I know how to handle the cold: I put my long underwear on in October and don’t take them off until April. I am a hard core proponent of the saying: ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.’ My Outdoor Survival Canada parka is my most prized possession. Yet during the cold snap this September I realized I might have a problem. There I was sitting in my living room holding my five month old daughter and in an attempt to keep my sleep-deprived brain awake I began to mentally take stock of the clothing I was wearing. The list was not flattering: merino wool underwear (top and bottom), fleece pants, wool sweater, down vest, wool socks and 550-fill-power duck down booties. All I had to do was throw on my parka and I was ready for an Arctic expedition. At that moment I knew that the clothes I would need to get me through the next five months of winter did not exist.
The next day I fortuitously stumbled across a podcast interview, on Wild Ideas Worth Living (highly recommend it by the way), with Scott Carney describing his experience following the teachings of Wim Hof aka “the Ice Man”. Even more compelling was the cutting edge research showing humans can not just withstand cold, but thrive in it.
Wim Hof is famous for his cold weather feats and holds the record for the longest ice bath at a mind-numbing 1 hour 52 minutes. Despite this feat Wim Hof is not the kind of person that I would normally take very seriously. He is an alternative health guru and teaches a combination of breathing exercises, meditation and cold therapy. His website has a long list of ways your life will improve if you follow his method; everything from heightened focus and determination to reduced stress levels and a stronger immune system. Scott Carney is different. He is a journalist and a skeptic. He originally met with Wim Hof to prove that he was a fraud, but instead he found himself embracing a new lifestyle.
If you’re at all like me you have been soaking in as much of the beautiful fall weather as possible; trying to fill up the bank before the cold of winter forces you to limit your outdoor time. When I heard Scott Carney talk about climbing a snowy mountain in shorts I didn’t think, ‘wow, this guy is crazy’ (maybe I should have) instead I saw a glimmer of hope for all of us in the north. What if we could train our bodies to better handle the cold and improve our health in the process?
I decided that it was, at the very least, worth my time to find out. I immediately requested Scott’s book, What Doesn’t Kill Us, from the library and began my own version of environmental conditioning. I was completely engrossed. At this point it is apt to admit that I have not been following the Wim Hof method, or Scott Carney’s version of it, in anything close to its pure form. I have a young daughter to look after and a husband who works long hours so I need something that fits into my schedule without giving up too much of my precious sleep time. Scott discusses several options for cold conditioning in his book. I identified three categories that seemed promising and tried out each one.
Passive Conditioning: This type of conditioning is as simple as putting yourself in a cold environment. It seems like a perfect fit for us Manitobans. Since we are at the start of our gradual decent into bitter cold I thought, this will be easy, I just have to go outside everyday for fifteen minutes and the decreasing temperature will slowly acclimatize my body. Here’s the thing though, my daughter is not doing cold conditioning and, surprise surprise, she is not a fan of being bundled up and then just hanging out outside with me and not moving at all. I did manage to try this a couple times during her morning nap, but it meant giving up certain creature comforts, such as showering regularly, that I’m not quite ready to part with. I do still think this would be a great option, especially if you are the kind of person who likes to meditate. I found it was an excellent opportunity to clear my mind and be in the moment.
Active Conditioning: As the name implies active conditioning is passive conditioning with some movement thrown in. If you are already doing your workouts outdoors this could be the answer to your cold conditioning needs. I go for a thirty minute run three times a week so the only adjustment I had to make was swapping out my running tights and sweater for shorts and a sports bra; regardless of what weather temperamental mother nature decided to throw our way. Note: if you choose this option be ready for some awkward social interactions. Apparently if you go out in a snow storm in this outfit helpful people will assume that you are unable to properly gauge the outdoor temperature and feel obligated to advise you of the current weather.
Cold Water: I assumed that this would be the worst option and put my lifetime of procrastinating skills to the task in avoiding it. Unfortunately in addition to being a top-notch procrastinator I am also prideful to the extreme. At our family vacation at the lake, when the ambient temperature was 2 deg, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of having convinced my husband to keep a roaring fire going for several hours on the pretense that it would be required to warm me up when I returned inside from my delightful morning dip. I was stuck, after confirming with my ever-patient husband that this would, definitely not kill me I took the plunge. It felt amazing. For those of you who know me and are assuming that this is sarcasm let me assure you that it is not. To be clear the first few seconds in the water were absolutely miserable, but it quickly dropped off to being just fine. The real magic came later, when I was warming by the fire. My entire body and mind felt awake as though I had just finished a pot of coffee, but without the pesky shakes. Even better it stayed that way for the next few hours. If I had access to an almost-frozen lake I would do this every day. I did make an additional polar dip attempt, but apparently the lake at Bird’s Hill Park is emptied in the winter. (Side note: is this one of those things that everyone knew but me?) Out of desperation I then did something that I thought I would never do. I love hot showers, they are my favourite every day (and by every day I mean three times a week) luxury. But I had to reluctantly admit that aside from the huge endeavor of creating an ice bath cold showers were my only option for cold water conditioning. It felt amazing. To be clear the first few seconds in the water were absolutely miserable, but it quickly dropped off to being just fine. I usually come out of my shower feeling lethargic and craving caffeine; after a minute of cold water I now feel ready to tackle the day without the chemicals.
Each of these options comes with a bonus mental challenge. Regardless of which type of training I am doing the first few moments are very similar. When I am first exposed to the cold my body starts sending signals that something is wrong. My instincts try to convince me that I should go inside, turn on the hot water, quit. I’ve found that it is best to fight these instincts in the same way that I fight all kinds of panic: breathe. I take one deep breath in, close my eyes, and slowly exhale. I assess the signals coming from my body individually and realize that I am not experiencing real pain, but rather discomfort. My nerve endings are humming with what I now mentally re-label as a refreshing tingling caused by the cold. Once I have calmed my initial panic response to the cold I turn to enjoying the moment. Some days are definitely easier than others, but normally I find that my mind acclimatizes to the cold relatively quickly and I am still able to find pleasure in my run or shower.
By this point I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seat wondering if cold weather conditioning works. My completely subjective opinion after a month of cold runs and colder showers is that it does. We are well into November and I have yet to put on long underwear, a personal best for me. I spend long, comfortable stretches of time in a t-shirt and shorts and my down slippers are back in the closet where they belong, awaiting my next arctic expedition. At the very least I have effectively convinced myself that I am better at withstanding the cold. Placebos are medicine too. I am committed to continue my conditioning throughout the winter and I will keep all of you updated on my progress.
Join me in ending the winter hibernation. Comment below with your personal winter goals and #endwinterhibernation. Just one quick disclaimer if you do decide to join in: if I have not already made it clear, I am not an expert. The cold can be dangerous, please insure that you are being safe. Environmental conditioning should not be considered protection from frostbite. The old Farmers Almanac has a windchill chart that is useful for determining how long you can safely be exposed to the elements https://www.almanac.com/content/windchill-chart-canada.
If you want to join me in trying cold training this winter, but everything I’ve listed so far sounds like torture, here is a list of the most effort-effective ways to implement cold conditioning.
Passive conditioning: turn down your thermostat a couple degrees or swap out your duvet for a lighter one (there are extra benefits to sleeping in colder temperatures, to be discussed next time).
Active conditioning: wear one less layer than you would normally put on for the current temperature.
Cold water: if you find out a ‘nice way’ to do this please let me know the cold shower is likely your best bet. But seriously it is awesome, you should try it.
Connect with me on instagram @blonde.girl.hikes so that you don’t miss out on my next blog post where I talk about the cutting edge science behind environmental conditioning.