How I Jumped Into Cold Showers, 10 Lessons Learned, How To Get Started, Tips For Success, Overcoming The Mind Gremlins, A Challenge, And More!
WARNING: Please do try this at home.*
Cold showers give you superpowers. They make you feel like James Bond. And they can truly change your life, in both subtle and powerful ways.
I challenged myself to start taking cold showers about a year and a half ago – beginning in the dead of Winter, where the ground water up here in New England is a bit nippy. While it was unpleasant at first, the experience has done me a world of good. So, I’d like to share a little bit about it, what I’ve learned, and how you can start experimenting with this powerful tool to enhance your health, fitness, mental toughness, and quality of life.
So, why cold showers?
Well, the main reason why I started taking cold showers is because I didn’t want to. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but hear me out.
You see, I kept hearing about this guy, Wim Hof, who is known as the Iceman because he’s trained himself to endure extreme cold. While I’ve always been skeptical of some of his claims, he’s definitely on to something big. After some of my friends attended Wim’s training events with positive reports, I decided to dive in, too. I read articles, watched documentaries, and then started doing my own research on hydrotherapy and using cold as a training stimulus.
So, the seed was planted. But I wasn’t taking cold showers yet, except maybe an occasional cool shower on a hot summer day.
Then I watched the following TED Talk, and I was totally sold on the idea. Not because of the long list of health benefits I would experience, but because I knew this would let me exercise my “willpower muscle.” And that’s the main reason why I’ve kept up the habit for the last year and a half, and intend to continue for the foreseeable future.
So, why do I take cold showers? Because I don’t want to.
Simple as that.
Of course, there is a long list of benefits to be enjoyed from cold showers. For starters, they make you feel awesome. They wake you up, energize you, and increase your alertness and ability to concentrate. They also strengthen your cardiovascular and immune systems, among others. Cold showers enhance recovery, reduce inflammation, increase testosterone, and improve skin and hair health, too. But that’s just the icing on the cake. Deliberately getting uncomfortable daily – and doing what I would really rather not – has provided the best rewards.
Because let’s be honest. Nobody likes taking a cold shower (at first). But if you stick with it, big things start happening.
If you’re seriously considering cold showers, then that TED Talk is worth the eleven minutes of your time. Here’s the take-home point…
If you’re not willing or able to be the type of person that is willing to be uncomfortable for five minutes alone in the shower where the only negative outcome is you being cold for five minutes, and the only person affected by that decision is you, then how will you ever have the strength or the courage to choose to be uncomfortable in a situation where the outcomes are much much greater – and the people affected by your decision far outnumber just yourself? – Joel Runyon
He’s right. And while I could have weaseled my way out of it – making all kinds of excuses – I cut the crap and decided to go for it.
Here’s what happened.
How I Jumped Into Cold Showers
I didn’t have all my ducks in a row for this experiment, which is unlike me. But I did know I was going through with it – that I was “all in.”
My plan was simple: End my normal hot showers with a cold rinse, gradually decreasing both the water’s temperature and lengthening the time under the cold water over a few weeks time – and eventually, working up to taking a full cold shower for 30 days straight. I also made sure to show some measurable progress each and every shower (i.e. either colder and/or longer).
Note: I modeled my plan based on Wim Hof’s recommendations.
Until a couple of years ago, the closest thing I had ever done to this had been contrast showers (i.e. alternating warm water with cool water, but never cold) and swimming in some of the cold New England lakes and rivers, which don’t feel nearly as cold anymore, by the way.
Needless to say, diving right in was a bit of a shock. Not to mention that I was unprepared. But I was committed and that made all the difference.
Here are some notes from my training journal…
Day 1 – Holy Involuntary Response
Goal: 15 seconds at the coldest setting while focusing on breathing slowly.
On the first day, I took my normal hot shower, then quickly turned it to the coldest setting for the very end. Not the smartest strategy for a raw beginner, but I wanted to benchmark the experience to see how my body responded.
So, in a matter of seconds, it went from a nice hot, pleasant shower, to OH-MY-GOSH-WHAT-IS-MY-BODY-DOING! Think full blown physiological panic and every voice in my head telling me to TURN IT OFF, GET OUT, GET SAFE!!! My heart was racing, panic breathing kicked in immediately, and my head was pounding (Brain Freeze from Antarctica!). But I held on for fifteen long seconds while the horde of water drops pummeled my body like tiny hammers. “Fascinating,” I thought as I scribbled some notes in my journal.
It took about ten minutes before my body felt like it had gotten back to normal, the headache lingering a little longer. But I survived. And for the record, this was dumb. And I strongly recommend against doing this your first time. This would be like wearing shoes your whole life and then suddenly trying to go trail running over gravel, barefoot, with zero preparation. No bueno. But I needed to know.
After that traumatic experience, I measured the water temperature with one of these handy-dandy instant-read thermometers, just for kicks. The water temperature was 39°F (4° Celcius). That’ll do it.
Pro Tip: Do as I say, not as I do. Ease into cold showers over at least a couple of weeks.
This is what I should have done on day 1!
On these days, I gradually decreased the water temperature until it was uncomfortable, slowly moving it towards the cold setting (but not the coldest). I went 45-60 seconds each day – easy peasy compared to day 1. And from here on out, my goal was to gradually decrease the temperature, and increase the time under the cold water – all the while maintaining control of my breathing (my “governor” for making safe progress). So, if I started to hyperventilate, or panic, the water was too cold.
Decreased the temperature faster and went colder. Worked up to 90 seconds by day 10. Also threw in a “shock” at the coldest setting on day 8. It still felt just as bad as on day 1, but I recovered much faster. Progress.
Started noticing that the water wasn’t feeling quite as cold. Worked up to three minutes, with the last 30 seconds very close to the coldest setting (painful, but no hyperventilating). The winds are shifting. I’m starting to think, “I can do this.”
Note: Increased confidence is reason #37 for taking cold showers.
Re-introduced the “shock treatment” of going from hot to cold instantly. Each shower, I quickly turned the knob to as cold as I could maintain control of my breathing. On day 20, I managed to control my breathing for 25 seconds at the coldest setting – a huge improvement since day 1.
Days 21-30 and Beyond
Started taking all showers at the cold setting right from the beginning, and would turn to coldest temperature for the last 30-60 seconds – being sure to last longer than each previous day.
On day 30, I took a five minute cold shower with one minute at the coldest setting, during which I was able to relax and control my breathing – could have gone longer, too. Adaptation.
Two weeks later, I took a ten minute shower at the coldest setting, and the water felt warm by the end. Mission accomplished. I’m a crazy cold shower convert now, and have kept it up for the last year and a half.
10 Lessons Learned (and Reinforced) After a Year of Cold Showers
1. You’ve got to be all in, and willing to “embrace the suck.”
In other words, you need to want this. If you’re not 100% on board, you’re not going to make it. You’ll probably be miserable at times. And if you’re not ready and willing to be miserable – and keep going – then you’re not ready for cold showers. And that’s okay. Nobody is saying you have to do this.
My point being that it’s going to take some willpower. A strong desire to succeed plus an uncompromising commitment to see it through are necessities. Having a powerful reason why you’re doing it – giving your experiment purpose – is also invaluable. For me, it was the simple idea of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, testing my resolve, and seeing what I’m made of. That did the trick.
2. Be 100% committed and also very flexible.
Have a basic plan, and stick with it as best you can (but not too rigidly).
My plan was simple: take progressively colder and longer showers, showing some form of progress every day. But I didn’t follow a strict formula. On days that I really didn’t feel like taking a cold shower – when it took a little more “umph” to muster up the willpower – I gave myself permission to ease into the cold more gradually. And almost every time, I’d end up going even colder, for even longer, than I had originally planned.
I also remember one or two showers where I got dizzy or lightheaded. So, I didn’t push it those times since I prefer to remain conscious during my training sessions.
All joking aside, the path to success is rarely linear. More often than not, there are many ups and downs. The key is that you’re making progress by consistently pushing your limits.
3. It doesn’t get easier with time.
You should know going into this that even after 18+ months of disciplining myself to take cold showers, it’s still hard. And that’s the point.
I think Nik said it best:
No matter how often you do it, that little voice in the back of your head, that says: “Come on, just set it to warm, just this once!” never fully goes away. There will be times when you laugh at it and there will be times when you’ll listen closely. Some days you’ll punch the knob to the coldest setting and be excited to step in. Some days you’ll stare at the shower head for 30 seconds, shake your head, and set it to cold. But it’s always there. And that’s a good thing, because it means you get to beat fear again and again and again. Every day after your cold shower you’ll step out, and you’ll be a champion once again.
4. Visualization helps.
In the beginning, and on days when I really REALLY did not feel like taking a cold shower, I would visualize myself going through the motions. I’d picture in my mind’s eye, turning the knob to cold, feeling the sensations change, breathing deeply, and enduring. I visualized myself succeeding. And this wasn’t some long and drawn out episode where I dimmed the lights and surrounded myself with scented candles. I’d just be playing the scenario through my mind either immediately before or during my hot shower for a few moments. It helped.
5. Incremental progression works in the gym and in the shower.
Don’t go gung-ho on the first day like I did. Ease into the experience. Progressing gradually helps your body and mind to adjust. It’s smarter, and I’d argue, probably safer, too. So, don’t crank the water as cold as it will go the first day. And don’t plan on spending ten minutes in there the first day. Give yourself plenty of time to “own” each step of the experience. Set micro-goals that you can easily achieve, which will then motivate you to keep going. Little victories add up to big victories.
6. Be prepared for when you try to weasel your way out of it.
You’ll want to quit, and you need to be prepared for that eventuality. Now, I never truly wanted to throw in the towel and give up entirely. But I did want to give in almost every shower. The way I saw it, I wasn’t going to quit cold showers, but I was more than willing to take a day off (most days, actually). I’d often think, “I could skip just this one,” and even come up with very rationale reasons for doing so. And that is an early warning sign for quitting. So, I never gave myself an inch.
For example, I often shave right after a hot shower. And in my mind, this gave me a “get out of jail free” pass on those occasions. I’d think, “Well, I need to take a hot shower to open up the pores, make my face more pliable, and prepare for the shave. So, I guess I don’t get to take a cold shower today.” WRONG! I’d take my hot shower, shave, then rinse down in the cold water after my shave. Not. An. Inch.
7. When all else fails, focus on your breathing.
Your breath is what you can control. It’s your inner fire. It can help you get through even the worst cold shower. So, your primary focus should be to control your breath when your body wants to panic. Because when that cold water hits, your breathing can deteriorate rapidly. Don’t let it.
More often than not, I’d simply focus on breathing slowly and deeply into my diaphragm. Sometimes, I would box breathe.
8. If you’re having trouble, do it after your workouts (i.e. when you’re hot and sweaty).
It won’t feel as cold. It might even feel nice. Plus, it aids in recovery, reduces inflammation, and helps prevent muscle soreness. That’s a win-win-win in my book.
9. Don’t think. Just do.
Sometimes, you’ve just got to crank the knob down and take it. As soon as those mind gremlins show themselves, don’t give them the chance to linger. Just get in there and get it over with. You’ll feel better afterward.
10. There’s more to cold showers than just a long list of health benefits – a lot more.
And it’s one of those things that has to be experienced to be understood. You’ll learn a lot about yourself, your perspective will change, and you’ll start acquiring those superpowers I alluded to earlier.
How To Get Started with Cold Showers
First, come up with a darn good reason for doing it.
Once you’ve got that, whip up a simple plan to ease into it over a few weeks or months (or just use my simple plan above).
Then get started today. No excuses.
How I talked myself out of cold showers for the longest time. And how you do, too.
I spent most of my modern American life totally ignorant to the idea of cold showers. Which is ridiculous because having hot water ready and waiting at the turn of a knob in multiple places around a home is a commodity not available to most of the world. So, for a long time, I just didn’t think about the fact that bathing with cold water was “a thing,” even though it is the thing all over the world. Bubble popped.
When confronted with the reality that taking cold showers would be a really good thing, I’d talk myself out of it – saying to myself, “I can do anything I put my mind to, but that’s a really dumb idea…I don’t need that…we need more research in this area…”
In other words, all kinds of excuses rooted in fear and arrogance.
So, what changed that made me want to give this experiment a try? It was the realization that I was making excuses, giving in to weakness, and just being a wuss. Then deciding that that is not who I’m going to be.
Now, making the decision was tough. But following through with it day after day was even harder. My mind would put up the defenses every time the cold came calling.
In the beginning, I’d mostly think, “This is a terrible idea…I really don’t want to do this. Do I have to do this again…today…now?” I’d stall and come up with all kinds of ideas to prevent the inevitable.
“How about a day off…will this negatively effect my sleep…I could take a hot shower today, and then an extra long cold shower tomorrow…what if I catch a cold…I’ll just stand here in the warm water for awhile longer…”
Call it the monkey brain, lizard brain, Resistance, or just being a wuss; the internal struggle was ever-present, but I’d overcome it – some days faster than others.
Now, after cold showers became a habit, I stopped dwelling on these things so much. And when I notice those negative thoughts creeping up, I’ll either just reflexively turn on the cold water without thinking much about it. Or, if I’m a little slower that day, I’ll remind myself that I made the decision to do this. I am doing this. It’s not optional. This is who I am. Then I’ll turn the knob.
So, while the Resistance is still there, it doesn’t have as much power over me as it used to. And that’s exactly why I began this endeavor in the first place. To deliberately practice self-mastery over Resistance on a daily basis.
Cold Shower Challenge
The way I see it, if you’ve made it this far into this article, then you’ve been doing a lot of thinking about committing to this. So, just between you and me, I think the time for thinking is over. It’s time to commit.
So, your mission, if you choose to accept it…
- Get out a piece of paper and number it from 1 to 30.
- Next time you take a shower, end it with a cold rinse – as cold as you like, and for as long as you like.
- Record your results in the “Day 1” slot, and jot down any notes that come to mind.
- Do this for 30 days, decreasing the water temperature and/or increasing the time under the cold water slightly each day.
- After 30 days, decide if you’d like to keep it up.
You can do this. Trust me. The question is, will you?
Simple things can change your life. Taking cold showers is one of those things. You should try it. I think you’ll be glad you did.
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Health-First Fitness Coach
Photo credit: 1.
*After consulting with your doctor and reading the medical disclaimer, especially if you have heart conditions, which may put you at an increased risk of problems.