Take the plunge: the benefits of ice baths and cold-water swimming

People going into frozen lake Photo courtesy of Unbounded

Have you ever gone for a true polar bear plunge? It’s thrilling: stripping down to your swimsuit in the middle of winter and running into the lake. But it’s not just the excitement that gets people plunging. Ice baths and cold-water swimming have long been a tradition in many Scandinavian and European countries, with many people participating for the potential health benefits. Cottager Nick McNault loves the feeling he gets when he takes the plunge, and he wants to share the ice bath experience with the masses. 

“I ended up staying at my cottage in Land O’ Lakes much later in the season in 2020 than I usually would have, and I was swimming in the lake as it got colder and colder,” he said. “I came back to Toronto in November, and I still wanted to go swimming even though it was starting to hit freezing temperatures.” 

Nick reached out to a group of friends, and about eight people agreed to take a plunge at Cherry Beach, on the shores of Lake Ontario. He watched as his friends had the same kind of intense experience he had in his cold water dips. “It’s initially shocking, and then incredibly meditative, and then incredibly profound in the types of realizations you feel and the experience you have.” 

Are ice baths good for you?

There has not been extensive research into cold-water therapy, but small scientific studies suggest that it may help with muscle soreness, combat inflammation, and relieve depressive symptoms. The sudden exposure to cold water creates mood-elevating hormones like noradrenaline and dopamine, which may be behind the “profound” experiences Nick describes. Other cold-water swimmers credit the freezing plunge with improving body image and aiding physical and mental health.

Cold-water swimming experiences

The dips became a regular experience, and in December 2020, Nick and his friend Ron Bautigas filmed themselves playing chess while in the water and surrounded by ice at Oak Lake. The video went viral. Instead of just “15 minutes of fame,” Nick decided to turn the experience into something more. 

Nick, his partner, Lisa Kricfalusi, and their friend Zachary Ramelan decided to expand their wintry dips into a business, offering a guided ice bath experience to people. They named the venture Unbounded to illustrate how cold-water swimming represents doing something wild yet freeing. 

People in an ice bath in lake
Photo courtesy of Unbounded

Since its inception, Unbounded has grown to cover classes and a retreat. Cold Camp takes place over the winter at The Trace at Oak Lake, a resort of winterized cottages about two hours northeast of Toronto. People can come for however long they want—“be it two nights, a week, be it a month”—and access breathwork classes, tea rooms, and outdoor hot tubs. There’s internet access and space to do remote work. In non-COVID times, there’s a sauna. The real draw though is the cold plunges—done in ice holes cut right into the lake. 

“Cold Camp was our idea of how to incorporate nature and a little bit more primal living into daily life,” says Nick. “We’re able to be in nature, connect with others safely, and work while still being in harmony with the elements.”

How to take an ice bath for the first time

Are you curious about trying ice baths and cold-water swimming? Nick emphasizes that safety is the most important consideration. Don’t just jump in your nearest body of water. Here are his recommendations on how to try an ice bath:

  • Start with a cold shower, and build up your tolerance from there. “Start with 10 seconds, and breathe through it.” Over the course of a couple of weeks, increase the amount of cold shower time.
  • Focus on your breathing. “Bring your attention to your breath and manage your breathing. Our natural response when in cold water is to get super tense.” Relax as much as you can and keep your breathing measured and steady.
  • Buddy up. Never go into cold water without at least someone on the shore to keep an eye on you.
  • In addition to your bathing suit, wear surfing gloves and booties to keep your hands and feet warm and a toque to prevent heat loss from your head. 
  • How long should you do an ice bath for? Know when enough is enough. “At two minutes, your body has gained all of the potential physiological benefits that you can get.” It’s not worth pushing long exposure times and putting yourself at risk. Nick never lets participants stay in cold water longer than four minutes.
  • Bring warm, loose layers to change into and at least two towels to dry off.  

Featured Video