How to Conquer Your Fear of the Cold: Step-by-Step Guide to Cold Exposure

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” — Albert Camus

A few weeks ago we found ourselves in Chicago, which is as north as the Pole for a couple of South Texas natives. However, North or not, when we travel we tend to travel our own way.

For example, voluntarily spending the night on the airport floor.

airport floor

Or climbing Pike’s Peak after being at sea level only 4 hours prior.

pikes peak

And rafting the Royal Gorge while altitude-sick from the day prior.

P1100226 P1100229

And we heavily debated swimming with the sharks off the Florida coast, but we decided we liked ourselves better not as shark bait.

lake

Bottom line: we’re always looking for an adventure.

So when we arrived in Chicago, we decided to treat the Windy City no differently. The one thing we knew we had to do, which we were advised very firmly and very often against, was swim in Lake Michigan.

This activity was ill-advised because the water temperature was only 42 degrees, but hey the sun was shining, and we were assured no sharks were present!

As we started to dress in our wetsuits, we began noticing the looks the locals were giving us: a distant, cockeyed stare, others would point while whispering to a friend, while some just shook their heads.

Despite the lack of local support, we entered the water with the other tourists, who were hiking up their jeans to only place their feet in the water, all for the sake of an Instagram post. #LakeMichigan #IDidIt.

15 minutes and roughly 800m later, we were back on shore with slower moving muscles, but our egos and pride were still intact. We had actually done it! Against the advice of our nay-sayers and probably our better judgment.

michigan

However, this was not just a whimsical decision made by two young brutes who wanted to prove themselves. See we’ve been experimenting with cold-exposure for almost a year now and have gradually built up a tolerance that would allow us to complete such a task. In the following pages, I’m going to unfold for you exactly how we did it and how you can too.

There are other great cold-exposure outlines available, and I’ll gladly point you to those that I find trustworthy, but this is simply to show you the rules we follow.

*Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and this is not a prescription. If you follow these protocols and procedures, you do so at your own risk. Neither of us nor Too Fit is liable for any injury or discomfort you may experience.


Week 1 (Cold Sink)

Goal: Decrease shock factor

How:

  • Fill the sink with water and add a ¼ lb of ice.
  • The temperature should be that of a cold drink.
  • Accumulate 1 minute with your face submerged

Notes: The exact temperature is not as important here, as long as it’s cold to the touch. It should be cold enough that by the time you’re finished your face is a little red and numb to the touch.  Accumulate 1 minute by submerging your face into the sink and counting. Aim for at least 15-second intervals.

Weeks 2-3 (Cold Shower)

Goal: Increase tolerance and become comfortable in the cold

How:

  • Have your shower get as cold as it can, or as cold as you can reasonably tolerate
  • Start at the feet and legs and slowly work your way up. Take your time.
  • Get to where you are fully submerged in the spray of your shower
  • Start with as little as 15 seconds under the water
  • By the end of week 3:
    • You should be able to stay under for at least 5 minutes
    • Start fully submerged (head first) under the shower

Notes: You can end your shower with warm water initially, but never start with a hot shower. We want to build and strengthen the musculature surrounding your blood vessels, and they need the cold stimulus first.

Weeks 4-5 (Ice Bath Integration)

Goal: Strengthen blood vessel musculature and further decrease shock upon cold contact

How:

  • Continue with cold showers, working up to 10 minutes under the cold water
  • 1-2 times per week, opt your cold shower for an ice bath
  • Fill your tub with cold water and add ice until you reach 45-60 degrees Fahrenheit (start on the higher end of this spectrum)
  • Can start with just 5 minutes of lower limbs submerged and then alternate
  • By the end of week 5:
    • Should be able to withstand being fully submerged for 10 minutes (minus your head)

Weeks 6 (Real World Experience)

Goal: Increase confidence in cold by performing in cold

How:

  • Swim at least 800m in a body of water that is at least “chilly” at first entry
  • This does not have to be ice bath cold, just enough that you have goosebumps when you’re out of the water
  • Allow your body to adjust before swimming
    • Perform a proper 5 minute warm up
    • Then start by splashing your face with water to decrease shock
    • Wade in the water up to your sternum for at least 3 minutes while your body acclimates
  • Start Swimming!

Note: I know many may not have access to a colder body of water, especially as summer approaches. If you live up north, most bodies of water or pools should be approaching a proper temperature. If it’s still frigid, say 42 degrees, a wetsuit is appropriate. If you cannot find anything, stick with the cold showers and ice baths once per week and wait, your time will come.

Miscellaneous Tips

  • Before partaking in the cold shower, you can wrap ice/cold packs around your waist, backside, and neck and shoulders. These are the most sensitive areas, and you can gradually decrease the shock you feel from the cold by doing so. Start with 5 minutes per day and work to no more than 15.
  • If the cold shower is too much at first, shower for only a short time and then air dry. Try this with the towel right next to you for an increased mental exercise.
  • Perform either box breathing or the Wim Hof breathing technique before breaching the cold water and your body will respond more efficiently.

Lastly, embrace the cold my friends! Use it as a tool to forge you into the person you want to become. As Wim Hof says, “the cold is a merciless but righteous teacher.”

And if that’s not enough, remember the wise words of Elsa from Frozen:

“The cold never bothered me anyway.”

Questions and comments are welcome below.