A High Intensity Approach to Cold Weather Training

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It has been a while since I last posted on Cold Weather Training. For those new to the site, I began experimenting with cold temperature exposure back in 2008 as way to “toughen up” after living in the perfect temperatures of San Diego for seven years. What I learned was that not only does cold temperature exposure increase your personal comfort zone, but it has many health benefits including fat loss and a stronger immune system.

I thought I had nothing new to add to this discussion until about a month ago. While studying the High Intensity Training approach to weight lifting, I wondered if those concepts could be applied to cold temperature exposure. HIT workouts are extremely intense, very brief and highly effective. The goal is to trigger certain physiological and hormonal responses and then allow the body to respond. I love Dr. Doug McGuff’s analogy of hitting an elevator button. Once the button is pressed, pressing it more won’t make the elevator arrive faster.

When I approached cold weather exposure, I gradually increased the duration I spent outdoors as the temperatures were falling. I went from requiring a jacket at 65 degrees to spending hours outdoors in the 30s with just a short sleeve shirt. It took several months, lots of planning and raw grit to get the benefits. My experiment was interesting to others, but not inspiring or empowering. It also violated my Minimal Effort Approach philosophy.

Is there another way?

cold shower

Photo by espensorvik

What if one could do a High Intensity approach to cold temperature exposure that achieves the same benefits in far less time? This is all theory and self experimentation. I have no clue if this will work, but I’m thinking it might. After taking two months off from cold weather training, I started this method about a month ago. I’m getting rapid adaptations. It could be my prior training or it could be the new method. I want to find out.

Welcome to version 1 of High Intensity Cold Weather Training. Here is how it works.

Cold Water Exposure

At the end of your daily shower, turn the water to as friggin cold as you can handle without having a heart attack. Do deep slow breathing and relax. Aim the cold water directly between your neck and shoulder blades. Hold this for 30 seconds. End the shower. That is it. If you want you can do a quick rinse on your legs, but that is optional.

Cold Ambient Temperature Exposure

I don’t know if cold water alone will build temperature resiliency. For this you will need to go outside when it is chilly. Wear one less layer than you normally would. Go for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, many people will discover they have already started adapting to the colder temperatures. Most people baby their metabolism. Force it to work for you! After five minutes, you can put your jacket back on. Do this repeatedly and you’ll soon discover the need to always grab a jacket will disappear.

This post was written as we head into summer. This means take advantage of early mornings and late evenings.

Feedback

I’d love to get feedback from others if they try High Intensity Cold Weather Training. I’m already well adapted to both cold water and cold ambient temperatures. For me this method is about maintaining my temperature resiliency. I have no desire to swim a mile in icy water. I also suspect that extreme exposure to cold temperatures could have the opposite effect on fat loss, as the body would respond to the chronic temperature stress by increasing body fat.

The three things to look for are:

  1. Increased temperature comfort zone. You should begin to feel more comfortable with lower temperatures.
  2. Fat loss. I covered this in the post The Media Discovers Brown Fat.
  3. More energetic. Nothing like a blast of coldness to jump start your day!

Are you ready to try High Intensity Cold Weather Training?

18 thoughts on “A High Intensity Approach to Cold Weather Training

  1. In principle I like this idea – except that I often got seriously ill when not wearing a jacket outside for whichever (often alcohol-related) reason. The counterargument of course being that resistance should be built up gradually…

  2. Geoff

    Grew up in New England and was very comfortable in cold weather with minimal clothing. Relatively speaking, of course, when it’s below zero with a wind “minimal” takes on a different meaning. Eventually I moved to S. Florida and enjoyed the tropics but got hammered by the heat and bright sunlight, though after a time I tolerated it better and better. After a dozen years in the (sub) tropics, I moved to Virginia and found that my cold weather resistance from growing up Yankee didn’t survive my time in Florida. I’ve been working at re-establishing some cold weather resistance as well as maintain the heat resistance I built up in Miami. Perhaps the key is just spending lots of time outside all the year round in minimal clothing. A “volume” approach to building tolerance and not a “HIT” approach, for sure. All things considered, though, I think I’d prefer to just hang out or hike outdoors than endure an icy shower.

  3. @Geoff – I did a similar journey. Ohio –> Florida –> Virginia -> San Diego –> Seattle. The volume approach definitely works. It would be interesting to learn if a HIT approach could get equal results. I hope one of my readers gives it a try. 🙂

  4. Brad

    I’ve commented before here on cold showers – Great stuff to push out of the comfort zone.

    I’ve been practicing CSCF (Cold Start, Cold Finish) showers for about 18 months. Simple to do: 1. Get into the shower with the water off. 2. Turn on the water. I usually have to brace for the start. After about 10 seconds the water starts to warm up and I can relax. It sure wakes you up!

    When it comes time to finish I do as you said: turn it down to as cold as it goes. I usually do it with the water spraying on my head and then switch to my face. It has a calming effect and slows the heart rate. (Free divers use the cold water face immersion technique to prep for dives.) Once I’ve
    cooled my face I can stand under the cold water as long as I want.

    Next on my cold training: CWSTF: Cold Water Start To Finish

  5. GWhitney

    That all makes a lot of sense. I must admit to being a bit of a wimp about cold water. Not surprisingly, the area around my heart is the most sensitive.

    I’ve been doing some experiments with standing for 10-20 minutes up to my waist in a relatively cold swimming pool (listening to podcasts to distract me from the pain). The main aim is to reduce inflamation, but I think it also helps burn brown adipose tissue. I only do this about once every 6 weeks – if I weren’t such a wimp I probably should do it a couple of times a week…

  6. I’ve done cold start to finish. It is freaking extreme. I’m wondering if it is too much of a stessor, much like high volume weight training. Is it needed to get the same benefit?

    My other concern is the potential negative effects of chronic cold water exposure. Eskimos – although lean by any comparison – hold extra fat in their face to protect against the cold winds. It is probably genetic, but then I think about how the open water distance swimmers tend to carry extra fat. Is it that the sport caused the body to adapt to a colder environment or was the athlete with that extra fat drawn into the sport, much like very tall people are drawn into basketball? Again, I don’t know.

    Since I don’t know and I’m already lean, I decided to come up with this High Intensity approach as a hedge. The experimentations continue!

  7. Brad

    I usually do CWSTF after spending 20 minutes in the sauna. I do this at least weekly as part of my hormesis training to expand the range of temperatures in which I can comfortably function. I think adding high heat conditioning will offset the tendency to deposit more fat for cold protection.

  8. GWhitney

    I think the notion of minimum effective dose is relevant here. We don’t want unintended negative consequences, obviously.

    What’s the amount of cold that shakes the body up and stimulates it to burn brown adipose tissues? That will vary from person to person and probably has some seasonal variations as well as change as we age.

    For now I think a 30 second blast of cold during my post workout shower is good enough. But there is no doubt that extended cold treatments reduce muscular inflammation. This is all covered fairly extensively in The Four Hour Body – which I know MAS knows.

  9. Barry Bliss

    I once worked and lived at a campground and one winter i decided I would not use a heater in my trailer.
    That winter it went down to zero degrees farenheit at one point.
    I also took showers (about 2 a week) using only cold water.

    In a way, it was a pretty extreme form of cold training, but i remember talking to a co-worker who knew I was not using a heater (no one knew I was taking cold showers as well) and she said to me, “You’re the only one out of all of us that hasn’t gotten sick”.

    PS Be very careful if you are going to train/experiment in temps below freezing.
    I crossed a line a few times that winter and almost got into serious trouble.

  10. David Rapp

    Its clear that there are a lot more injuries in cold weather training. If you are going to advocate this I feel that you would be remiss not to spend a significant amount of effort discussing how to mitigate that.

  11. @David – I should have clarified that I live in Seattle where cold = 40 F and the workouts are brief (less than 15 minutes).

  12. RationalGuard

    Cold weather training is an excellent hormetic stressor that improves immune function and generally toughens up the body and mind. Many baby themselves too much these days, and it results in weakness and sickness. You catch cold when you don’t wear a jacket when it’s cold out because you babied yourself into weakness. Now you must wear a jacket unless you reclaim your body’s natural strength.

    My cold training combined with paleo eating and primal lifestyle has helped protect against all illness for over 18 months now. I trail run in the snow in shorts and t-shirt in the 20s. We’ll go shirtless once we’re warmed up; it requires a high work rate, but you stay warm for hours. When it snows, the flakes melt in an instant on contact as your body steams through the woods. At 15-20, I switch to thin running pants and mostly keep the t-shirt on. It’s extreme training, dangerous, and not for the average person, but we like that. Note that you can do a safer level of cold weather training and still achieve similar benefits. Extreme sports is an option. Some people run while others run from bulls. I’m just sharing my approach.

    I purposefully do not avoid people with colds and flus and do not wash hands to guard against germ contamination. At least so far, even with being coughed on in the face and exposed regularly, I have only had the slightest sensation for a few hours on a few occasions where I thought I might have received a virus after being exposed, yet no case has resulted in an cold or flu. Whereas I normally would have been sick a few times in the past 18 months, I propose that the improved diet and training including cold weather training has majorly improved health and resilience to where the body mounts a rapid overwhelming immune response at the first sign of infection such that the typical cold or flu doesn’t fully emerge.

  13. Rick D

    I just discovered your website and enjoy reading your blogs. I follow Dr. Doug McGuff’s exercise methodology. Being a minimalist I am an avid researcher of using short extreme methods to boost health. I have way too many other interests to spend a ton of time working out. My first exposure to thermogenics was from a french physician who wrote a book in the early 80’s about his pioneering work using cool temperatures to lose weight. He advocated cool 25 degree C showers once or twice a day and also living 2-3 degrees below your thermal neutrality point. His methods were very successful with his patients. He discovered that once the excess fat was lost, the body would be balanced and no more fat would be lost.

  14. @Rick – Interesting. My first thought was the water didn’t seem that cold, but when we do the super cold showers we tend to do them super fast, like this post suggests. Good for temperature resiliency, but maybe not ideal for fat loss. Cool water as a heat sink. This is probably less likely to send stress hormones spiking as well.

    Thanks for sharing. I will be giving it a try. I already do the less layers for air exposure.

  15. Mycroft Jones

    Rick D, do you remember the name of that French doctor? I’d like to learn more about his protocol!

  16. dan p

    hi there! just stumbled on your site and i wanted to share my experience. i always hated the midwest cold growing up and into adulthood i avoided it whenever possible. but two winters ago during the polar vortex i began to experiment with cold showers. at first it was just a few seconds interspersed between long, hot showers. eventually i got up to a few minutes and after reading a blog by a dude who challenged others to do 30 days 10 minutes cold shower start to finish, i began to work toward that goal, which i eventually accomplished much to my surprise.

    a few insights:

    i had to work my way slowly up to ten minutes, mostly by 30 to 45 second leaps every few days off the plateau i had established. if i tried to do more, i would inevitably get sick. if i was shivering i had gone too long. the devil is in the dosage.

    i watched how my emotional state evolved to deal with this most challenging challenge. at first i was angry and defiant, jump up and down, cussing at the showerhead and yelling. eventually i moved on to distraction by thinking and analyzing and all that. finally i was able to remove my emotional response to the cold and this, this one insight for me, was profound. because i have been trying to apply it to all areas of my life. it is not the cold but the response to the cold which i needed to work on. i knew rationally that what i was doing was not dangerous and yet, until i could control y emotions i could not proceed. eventually i began to envision that i was, like a fire spinner, playing with the cold, dancing with it…

    my tolerance for the cold has increased and though when i go out biking in 15 degree weather i still always hear that little voice of fear telling me not to, i am comfortable and familiar with it and push on.

    know your limits, take it slow and you will be just fine

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