How Long Should You Stay in an Ice Bath? (How To Maximize Your Benefits)
”What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”… Kelly Clarkson was definitely onto something when she sang those words (fabulously).
For the sake of this article, I tell myself that she was talking about ice baths.
Cold therapy is a trending new therapy that includes putting your body in…you guessed it, cold temperatures.
With modern-day water chillers, our ice baths can become so cold that time would seem to last forever, and all we would want to do is to get the hell out of the tub.
With that in mind, if we want to practice cold immersion, and wish to extract all the benefits, then we need to do it well, in the best timeframe possible.
So, how long should you stay in an ice bath?
You should stay in an ice bath anywhere between 1 to 20 minutes.
What Is The Ideal Ice Bath Duration?
General Guide: 1 to 20 minutes
The general answer is the following: A cold plunge should last anywhere between 1 to 20 minutes.
This is the perfect range for beginners to start. The idea is that as long as you can handle the cold water immersion, you should stay in an ice bath.
As you do more ice baths, your body will adapt and will start to handle longer sessions. Ice baths combined with exercise are key for optimal benefits.
Recent research suggests that there are benefits of a cold plunge if done for as long as an hour.
But for now, for my beginner friends and everybody who wishes to benefit from cold water immersion therapy, start as low as 1 minute, and stay for as long as you can handle.
One of my favorite neuroscientists and podcast hosts, Dr. Andrew Huberman, provided a protocol based on science on his website.
The ideal time can vary based on the temperature of the water and your tolerance.
You should set your water chiller to cool your water between 50-59 degrees Fahrenheit.
With that being said, regarding temperature, the specific number isn’t as relevant as your comfort level. If, as previously mentioned, the water is uncomfortable yet tolerable, then it is good for me.
This method is better because cold therapy does not work based on the temperature, but rather the reaction of your body to the cold, whatever it might be.
An ice bath aims to trigger adrenaline, raise your body temperature, and make your brain work to deal with the extreme condition your body is in.
And as we know, some people tolerate the cold more than others.
My body could trigger adrenaline at a lower temperature than yours, which is why temperature isn’t as relevant in cold therapy as a sauna, for example.
How Long Should You Stay In An Ice Bath Based On Your Goals?
Cold therapy, whether done in an ice bath, a cold shower, or a cold therapy machine, can bring lots of benefits, whatever your goals are.
Now that we determined the general time spent in cold water exposure, let us see the appropriate times depending on who you are and what your goals are.
For the Athletes: Maximizing Recovery
For us, the sweet spot often lies within 3-10 minutes post-workout.
As an athlete, your relationship with ice baths can be as critical as your conditioning program.
This time frame leverages the body’s inflammatory response to intense exertion, aiding in quicker recovery and reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which is the morning pain we feel after a performance or a workout!
Although post-workout ice baths are great for recovery, they tend to limit gains (muscle hypertrophy). I suggest cold water immersion after a workout only for recovery.
If you plan on gaining muscle, then do it before, or long after your workout!
For the Sedentary: Boosting Circulation
If you think that your exercise needs are low, you might also think ice baths aren’t for you. Think again.
A shorter duration of 1-10 minutes can stimulate circulation and offer a refreshing reboot for your body’s systems without overwhelming it.
Cold water immersion can help you deal with some muscle pains you have. In the cold, your blood vessels shrink and the blood flow slows down, which can reduce swelling and the feeling of pain.
It can also help in losing weight and burning calories. Your body goes nuts trying to heat itself to deal with the extreme cold temperature.
For the Beginners: Easing into the Ice
For Beginners, to ease into a cold bath, you could try applying ice or a cold therapy machine to sensitive areas before immersion to avoid hyperventilating.
Begin with as low as 1 minute and gradually increase your exposure. Your body needs to acclimate to the shock of the cold, and it’s crucial to listen to it closely during your initial dips.
Why Would You Do Cold Therapy?
For the newcomers wondering why the hell would someone put themselves in such an uncomfortable position, the answer is the same as that of weight lifting, or any sport:
Your body greatly benefits from these rough conditions.
The reasons you would do cold therapy are:
Faster Reduction of Body Temperature.
Alleviation of Muscle Soreness.
Improved Mood and Mental State.
Enhanced Sleep Quality.
Release of Dopamine.
Increased Energy Levels and Immune System Boost.
Potential in Weight Management and Diabetes Prevention.
The Benefits of Cold Water Therapy
1. Faster Reduction of Body Temperature:
Ice baths can lower body temperature much quicker than resting in a cool environment, which is crucial for rapid recovery after intense physical activity.
2. Alleviation of Muscle Soreness:
They are popular in sports for reducing muscle pain and relieving soreness after high-intensity exercise. This is particularly beneficial for athletes who need quick recovery to maintain their training schedules.
3. Improved Mood and Mental State:
A study from 2023 found that a five-minute cold-water bath can positively affect mood, leading to less distress, reduced nervousness, and increased alertness.
4. Enhanced Sleep Quality:
Ice baths have been associated with better sleep quality in athletes. Good sleep is essential for physical recovery and cognitive function.
5. Release of Dopamine:
Cold exposure from ice baths can trigger the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and contentment, which can contribute to a better mood and overall well-being.
6. Increased Energy Levels and Immune System Boost:
Cold exposure has scientifically validated health benefits, such as increasing energy levels and boosting the immune system, making individuals more resilient to cold temperatures and other stressors.
7. Potential in Weight Management and Diabetes Prevention:
There’s also evidence suggesting that ice baths might help in burning body fat and protecting against insulin resistance, which is a precursor to diabetes.
It is also reported that the quickest way to burn fat is by going through an ice bath session.
However, it is important to approach ice baths with caution, as individual responses to cold exposure can vary, and there are risks associated with extreme temperatures.
Consulting with a healthcare professional before starting any new recovery regimen is advisable.
Some Dangers of Freezing Water
Watch out for the risks of cold water. These dangers occur mostly if the water is too cold for you to handle, or if you have any underlying medical condition.
These are dangerous responses from your body that can occur:
Hypothermia: When your body can’t produce as much heat as it is losing. Hypothermia is dangerous because the too low temperature can lead to heart and respiratory failure.
Hyperventilation: Combining hyperventilation techniques with cold water immersion can lead to a dangerous drop in carbon dioxide levels, potentially causing a blackout underwater.
Cardiac Arrest: In some extreme cases, the shock of the freezing water temperature can lead to cardiac arrest.
Please be careful when indulging in cold therapy. Proceed with care and go for a temperature you are sure your body can handle.
If at any time you aren’t sure, ask your doctor or a medical expert.
Ice Bath Tips
If you are reading this article, chances are you are a beginner trying to indulge in the cold therapy world. I congratulate you on making a good decision for yourself.
Here are some ice bath tips for you:
1. Time spent in the cold plunge
As we saw in this article, your time should be between 1 to 20 minutes.
2. The best way to practice cold plunge
Getting a water chiller is amazing if you live in a hot area, it will save money and hasstle of buying ice packs every day. If you happen to live in a cold country, then put your tub outside and the temperature will cool the water naturally.
Or, you can do it like Finnish people do, and go to a cold lake.
Ideally, you want to immerse yourself up to your neck. To make it more challenging, you can move while in the ice bath to feel colder.
If you don’t have a barrel or a bath, you can substitute with a cold shower, or even invest in a cold therapy machine that mimics the conditions of an ice bath.
4. Master your breathing
The best way to deal with the cold shock is with breathing exercises that calm your mind. After all, the adrenaline comes from your brain.
Check out this article on great breathing exercises for you to deal with the cold.
5. Always take an ice bath earlier in the day.
Read this article if you’re unsure about when to jump in the cold bath:
With cold, your body tends to heat itself to deal with the loss of temperature.
Heating the body usually means waking up, thus it might affect your sleep. For better sleep, try a sauna later in the day.
6. You can mix cold therapy with hot therapy (contrast therapy).
Try 10-15 minutes in sauna, then 3 minutes in an ice bath, and back to the sauna for 10-15 minutes.
Repeat this cycle 3-4 times, and always end on cold therapy to make sure the inflammation does not kick in.
And there you have it – a dive into the chilly waters of ice bath wisdom!
While the thought of submerging into an icy tub may scare you, the potential benefits can be quite worth it.
Just remember, better safe than sorry. 1 minute of ice bath is better than no minute at all…
So, stay cool, listen to your body, and maybe keep a warm towel handy.
Until next time, stay frosty and fabulous!