Plunging into cold water at the crack of dawn is just plunging into cold water at the crack of dawn. Just like drinking coffee with sugar and cream is just drinking coffee with sugar and cream. It doesn’t make you fit. It doesn’t make you superior. One makes you cold, the other warm. That’s it. - Brad Stulberg
I follow Brad Stulberg (aka @bradstulberg) on Instagram, where I’ve been trying to participate a bit in the circle of ultrarunners I’ve met.
Usually I think he’s pretty on the money. Here, I think he falls pretty wide of the mark.
I do a period of cold shower, full on cold water, at the end of every post workout shower. That’s not the same as plunging into an ice bath at the crack of dawn but it’s close enough that I feel I have a stable place to stand while I dispute what Stulberg is saying.
Part of what he’s saying is that doing what Internet pundits claim they do is unlikely to make you fitter, or better than other people. On that, I agree.
But there are many athletes who use cold exposure as part of their training, mostly to control inflammation. So while it’s surely true that there are Olympic athletes who start their day with coffee with cream and sugar, it’s almost surely also true that some olympic athletes start their day with cold exposure of some form, which might well include a cold plunge bath.
And even if it’s true that there are no olympic athletes who start their day with plunge into cold water, that tells you next to nothing about what you should do, because you’re probably not an olympic athlete. I’m willing to bet that there are no olympic athletes who start their day resolved to continue their efforts to reduce their body weight by 35 to 40 pounds, but that doesn’t mean much to me, because I’m 35 to 40 pounds overweight.
I started doing cold showers because there’s evidence that it helps control depression. I can tell you that while cold showers are not a cure for depression, managing depression is not about one and done cures, it’s about getting all the little things mostly facing the right direction and then maintaining consistency. And cold showers are just one more arrow in the quiver of things, like medication, diet, and running. When I get those all lined up properly, I suffer less.
That’s not some conjecture by some guy who writes self help books and cites a lot of studies. That’s me, relating my experience with actually doing something. Will it work for you? I have absolutely no clue, and neither, really, does anyone else. But the cost of trying it is that you’ll be uncomfortable for a brief time, once a day or so, while you give it a whirl. If it works, great, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work for you, ok, stop doing it.
Beyond any potential value along that axis, part of what cold showers do is build what I’ll call ‘mental resilience’. You’re all comfy in the warm shower, you crank the knob over all the way to cold, and there’s an instant when the water switches from warm to really cold. The cold water hits your body, and you gasp at the shock. There’s an almost involuntary impulse to get out of the cold. But you can steel yourself and not get out. It’s not dangerous, after all, just uncomfortable.
The first time you do this, you can last perhaps 15 seconds. But every time you do it, it’s less of a shock, easier to stick it out. Before very long, you can stay in the cold water for as long as you choose. It doesn’t get less uncomfortable. You just get better at controlling what your reaction to the discomfort is. You get better at being ok with being uncomfortable.
And this ability to be OK with being uncomfortable translates directly to other domains beyond cold showers. When you’re at mile 90 of a 100 mile ultramarathon, everything will hurt. Your eyelashes will hurt. So being able to carry on and get to the finish line at mile 100 becomes a matter of being able to carry on while you are very uncomfortable.
This is not a small thing. It’s not a negligible thing we can ignore in the calculus of what happens to you if you take cold showers regularly.
Saying that all cold showers do is make you cold, that’s bullshit. It’s bullshit in the same way saying that all a 20 mile long run does it make you tired is bullshit. That long run makes you more fit. I will wager you will not find any credible authority on exercise physiology who will disagree. And I will further wager you will not find any olympic athletes who do not train.
You will not find any coaches of olympic athletes who would argue that mental toughness and resilience are not keys to performance at the Olympic level, either.
And there’s a certain irony in Brad Stulberg, who is in fact a professional internet pundit, warning about the perils of taking the advice of internet pundits.
I’m not an internet pundit, and here’s my advice: experiment. Try things and see if they make you better. If they do, continue with them. If they don’t, move on to trying something else. What works for Some Other Person might not work for you. That’s OK. What works for you might not work for other people. That doesn’t mean you should stop doing what works for you.
Stulberg takes a swing at dinging on people who feel doing something (like cold baths) makes them superior.
I don’t care if cold showers, or running ultramarathons, or improving my health makes me superior to other people. I don’t have any control over other people, so it makes no sense for me to compare myself to them. What I care about is whether something makes me superior to what I’d be without it.
I don’t see wanting to be the best possible version of myself as a character defect.