You know Wim Hof, right? Sixty-year-old Dutch bloke, impervious to freezing temperatures, swims in water cold enough to make a polar bear think twice. They call him The Ice Man.
Well, I’m basically the opposite of him. I’ll take any dip in temperature as an excuse to break out a cable knit sweater, and demand an entirely re-drawn bath if it’s gone just a little bit tepid. I’m the anti-Ice Man, I’m Hof Wim... anti-freeze, if you will. So, you can only imagine my surprise when I decided to experiment with the health benefits of taking cold showers.
There was theory involved. January means introspection, it means renewed gym membership. But anyone could try a cold shower. No extortionate fees, no reliance on Lycra, a free chance to bring things into sharp focus. At least that was the idea. Plus, a swift Google of the situation offered a host of other enticing benefits, ranging from higher energy to better hair. All I had to do was twist the shower tap as far to the left as it would go and brace myself. Five days in a row, the coldest temperature I could achieve, and for no less than one minute. The game was on.
A tried and tested method by many is grabbing a cold shower at the end of a warm one – like a bicep bolt-on to an existing workout. The problem is that warm showers are great. Who doesn’t like them? Social pariahs, serial killers... that lot most likely, but I wholeheartedly love them. I tried. Heaven knows I tried. But the truth is I just couldn’t manage it. The leap was just too great. Enduring a cold shower after beautiful warm water ruins the enjoyment of the former and makes for a half-hearted attempt at the latter. I’d fallen at the first hurdle, but resolved to return the next day going all-out frosty.
Day two and the water hit me like tiny little pins jabbing at my skin. Pins that scooped my breath away and made me do a weird little dance to avoid the shower head – y’know those pins. I made sounds no man should ever make that day, panting for breath as my body dipped into panic mode. In freezing water, your body can become paralysed through hyperventilation. It can also put strain on your heart as it frantically pumps blood to raise your core temperature. But as the shock subsided, I manage to see out the full 60 seconds, even finding a focus to calm my rapid breath towards the very end.
As for post- shower thoughts? It’s hard not to admit feeling pretty great once you’re out. My body positively tingled, I felt fresh, alert and ready to move.
Endurance athlete Hof believes that this is the ultimate form of mind control, and that everybody has a natural ability to neutralise the cold. Certainly, once I began to manage my breathing, the temperature seemed less of an issue. Hof claims that he doesn’t feel the cold. He only feels the power of being in control. “In that moment,” he says, “I am stronger than pain.”
I wasn’t quite there, yet. Pain was very much involved, but the idea of nociception, and how your mind controls your body, intrigued me. Theoretically, it meant that the feeling of pain is something we can all manage and adjust.
Dubai-based Marcus Smith is an extreme athlete, motivational speaker and the founder of the health and performance brand, InnerFight. Much like Hof, Smith bases his entire set of principles around the mind’s successful control of the body.
“When things get tough, I have a simple process where I recognise the issue but then immediately reject that it’s going to stop me,” he says. “A lot of people talk about distracting the mind, but I tend to disagree. We need to create a major amount of mental focus in that moment, and use it to push past the problem.”
So it was with renewed resolve that I embraced the cold on days three and four. The initial shock was still there, but my mind reacted a little faster each time. I don’t know if it was even real, but towards the end of the fourth shower I actually felt like the water was getting warmer. It wasn’t – my wife stuck her toe in – but it genuinely felt more comfortable.
While there are a host of claims on cold-shower benefits, the science can often feel a little woolly. And while I read pages on weight loss (bad fats burn faster to heat the body), immune boosts (white blood cell production increases) and improved circulation (blood circulates faster to maintain body temperature), it was the mental benefits I was most interested in.
Several tests claim that by exposing your body to cold temperatures you can actually help alleviate depression, with the cold activating the sympathetic nervous system and increasing the release of noradrenaline to the brain. There’s also a theory that by exposing yourself to the shock and panic of a daily freezing shower, you can gradually toughen your body’s reaction to moments of anxiety.
After breezing through my fifth and final shower, I couldn’t fault the kick it was giving to my days. Perhaps not as effective as a gym class, but a shot in the arm none the less – whether real or placebo.
Whether I’ll continue with it is open to debate. But as a once or twice weekly boost, why not? I’ll never be Wim Hof, there’s no escaping that. But while I may not yet be master of my own pain, I feel that we’re at least now on speaking terms.
I have the beast in my sights.