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Mar 30, 2024

A Line in the Sand: Cold Plunging

Celebrate Hilton Head Magazine

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Will I live longer because I’m jumping into cold water? Who knows?

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Courtney’s Opinion: Cold plunging… 13 seconds is too long

It is technically still winter, and I just jumped into my 59-degree swimming pool for you, the readers. While I could have easily argued against cold plunging from the warmth of my living room, it was my commitment to authenticity that launched a weeks-long internal debate resulting in a 44-second hemming and hawing poolside before I took the plunge. 

Let’s back up for a minute, so I can make my position clear. I am the person who takes the hottest shower I can, so hot that my skin looks like a Jersey tomato when I step out. My favorite part of my annual trip to Colorado’s slopes is the hot tub après ski. I actively seek hotels based on their soaking tub situation.

Sadly, my own tub situation is lacking significantly. In my house, the one tub – circa 1987 (with the jet buttons to prove it) – is supported by a water heater that is too small for the tub. So, I get it about halfway full and then spend my soak deciding if I submerge my upper half, which forces my knees out of the water, or do my post-run aching legs get to fully extend while my top half is totally exposed (please, for the love of all things holy, I beg of you, stop picturing this).

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are benefits of cold plunging for workout recovery and athletic performance. “Research on cold-water immersion has found evidence that it helps reduce the degree of exercise-induced muscle damage that can occur after physically challenging activities. Less damage leads to less inflammation, which in turn reduces soreness and helps restore physical performance the next day.”

OK, I get it. As a runner, rower, strength trainer who is sore daily, and limps for the first few minutes of each day, this sounds like a solution I might consider. 

But the Mayo Clinic also says, “Too-long exposure also can lead to hypothermia.” 

And let us face it. I am solidly anti-hypothermia. As my 36-year veteran firefighter/EMT pointed out, “When a car goes into a freezing lake, our first reaction is to pull the driver from the water – not to tell them to ‘Just hang on, it’s good for you.’ So, why exactly would you do this?” he asked.

For the people. I am doing it for the people, man. 

A good target for beginning plunging is three minutes submerged in 50- to 59-degree water. That was my goal. 

So, I jumped. As my body hit the water, I simultaneously felt my breath escape me. For a brief second (that felt like forever) I was convinced I would drown there, in my own backyard. But I also assumed the aforementioned firefighter/EMT would rescue me, but then I also considered how embarrassing that would be. 

Yes, this is where your brain goes when you think you are dying. 

As I scrambled to the surface and quickly to the edge of the pool sputtering, “Oh no, oh no…,” my decision was made. Cold plunging is not for me. My cold plunge lasted 13 seconds, exactly the amount of time it took me to surface, swim to the shallow end, and get out of the pool. 

And into the shower. Some like it hot. I am that someone.  

Barry’s Opinion: cold plunging…a true pro-plunger

Truth be told, I never thought I’d be on this particular side of this particular argument. 

If you know Courtney at all, you know she is an avid CrossFitter. Her social media feeds are chock full of all the bewildering workouts she undergoes (3x torso heaves, 4x plank scuttles, 5x Einstein-Rosen situps, 6x quad shimmies, 3x tricep annihilators) before the rest of us have woken up, and more power to her. 

Me, I’m more of a “sleep in and die at a reasonable age by medieval standards” kind of guy, but I respect the hustle.

So it’s odd that, for some reason, cold plunges are where she draws the line. Cold plunges are like the secret handshake for CrossFit types. You get up sometime around 2 a.m., you heave truck tires around, and then you freeze yourself solid for about 20 minutes so your body doesn’t explode. I assumed that was part of the WOD.

So how did I end up being the pro-plunge one in this editorial relationship? Honestly, I’m still not sure.

It was CrossFit types who first got me into doing cold plunges, luring me in with the siren song of a quick and easy hangover cure. I mean, sure, that’s why I started it. But that’s not what keeps me coming back to the May River at a time I’d usually be curling up on the couch after second breakfast. It really is an experience. 

It’s the fun of taking a few minutes out of your morning to really talk with people, not just chitchat. Something about holding a conversation while willing your body to breathe forces you to change your conversational strategy, and you end up talking about things that really matter, not just marking time by asking about the weather. I’ve had some of the deepest conversations I’ve had all year while trying to figure out how to make my armpits relax (something that I’m told is key to extended plunging). 

It’s the rush of knowing that you took on a challenge head on. It’s a hell of thing to immerse your body in frigid water – even if you know going into it how it’s going to feel, you never really get past your body’s instinctive neurological flurry once you hit the surface. 

When I plunge, I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone just as much as a CrossFitter does while they’re incinerating calories. I’m just doing it in a way that jives with my otherwise lazy lifestyle.

The CrossFit types will tell you it boosts your metabolism, burns brown fat, eliminates free radicals, and possibly leaves your hair shinier and more manageable. I don’t know about all that. I will tell you it wakes you up. It might sometimes wake you up for only an hour or two before you go back to sleep for the rest of the day, but otherwise you spend the day far more awake, alert, and present than you would otherwise. 

Will I live longer because I’m jumping into cold water? Who knows? All I know is that on days when I plunge, I’m living a little bit deeper. And that’s just as good as living longer. 


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