I’ll be exploring the experience of taking an ice bath for the first time, and what you can expect in terms of what it feels like.
Especially if you’re the type to get cold quickly, you might be wondering what everyone is raving about when it comes to cold exposure therapy: is the pain even bearable?
Well, let me tell you, as I describe my beginner experience during my first ever ice bath some years ago.
So, if you're new to the world of ice baths and want to try them out, read on to find out exactly what they feel like—even before you take the plunge.
Let's dive right in.
Taking an ice bath is becoming an increasingly popular practice in the health and fitness world.
It's a form of cold therapy that has been shown to have many benefits, including reducing inflammation, improving circulation, and aiding in muscle recovery.
Although new research has shown that the effects of cold water immersion on muscle recovery aren’t as strong as prior studies suggest, the effects on mood, motivation, and mental wellbeing are well-documented. (Source)
See also: Do Ice Baths Increase Dopamine?
To put it simply, outside of trying to maximise every bit of muscle gain and immediate muscle recovery, ice baths are very much still worth it for the other brain and body benefits.
Before we show you what ice baths feel like for the first time, let’s compare ice baths with how humans usually perceive the cold.
Common Experiences with the Cold
How we normally experience the cold is quite different from how we deal with it during Cold Water Immersion therapy.
For one, we usually wear specific clothing for colder environments.
And even the thinnest layer of clothing helps regulate your body temperature.
Photo by Kristin Vogt on Pexels.
As it gets colder, we tend to put on more warming layers: this illustrates how modern humans, like the usual office worker, live in an environment where they don’t have to rely on their body’s systems to naturally regulate body temperature.
Instead, that job goes to thermostats, jackets, windbreakers, indoor heating, air-conditioning, ice cream, and the like.
Needless to say, even a slight drop in temperature can be uncomfortable.
But what about ice baths?
What Does an Ice Bath Feel Like? Does it hurt?
Doing an ice bath for the first time was very different from my usual perception of the cold.
When you first step into an ice bath, you will likely experience the sheer biting cold, which can hurt.
The cold feels sharp on your skin, and it can be a bit jarring.
However, this initial shock is what wakes up your body and gets your blood flowing.
As you settle into the ice bath, you may start to feel the need to breathe deeply.
You might find yourself taking deep breaths, one after the other.
It's important to try to stay calm at this time.
Take deep, steady breaths, as this will help you relax and get used to the cold.
In some cases, you may feel the urge to shiver. However, this is not always the case.
Your body will react differently to the cold depending on a variety of factors, including your age, body composition, and previous experience with cold exposure.
Depending on what you want out of a cold therapy session, you could try to shiver and “fight” the cold, and this can actually help with burning calories.
This shivering activates your brown fat which burns calories in a process called “thermogenesis.” (Source)
However, if you’re like me who wants to focus on improving mental resilience and other brain benefits of cold exposure, you can get that by trying to stay calm and taking deep breaths.
Pushing through this voluntary self-imposed stress can improve your motivation and resiliency.
What Ice Baths Feel Like A Few Minutes In
After a few minutes in the ice bath or during cold exposure, you may start to feel a sensation of numbness.
This is a sign that your body is adapting to the cold.
You may also feel a sense of euphoria or a rush of energy.
This is because cold exposure can send “many electrical impulses to your brain”, and jolt your alertness and clarity. This triggers the release of endorphins, which are natural painkillers. (Source: Healthline)
This is when ice baths also start to feel really good.
See our article on ice baths increasing dopamine for a deeper look at that specific benefit of ice baths.
What My First Ice Bath Was Like
My first ice bath was at a contrast spa, where I had been in a sauna and a hot pool beforehand.
I alternated between cold water and the hot pool, before being asked to go and take the (voluntary) ice plunge at this large bathtub filled with water and a lot of ice cubes.
The contrast between the hot and cold temperatures was intense, but it was also incredibly invigorating.
I avoided delaying the inevitable by just taking the plunge in one go, instead of dipping my toes first to test the waters.
If you’re in good enough health to try ice baths, I suggest just jumping in to prevent “chickening out”, so to speak.
Because I still think jumping right in was the best choice, as I really felt the shock afterwards.
Like I described earlier, the first thing you’ll feel is the biting cold in your whole body.
You’ll feel it especially in your hands and face if you choose to dunk beneath the surface, which I did for a few seconds before sticking my neck out for the rest of the plunge.
Next, you’ll start to feel the need to breathe a lot.
It’s helpful to not hyperventilate, by taking deep breaths instead of many shallow ones.
After that, I just focused on the all-out barrage of the cold on my entire body, and then… relaxation.
It was very blissful and felt really, really good after that point when my body seemed to have equalised with the cold.
My breathing slowed down but I was still taking deep breaths that seemed to push the water aside with each deep inhale.
After about 3 minutes, I got out because of the misguided perception that I’d get hypothermic in just a few minutes.
(I later found out that it can take 30 minutes or more for most adults to start getting hypothermic in ice water, although keep safety a priority at all times, please. Source)
After all that, it actually felt colder when I got outside the tub of ice cubes. I felt great afterwards as well.
Although, note that your experience may be different from my first ice bath.
I think that having been in the sauna and hot contrast pools beforehand definitely helped my body adapt to the cold and give it an extra barrier of warmth.
However, I noticed that some people really didn’t take to the cold even if they were also in the hot parts of the contrast spa beforehand.
Your experience may differ, so let us know what your first ice bath is like!
How It's Different for Beginners
If you're new to ice baths, you may find that the experience is more intense.
Your body may not be used to the cold, and you may find it harder to relax.
It's important to start slowly and ease yourself into the cold.
You can start by taking shorter ice baths or by using a milder form of cold therapy, such as building up using cold showers.
Taking an ice bath can be a challenging but rewarding experience.
It's important to listen to your body and take it easy, especially if you're new to cold therapy.
Remember, your experience may be different depending on if you’re doing contrast therapy or not, but the benefits are worth it.
So, take the plunge and try an ice bath today!
If you're ready to take the plunge and try cold immersion therapy, our portable Ice Bath NZ is the perfect solution. It's easy to set up, requires no plumbing, and can be easily stored away when not in use. — Delivered straight from Christchurch to your doorstep NZ wide.