Scroll through social media and you will find video after video of people diving into stunning alpine lakes. While taking a dip after a hot hike to cool down isn’t a new concept, the cold plunge wellness trend has inspired hikers to not only take a dip, but to stay in the water for up to several minutes.
Photo credit: Hayley Toone
People pay for a similar experience because of the health benefits. Spas like the Kananaskis Nordic Spa or Scandinave Spa put clients through a cycle of hot-cold-relax on purpose. This Finnish practice is said to relieve stress, improve blood circulation and sleep, and activate the lymphatic system to help detoxification, in addition to promoting the release of endorphins.
But if you’re out of the spa and in the backcountry with a hike back to civilization, is it a good idea? We spoke with Andy Reed, aka @CanmoreMD, a Canmore-based sport physician and running coach who has a resume of ultrarunning in addition to his work as an MD.
RR: The hot-cold health protocol is very popular right now but are there any health and safety concerns of changing your body temperature so drastically? Particularly when finishing a hike in the heat and then jumping into an alpine lake?
AR: You are absolutely right! Social media is full of people trying to mimic Wim Hof and his lengthy ice baths and fantastic pictures of alpine lake plunges mid-hike. [It] may seem compelling to copy these apparent feats of physical and psychological strength, [but] there are some real inherent risks.
The main risk of a cold-water plunge is what we call the Cold Shock Response. Sudden cooling causes a constellation of physiological effects, including rapid heart rates, peripheral vasoconstriction where the blood supply to our skin and digits suddenly clamps down . . . hyperventilation (rapid breathing such as in a panic attack), gasping, which obviously has implications if you are completely submerged under water, as well as a sudden elevation in blood pressure and lung pressures. If cooling is prolonged, then there is a real risk of hypothermia. If you are out in the wilderness, these things can obviously cause serious problems.
The good news is that repeated cold exposure seems to habituate a lot of these responses, so in effect, you do get used to these cold plunges and the effects on your body do appear to moderate in time. If you are healthy, with no pre-existing cardiovascular problems such a coronary artery disease, arrhythmias or hypertension, the risks are low, but in general I would advise that any plunges are short, and of course if the weather is inclement then I would completely avoid these dips, especially if it’s going to be difficult to get warmed up again.
RR: Should there be a time limit when taking a post-hike dip?
AR: I think that plunges should be limited initially to no more than 30 seconds, and as habituation occurs, these could be extended to no more than a minute or two, but of course, the colder the water, the larger the magnitude of risk, so some common sense is needed.
RR: Anything else you think explore readers should know?
AR: [You] need to look at the bigger picture. Recently it has been shown that [while] it may feel good, cooling our limbs post-workout may in fact blunt a lot of the adaptive long-term responses that take place in response to exercise.
Post-exercise, a whole cascade of inflammatory responses occur, including mild swelling in our tissues, increases in blood flow and other hormonal adaptive effects. The purpose of these effects is to help our tissues to repair themselves, and ultimately become stronger. Shutting all of that down may not be in your best interests.
The flip side of this is that soreness, swelling and stiffness may be improved, and subjectively cold immersion seems to promote more rapid recovery in the short term. If you are involved in a multi-day event, or if repeated bouts of intense exertion are needed throughout the day, then short-term recovery may be enhanced, though long-term adaptations are likely blunted. As with most things, context is important!
Is It Pseudo-Science, or Are There Real Benefits to an Alpine Dip?
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Kelli King, a PhD candidate of the University of Ottawa’s School of Human Kinetics, said, “we’re at the very beginning of understanding how cold exposure affects humans in general,” and performance benefits “[are] still a little bit up for debate.”
King said, “The most notable benefit would be relating to inflammation.”
This would explain why it feels so good after a long, uphill climb to take a cool dip. Fighting inflammation will prevent some soreness.
Photo credit: Rachel Richards
According to a recent study for Sports Med-Open, the best time to cool down post-workout is during the early recovery phase, less than an hour post-exercise (or post-hike). The study found cold water immersion can improve fatigue resistance and possibly enhance the recovery of maximal strength following exercise.
If you’re feeling brave, there are some benefits to an alpine dip. However, limiting your cold exposure to a few seconds or minutes is the safest route.
Cold Plunge Safety Tips
I remember taking a dip after a fall hike in Rowe Lake (elevation 575 metres). There was a drop off and I went from wading to swimming right away and my body immediately seized up from the cold. Worried I would sink, I hightailed it out of there. Just those few seconds resulted in numbing limbs. Since then, I always stay in shallow water for additional safety.
If you are planning to take an icy dip, follow a few basic safety tips:
- Go with a buddy
- Stay in shallow water
- Keep it short
- Dry off completely afterwards
Photo credit: Rachel Richards
So, is cold plunging safe while hiking? The answer is: it depends. There are so many variables and so few studies that there isn’t a definitive answer. It comes down to your personal physiology, duration, weather and other factors. Only you can decide if it’s something you want to try. Ask your doctor before attempting a cold plunge in the Great Outdoors.