The Plunge - Cold Water Therapy for Recovery and Mental Toughness

Dip your toes in the water, will you back out now?

It’s below zero outside and the water you are facing as you are bundled up and reluctant to de-robe is as cold as it can get without freezing over. Zero degrees. At that temperature differential from your own body, the heat will be sapped from your extremities instantly to keep your core functioning. Breathe, motherfucker. To relax into the cold is to tell your brainstem, those primitive responses mechanisms to danger, that you’ve got everything under control. Fate is in your own hands now.


Back in your car, fully clothed with the heat blasting, you wonder if that actually happened. The extreme shock of the cold water has a strange power to pull you so far into the present moment that it can be surreal in the way those typical pests that tickle your nerve endings with unpaid bills and cleaning chores and what’s on TV tonight all vanish in an instant. 

Was somebody singing Numb by Linkin Park? Doesn’t get more fitting than that. 

Was the topic of conversation really about how across the river there is a set of cement stairs into the water that makes it even easier to do this? How can this become easier? 
But the reality is that it does. 

And this is how you got there…


The Dose Makes The Poison 

If you care to wonder why people would subject themselves to polar plunges for fun, there are several reasons for it. First, it’s incredibly anti-inflammatory, to the point that getting in the cold water soon after a workout will inhibit the muscle growth response that you were training for. However, when performed on days off from training this anti-inflammatory effect will work in your favour to promote recovery when days have passed and the muscles are still sore. With this anti-inflammatory effect comes a whole cascade of other physiological benefits including improving the health of the cardiovascular system and creating a mood-boosting dopamine jolt that might help with depression.

Van Gogh was supposedly subjected to daily ice baths as a treatment for his bipolar tendencies. The dose makes the poison though. Cold is a hormetic stressor. A little bit of the poison (cold) dosed regularly has positive effects on health, too much and well, you’re an ice cube, and not like the rapper. 

Discipline Equals Freedom

The second reason for completing cold plunges is what I think is the more valuable reason for it: a very small percentage of people are actually willing to do it, but it is a very powerful mindset challenge to overcome doing something you don’t want to do. My friend Josh thinks that only 0.3% of people are willing to overcome their hesitancy. 

I like that number. I think he might be right.

You can hear Josh and I talk more about this on The Whiteboard Project Podcast. 

As Jocko Willink infamously quotes “discipline equals freedom.” The more you can train your mind to overcome and to act without hesitation (i.e. discipline), the more complete and fulfilling your life can become. You become free because you’re no longer a slave to the addictions or bad habits that take up so much of our lives. If you’re fighting with everything you’ve got to make yourself better, you will reap the rewards.

To accomplish any one challenge is to build a little momentum that accumulates, like compound interest. 

For some, the water might be their greatest fear, for others, it’s not too bad. We’re still waiting for John, the second half of the Whiteboard Project Podcast to join us in the water. 

The Iceman Wim Hof has set out to inspire as many people as he can and to show the value of the cold, we should all listen. 


Getting In The Water (and How You Can Too)

Sunny days with little wind are great. The sun being out right now might not feel like much in the cold but it will. With no more snow on the ground, it’s even better. It might still be below zero out but the rest of the conditions make it a favourable day to get in the cold water. 

Stripping down to your underwear or bathing suit is never the easiest thing to do in the winter, but it’s about to get worse, so hang on. 

Be prepared. Towels, extra clothes that are easy to get on and off, and flip-flops for rocky areas are important. You won’t be able to feel your toes in that water and you don’t want to injure yourself. Also, bring a friend. Suffering together is somewhat more surmountable but also be there for each other for safety’s sake. 


Wade in and relentlessly keep moving forward. Breathe slowly and deeply.  Pins and needles pricking your toes will transform into Morgul-blades piercing into your thighs. You don’t need to go deeper than waist level and then it’s time to squat down. The punch in the chest is the toughest part, as your air is sucked out of your lungs like the soul-sucking Dementors from Harry Potter. Every ounce of your being will want to resist, to gasp, to flee. Keep breathing deeply. Teach your body that you’ve got everything under control. This is how you train your willpower to conquer those instincts that tell you to quit prematurely. As David Goggins says, “when you think you’re done, you’re only at 40%, and that’s when you’ve got to keep going.” And he’s right, you’ve got this. Laugh maniacally if you have to.  

When you think you’re done, you’re only at 40%, and that’s when you’ve got to keep going.
— David Goggins

The goal was to push to do two minutes. Last time we only made it about a minute, if that. Even with attempting to distract yourself a bit by talking, you look at your stopwatch and it’s only been…. 30 seconds!? Dig deeper, everything comes to an end and this isn’t even that long to suffer. 

Focus on the breathing. Your chest wants to shake and quiver, but you fight back and smooth out the motion of breathing in and out. 

After about a minute the shock starts to lighten up. The stabbing pins and needles are replaced by a comfortable numbness. This is good but the critical factor is to extend your time into uncomfortable territory but never to get to the point of full-out shivering in the water. That’s severely dangerous. 

1:45 - you’ve made it. Time to start the final challenge. Heads under.

To perform the dunk is to surrender completely to the cold water. A sort of bow and reverence to the sheer power of nature and also a bow to yourself for conquering the challenge and maybe your fears with it.

As the cold water closes on your skull like a vice, you feel fully alive and in the moment. 

Wading back up the shore is like a victory march. Nearby, folks are going for a stroll fully decked out in winter gear and you’re emerging from the icy depths like the iceman cometh. To feel the accomplishment of tackling this challenge is great and the wind and cold are inconsequential. You reach for the warm towel and dry yourself off and if you’re lucky, a bit of radiating heat from the sun will feel like a beautiful day on the beach. 

Suffering is relative.

To think you’re in Hell and to descend even further into the depths is to know that there is no limit.

As you conquer challenge after challenge you will learn that suffering is merely what your mind makes of it and that you can get through anything. As Nietzsche said, “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how."

How to Conquer the Cold

To go straight to a winter polar plunge is not a great idea. Start with a cold shower. It’s easily controllable and once you learn to enjoy it, the far greater challenge of zero degree water won’t become easier, but at least you’ll rid yourself of the hesitation to do it. 

Wim Hof kicked off 2018 with a 30-day cold shower challenge for people new to cold exposure. It’s simple. At the end of your daily shower, breathe deeply a dozen or so times and then wield the power of the tap to turn it all the way to cold. Keep breathing deeply and the goal is to go for 2 minutes. Always finish off by submerging your head. This introductory challenge will teach you to overcome the hesitation of venturing into the uncomfortable of the cold from the perfect temperature you’ve set. The cold water is also highly invigorating and there aren’t many people who won’t feel energized from performing it after the shock of the first few times. 

Find another crazy buddy to join you in this challenge. You don’t have to shower together unless you want to (with shrinkage, that’s a different kind of challenge), just hold each other accountable, and if you’re very daring, set the final goal of completing the real polar plunge at the end of the month. 

If you live somewhere too warm to have the seasonal opportunities to get into a frozen lake or river, build your own cold plunge tub with a rain barrel or used chest freezer

Congratulations. You’ve just completed a challenge that very few people are ever willing to do. With your newfound discipline, you can push forward into new, unventured territory and use your might to tackle even greater challenges. You may feel a little more unstoppable now but don’t get too complacent because there’s always someone out there pushing harder than you who will surpass you once you rest.