Before we dive in, or rather, immerse ourselves into the ice baths or cold water immersion (CWI), let’s break the ice with a joke.
Why does rapper, celebrity and actor Ice Cube put money in his freezer?
Because he wants cold hard cash!
Although this dad joke may have made you cringe, there is some semblance of truth in the joke because, after all, health is wealth. He’s simply investing in cold thermogenesis and its benefits.
Over the past decade, the world of cryotherapy has come to the forefront in athletic recovery and biohacking in the forms of cold showers, polar plunges and whole-body cryotherapy chambers. Its popularity and evolution is derived from the tried and true method of cryotherapy: ice baths.
Celebrities and personalities such as Austin local Tim Ferriss, Wim “The Ice Man” Hof and Lady Gaga all preach that ice baths not only physically benefit your muscle and joint recovery, but also aid in sleep, stress, relaxation and meditation, and may help manage conditions such as fibromyalgia — which Lady Gaga candidly talks about on her Instagram.
There’s also a reason why virtually every NCAA athletic training locker room and every professional sports locker room has cold tubs and sometimes even cryotherapy chambers. Heck, the University of Texas Longhorns use whole-body cryotherapy here in Austin, TX, to aid their team’s recovery. This is all because ice baths and whole-body cryotherapy work very well under the right conditions, and countless studies have shown it can be incredibly beneficial in a variety of ways.
1) Reduces inflammation
2) Soothes muscle & joint aches/pains
3) Aids sleep & stress relief
4) Stimulates the vagus nerve (increases parasympathetic tone, aka more relaxation)
5) Stimulates metabolic burn (bye bye, calories!)
If you want to immerse yourself even deeper into the benefits behind cold water immersion and whole-body cryotherapy, I highly recommend reading Dr. Rhonda Patrick’s detailed review on cold shocking the body, which even discusses metabolic benefits and brown adipose tissue (BAT), unlocking even more calorie-burning goodness!
These benefits are so awesome that people are starting to create their own ice baths at home. But keep in mind that according to clinical literature, there are a few parameters that you absolutely must take note of: temperature, duration and timing.
Temperature & Duration
A meta-analysis conducted in 2016 reviewed nine studies on CWI and revealed that there is a “dose-response” relationship to ice baths. The review indicated that the temperature of the cold water needs to be within 11-15°C (52-59°F), and duration should be 11-15 minutes in order to achieve optimal benefits. There is very little research supporting benefits colder than 50°F, so no need to go all extremist and cause potential harm. And although the Barton Springs Polar Plunge is an Austin staple and an absolute rush, the 68-70°F water temperature is not within therapeutic range.
Timing is critical when reducing inflammation and not impeding muscle repair. Some studies have shown that using cryotherapy techniques immediately following exercise may not be as effective as active recovery. The reason why is that ice baths may inhibit the inflammatory response immediately following training which, in turn, slows down the muscle repair process. Keep in mind that other studies have shown ice baths are equally beneficial right after workouts as they are two hours later. Personally, I err on the side of conservatism and recommend any of my cryotherapy clients wait one to two hours after their workout before performing cryotherapy or hopping into an ice bath, in order to allow healthy inflammation to repair and still achieve muscle and joint relief following the workout.
Alright, so we now understand the parameters for healthy ice bathing. Let’s talk about how to make this happen at home — and how much $$ to budget!
The simplest method is to find a big trough and fill it up with water about ⅔ of the way, then gradually add ice until your thermometer reads between 52°F to 59°F. Generally, a 3-to-1 water-to-ice ratio is required. One-hundred-gallon troughs are approximately $99 online and may suit your simple needs at home in addition to purchasing upwards of four to eight bags of 20lb ice at three or four dollars a pop. So, you may be looking at $12-32 per ice bath with this method.
Some gyms have even purchased their own industrial ice machines that can store 80lbs of ice at any time and cost roughly $2.5K-3.5K. Although it may be a heftier investment, this alternative could be best for those of you cold fanatics that want to ice bath nearly every day. If you do three ice baths per week for a year, you’re still at $16-22 per ice bath with this method. This investment may also pay dividends during the Texas heat while kicking back and blending some fresh margaritas!
If you’re a DIY junkie and absolutely love building out your own gadgets and toys at home, I recommend purchasing an industrial freezer via the “Ben Greenfield Setup.” This biohacking celebrity purchased a freezer for $1.3K, filled it with water, added some hydrogen peroxide to prevent freezing, set up a grounded, 24-hour, plug-in mechanical timer so the freezer turns on for two to four hours per night, and he even grounds his water with alligator clips to achieve a prime ice-bathing haven. Although this method may seem strenuous, it may result in a totally rad setup. However, I express caution in setting up electrical equipment with water inside it as this may not be the safest method and will require the most upkeep as well.
Lastly, if you want to support local businesses and not worry about the hassle of cleaning, maintenance and purchasing ice, there are numerous cryotherapy and sauna studios in town that offer whole-body cryotherapy, cold tubs and infrared saunas. The cost at these businesses can range anywhere between $12 to $40 per session depending on how frequently you visit. Of course, the more you visit these wellness centers, the better you feel and your cost per session will decrease, so it’s a win-win for our community! Before you visit, definitely check out my last article, a Wellness FAQ on Cryotherapy so you have more knowledge of best safety practices and which cryo technology may be best for you.
At the end of the day, ice baths are righteous. There is a plethora of good clinical literature to support its efficacy not just for athletic recovery, but also for inflammation management and calming the nervous system. There’s also something to be said about challenging your mental fortitude! Either way, give it a whirl and give us a shout out (@austinfit) and tag me (@chase_performance) next time you do an ice bath and share how the frigid temps benefitted you!
Chase is an LA native and graduate from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.S. in Exercise Science (14’). He currently owns and operates US Cryotherapy Austin — the self-dubbed “Holistic Health Hub” where he passionately works to improve people’s recovery, wellness, vitality and longevity through non-invasive, natural alternatives. Chase has competed at a professional level in indoor and beach volleyball, and currently plays at a semi-professional level and coaches boys volleyball in his spare time. Chase enjoys playing his flute and saxophone at home while taking an interest in cooking nutritional, scrumptious food and sipping a nice glass of wine.