Runner's guide to cold water therapy - Women's Running

Runner’s guide to cold water therapy

Author: Kate Sellers

Read Time:   |  May 3, 2022

If you want to go all Wim Hof, you need to know how to do it safely and effectively. Here's our runner's guide to cold water therapy...

We don’t know about you, but we get a bit grumpy when the shower runs cold – the thought of chucking ourselves into cold water on purpose, à la Wim Hof, sounds not at all appealing!

But cold therapy is having a serious moment, and there are loads of reasons why runners should give it a try. Plus, there’s always the hot shower to enjoy afterwards. We find out more about the benefits of cold water therapy for runners, and how you can get started.

What are the benefits of cold water therapy?

Reduces inflammation, swelling and sore muscles

When you immerse yourself in cold water, the blood vessels constrict, and when this happens the process of tissue breakdown and swelling slows down. Once your body starts to warm up it’s like turning on a tap, and the blood flushes through your system, moving by-products of cellular breakdown to the lymph system, and clearing out waste. Studies are a little inconclusive, but many athletes use ice baths, cold showers, or stroll into the cold sea to speed up recovery after physical exercise.

Produces ‘healthy’ fat

Cold therapy, cold showers, and being in cold temperatures all help to boost the production of brown fat, which is ‘healthier’ than white fat (fat stored round the hips and stomach). While white fat stores calories, brown fat burns energy to help keep the body warm, and could help us lose weight. And according to Science Direct, studies in humans and animals have suggested that increasing the amount of healthy brown fat might help weight management and reduce symptoms of diabetes.

Improves sleep

As runners we need good sleep and your body temperature when you go to bed can impact on how you sleep. According to French researchers, if you’re too warm it’s hard to sleep and a cold shower can help regulate your body temperature.

Boosts immunity

As runners we regularly give our immune system a battering. Cold water therapy is believed to boost our immunity by increasing the body’s immune cells. A study found that there was a “mobilisation effect” on the immune system when participants were exposed to cold temperatures.

Improves circulation

A large-scale study of the effects of hydrotherapy on the body in 2014 found that cold water can improve circulation. Cold-water immersion can stimulate blood flow. When you immerse your body in cold water, the blood rushes to surround your vital organs, and forces your heart to pump more efficiently – great for running!

How to start cold water therapy

So, you’re ready to enjoy the benefits of cold water therapy, and you’ve fished out your cossie. What next? It’s not quite as simple as jumping into the sea – it’s important to acclimatise your body, to avoid things like cold water shock. Here’s everything you need to know…

Ice baths

It’s important to build up to ice baths. “Add ice cubes or ice packs to make water colder than tap water. Sit in the bath up to waist first thee immerse up to neck. It’s okay to wear a warm beanie hat. Build up by 90 seconds week,” advises multiple Ironman triathlete and open water swimming coach Mark Kleanthous.

How best to combine ice baths with your runs? Charlotte Laing, 40, works shifts as cabin crew and is a mum of two. She tried ice baths with bags of ice in the cold water whilst training for her first ultra, a 64-mile run from London to Brighton. “I had an ice bath every week after my long runs on Saturday and Sunday,’ she says. ‘As well as easing aches and pains, I felt invigorated. I’d then wait 30 minutes and follow up with a hot shower. I’m sure the ice baths helped me get through the rest of the day.”

Take a dip

If you can’t face an ice bath and you live cold water, you could just take a dip. Again, acclimatisation is key – especially if you’re venturing into British seas or lakes! Start by dipping (getting in and getting out again quite quickly) and make sure you’ve got plenty of warm clothes for after. Remember, tides and currents can be strong, so always research your dipping spot online to be sure of safety, and have someone with you if possible.

When is best to dip for running? “My osteopath recommended an ice bath to me, but I just couldn’t face it! But over the last two weekends after a very hilly 18 miles and a 15 mile run I put my legs in the sea and just waited for about 10 minutes,’ says Nazliahn Massey. “Next day my legs felt absolutely fine with no DOMs at all.”

Cold showers

Cold showers were notorious in the military and public schools 50 years ago, believed to build a man’s constitution. As harsh as it may have seemed, it turns out they were right. Wim Hof recommends cold showers daily, as do many self-development coaches and authors.

Start by whacking the shower temperature right down at the end of your next shower. Build up from 30 seconds to two to three minutes – then look forward to slipping into a warm towelling robe!

How best to combine with running? A cold shower right after your run is said to promote recovery and help your muscles. You’ll thank us for it later!

Sports cryotherapy

Sports cryotherapy is based on the application of cold as therapy. “Cryotherapy in sports as we know it nowadays, was developed in the late 70’s in Japan by Dr Toshima Yamauchi, in his search for a technique that rapidly cooled down the body surface, avoiding freezing the subcutaneous part,” explains Mark Smith from N2Cryo.

“The cryotherapy procedure is developed in cabins that use evaporated liquid nitrogen, reaching very low temperatures between -110ºC to -196ºC for a short period of time of up to three minutes in a controlled environment.”

“At -110˚C, the temperature at the surface of your skin drops close to freezing. This is the cue for the receptors in the skin (nerve endings) to start sending signals to the central nervous system, telling it that the body is in critical danger,” he explains. “Your body will immediately respond and be stimulated to activate a series of positive processes,” he adds.

How to get started? Search for a local cryotherapy clinic. They’ll be able to advise you on the best schedule to suit your running recovery, and show you how it all works.

What is the Wim Hof method?

If you’ve heard of cold water therapy, you’ve probably heard of Wim Hof. He created his own, specific method for cold water immersion that he believes to offer the most benefits. We wanted to find out more about him and how his method works…

Who is Wim Hof?

Wim Hof got his nickname ‘The Iceman’ by breaking a number of records related to cold exposure including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle on his bare feet, and standing in a container while covered with ice cubes for more than 112 minutes.

The Wim Hof Method aims to release our inner power and releasing us from our artificial lifestyles. “Because these deeper physiological layers are no longer triggered, our bodies are no longer in touch with this inner power. The inner power is a powerful force that can be reawakened by stimulating these physiological processes through the Wim Hof Method,” he says.

What are Wim Hof’s Three Pillars?

There are three pillars that make up the Wim Hof Method: Cold Water, Breathing and Commitment.

The cold is what Wim calls ‘your warm friend’. He says that proper exposure to the cold starts a cascade of health benefits.

Next is breathing. “We’re mostly unaware of its tremendous potential,” says Wim Hof. “Heightened oxygen levels hold a treasure trove of benefits, and the specialized breathing technique of the Wim Hof Method unearths them all”.

The third pillar of the is the foundation of the other two: both cold exposure and conscious breathing require patience and dedication in order to be fully mastered.

How to do the Wim Hof method

  • Cold
    Gradual cold exposure, through cold showers gives your vascular system a workout, helping to burn fat and increase the feel-good chemicals in the brain. Start slowly, for as little as 30 seconds, eventually you will replace regular showers with cold showers.
  • Breathing
    The breathing is what Wim describes as “controlled hyperventilation or power breathing”. While sitting in a comfortable place, take 30 quick, deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Then, take a deep breath and exhale; hold until you need to breathe in. Inhale again, as deep as you can, and hold it for 10 seconds. Repeat three to four rounds.
  • Mindset
    Hof is famous for being able to trigger changes in his body during experiments by just focusing his mind. To get to this state he gets into an almost meditative state, where he lets go of thoughts and acts as a witness to what’s happening. The Wim Hof method of cold-water therapy and breathing aims to teach you to increase your willpower, which Wim says will enable you to take control of your body and your mind.

Written by

Kate Sellers

Kate Sellers

Kate is our Senior Digital Executive and a keen runner. She's also a qualified Personal Trainer and yoga teacher, so she knows her stuff about workouts, cross-training and stretching. She loves to combine running and exploring, so you'll often find her testing out the latest kit in exciting locations across the UK and beyond. Kate champions exercising for enjoyment. "Most of the year, you'll find me running for fun and wellbeing," she says. "That being said, I do still love the thrill of training for a race from time to time!"

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