From The Wim Hof Method To Nordic Bathing: Everything You Need To Know About Cold Therapy

Emma Hodgson   |   03-06-2024

The healing powers of ice have been used across different cultures for thousands of years, with evidence of ancient civilisations harnessing the power of extreme cold for its medicinal properties.

Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, for example, are known to have all used cold therapy for healing purposes. Interestingly, among the advocates was Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician often referred to as the “father of medicine,” who advised the use of cold water and snow for treating several injuries and illnesses. Meanwhile in Eastern medicine, – particularly in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda, the ancient healing system of India – cold therapy has been used for centuries to treat a wide range of ailments, from inflammation to some types of pain and fever.

Perhaps one of the more widely known forms of cold water therapy comes from Scandinavian and northern countries, such as Sweden, Norway and Finland, where cold water Nordic bathing has been a longstanding tradition. Saunas, followed by plunges into icy lakes or rivers, are an integral part of the culture in these countries. This practice, known as “avantouinti” in Finland, is believed to have originated centuries ago and is cherished for its invigorating and health-promoting effects. You may have seen winter swimming across TikTok and Instagram too, the trend known as “polar bear plunging,” is actually a tradition in the region where individuals swim in icy waters, typically during the winter season. In Scandinavian countries, winter swimming clubs and events are common, attracting participants who embrace the challenge and camaraderie of swimming in cold conditions. Winter swimming is believed to have health benefits such as strengthening the cardiovascular system, improving circulation, and enhancing overall well-being.

The Wim Hof Method

Further south, in 2011 scientists at Radboud University started to study the anatomy of Dutch athlete Wim Hof. Through their observations of his use of cold water therapy, they discovered that he was able to voluntarily influence his autonomic nervous system. This was a revolutionary moment for the sporting and health community as before this study, as it was something thought to be completely impossible for human beings to achieve. Following the discovery, the Wim Hof Method” as it has come to be known, has been exported worldwide, with certified instructors now offering courses in more than 40 countries. The Wim Hof Method includes specific breathing techniques, often referred to as “power breathing” or “controlled hyperventilation.” These breathing exercises are designed to increase oxygen intake, alkalise the blood, and reduce the levels of carbon dioxide. This can result in improved focus, reduced stress, and increased energy levels. Alongside cold exposure and breathing exercises, the method incorporates elements of meditation and mindfulness practices. By focusing on the breath and cultivating a state of present-moment awareness, practitioners aim to enhance their mental clarity, reduce anxiety, and improve overall emotional well-being. Natasha Rudatsenko, founder of Health Nag explains, The Wim Hof Method combines cold exposure, breathing techniques, and mindset practices to promote physical and mental well-being. Most people feel an incredible boost in endorphins right away and I love the fact that he encourages you to practise meditative breathwork prior to the immersion too. By combing the two practices, the benefits are truly optimised and have a calming effect on the mind. Some studies have also shown promising results regarding the method’s effects on the autonomic nervous system and immune responses.”

The expansion of ice therapies 

Wim Hof, however, by no means created cold therapy within modern sports and wellness communities. Indeed, three-time Olympian, European gold medalist and Founder of ROAR Fitness Dubai, Sarah Lindsay explains that as part of her team’s early training, as early as the turn of the new Millennium they were using ice baths. Lindsay explains: “ We were using contrast baths daily from 2002. We had hot baths and ice baths in our team changing room and used to do several minutes in each and rotate 4 or 5 times. My sport of speed skating was working with very high levels of lactic acid due to the intensity and distances but also the 90-degree ischemic position we skate in. This limits blood flow and oxygen to the muscle, resulting in high levels of tissue damage. We train at least two, sometimes three times per day so we needed all the help we could get with regards to recovery.” However, the sports expert also notes the limitations of the therapy if done alone. Ice therapy in isolation, I believe can be counterproductive to training progress as you are potentially limiting physiological adaptations. If you are injured or need to recover between race days then I think this is where ice therapy for athletic performance is more relevant.”

Cold therapy day-to-day 

Through the mass expansion of cold therapy, a plethora of treatments are now available, with fitness influencers such as Janine Jahnke (@JolieJanine) sharing how-to videos for building your own at-home ice bath for a fraction of the traditional cost. However, rather than using cold therapy in isolation, Lindsay explains that it can offer benefits within a wider health practice. You can easily combine good ‘biohacking’ type practices [with cold therapy.]” Discussing her daily routine, the Olympian explains: My ice bath faces the sun which without doubt makes it easier to enjoy! I lie in the bath with the sun on my face soaking up that vitamin D, listening to calming music. When I get out I have a mushroom and collagen coffee ready which I take onto the grass for a spot of grounding/earthing. I only do 15 minutes but I use this time to meditate. Even if you just take the time to talk positively to yourself or practice a bit of gratitude you will feel more ready to take on the day. Don’t forget to smile! It’s impossible not to feel a little happier when you physically smile.” 

Before attempting any cold therapy, speak to a medical professional.