by Nicole Caron
It’s forty-two degrees in St. Petersburg, Florida. Even pink flamingo lawn ornaments are shivering. I’m wearing a ski hat, mittens and a bathing suit and hovering on the top step of our unheated pool.
The exquisite shock, first, when the water hits my ankles, then the needle-numbing creep up my skin as I sink in up to my neck. I exhale a yell.
I’ve got cold plunge fever.
I belong to a motley tribe of weirdos scattered around the globe that engages in this bizarre habit on a daily basis.
A group of bathing suit clad men and women leap off an industrial pier into Copenhagen’s South Harbor on January 2. They scramble out of the water, then jump back in. They whoop and scream, egging each other on.
A young couple zoom out a back door in bathing suits and run around a snowy backyard. The man grabs a mallet, smashes a layer of ice covering a swimming pool, and the two slide into the frigid water. They stay there, exchanging soulful gazes.
In Toronto, a man wearing tight swim trunks, a wool hat and mittens steps barefoot onto a snow-covered patio, marches to a galvanized tub full of water and ice chunks, and steps in. He folds himself in half and holds his hands above the water, then he exhales, his breaths rapid and shallow, until they deepen and slow.
I know what he’s doing. He’s breathing out the icy pain, breathing in patience and determination.
Comments on these Instagram videos range from “You’re crazy!” to “Keep It Up,” peppered with emoticons of laughing with tears to flexed biceps.
#Coldplunge is not for the faint of heart and it is not new.
Also known as cold water immersion, cold water therapy or an ice bath, it is touted as a recovery method for sore muscles following strenuous workouts. The cold reduces inflammation by constricting blood vessels – which then open to speed blood flow, easing muscle soreness. The practice is also said to increase circulation, increase metabolism, improve skin tone, and promote deeper sleep.
The big daddy benefit, decreased inflammation, drove my decision to start jumping into a near-freezing pool. Some mornings I feel I can barely move. Osteoarthritis in my right ankle, knee, hip and lumbar spine, coupled with residual pain from back surgery and a car accident, leave me stiff and slow-moving, feeling a lot older than my fifty-something years.
When I began cold-plunging, the air temperature was in the low seventies and so was our pool. I leaped in, yelped and splashed, and spent fifteen to twenty minutes running and doing stretches and strength training exercises. I got out feeling relaxed, looser.
Then an interesting thing began happening.
The pool temperature dropped from 70 to 66 to 62. Those eight degrees felt very different. I wasn’t lingering anymore.
I noticed that when I got out, I could feel the blood flow back to my extremities. It felt numbingly pleasant. One day my morning pain was completely gone. It stayed gone all day. For the first time in weeks, I didn’t take any ibuprofen.
I was hooked.
I started videoing my plunges, at the time unaware that all over Instagram people were plunging in temperatures that were down in the twenties. I was just a dilettante.
But friends and family gave me everything from “What’s wrong with you?” to “You are an inspiration!”
One morning I huffed and puffed and hollered, then checked the pool thermometer and said, “Oh it’s only sixty-two!”
“Quit being a baby!” My spouse called from behind the camera.
“Right?!” I roared and ducked underwater.
But make no mistake about sixty-two degree water. Stay in long enough and you’ll get hypothermia.
Then residual weather from northern storms blew our way, bringing near-freezing air and frost in the morning.
The pool temperature plummeted.
My first forty-two degree plunge, I didn’t even last five seconds. This was a whole new ballgame.
My little toes turned white. I dug out an old pair of ankle-high fishing waders to wear on those mornings.
I put on two bathing suit bottoms, to protect more delicate areas.
I wore a fleece hat.
I had only been going in up to my neck, and now I held my hands up out of water. When the extremities are wet, heat loss is even more rapid.
But it’s surprising how quickly the body adapts. With my head, feet and hands protected, I settled into the water up to my neck, my face to the sun, steam rising from the pool surface.
When I told my neurosomatic therapist about my cold-plunging, she said, “Oh good for you! That is absolutely the best thing you can do for your soft tissue and your joints.”
She told me she has been climbing into a daily ice bath for years, sitting in forty-degree water for up to twenty minutes at a time.
“The best thing is to be in cold water in the sun, feeling the sun on your face,” she said. “It’s magical.”
I plunged several overcast days in a row. No magic there, just bone-numbing sensations. I endured it.
But the first Saturday of the new year, something changed.
I set my timer for three minutes and got in. Forty-two degrees.
Ice needles pierced my skin. The water crested to my collar bone. I turned to face the sun.
My face was warm, the pool steamed, and I inhaled deep, long, measured breaths. I felt light-headed, almost high.
The moments drifted and I was fully immersed in these conflicting yet oddly congruent sensations. The cold pain endured but the inflammation pain was already gone.
The timer went off and I climbed out and took my towel off the chair. The air was forty-five and it was windy. Already the blood was racing back to my extremities and the rush, as I’ve grown accustomed to, was exhilarating.
I padded indoors to get warm but without my usual urgency.
I had experienced the cold plunge magic.
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