
Anyhow, that's beside the point. Before we jumped into the water, we also had to practice the "horse stance", a position borrowed from martial arts training that is said to keep your muscles warm after you took a plunge in the cold water. It looks funny but the horse stance move does make your quads burn. Here is a video on how to do it:
Once we all practised the stance for a bit, it was time to head out, get the ice bath over and be done with. I went first; I didn't want to stand around on the cold Brighton seafront waiting for my turn. Instead, I almost jumped in the water as soon as I could.
The water was cold. Real cold. I had to focus on breathing as slowly as possible as I could feel my lips trembling. My body was trying to fight the cold by shivering; my lungs were gasping for air. I had to fight back as I knew it was only temporary. After 30 seconds or so, I eased myself into the situation and instead of worrying about freezing to death, I stared at the choppy seas in front of me.
My legs were cold and the Wim Hof tub was a bit on the small side so I felt a bit of a foot cramp around the one minute mark. Thankfully, the sensation came and went swiftly. The second minute was great. Sure, I was cold, but I also felt contained – one might say, containered – and serene. The ice cubes floating around looked like little bits of plastic; my mind refused to accept I was sitting in a tub full of ice.
When the time came, the group started chanting "Ten, nine, eight..." all the way to the end and I emerged victoriously from the ice bath. I could've gone longer; Matthew, the instructor, said some people sit in it for as long as ten minutes. I don't think I wanted to do it for as long but I definitely had a few more minutes left in me.
Once out, I took up the horse stance pose and started pushing the air with my fists to keep warm. Strangely, I didn't feel cold at all; if anything, I felt a bit hot. I didn't dry myself, just stood around in my swimming shorts as more people got in and out of the tub. After 15-20 minutes, I felt the cold seeping through my skin again so I threw the towel on my shoulder.
Ice bath experience: Let's do it again
I can't say how beneficial it was to have an ice bath from a health point of view, but I sure enjoyed it. I felt rejuvenated and fresh; better still, I slept like a baby afterwards. I don't know if I can bring myself to take cold showers in the mornings to enjoy the benefits of cold water every day, but I'm definitely more inclined to do more ice baths.
I'd recommend you also giving a try, even if it's just for one session. It might not be the same transcending experience for you as it was for me, but it's good fun, and if there are any health benefits to it, all the better.