Young woman enjoying a cold plunge at Sauna House Asheville.

How Long and How Often Should You Cold Plunge?

Exhilarating whoops, hollers, and gasps can be heard from people polar plunging into icy lakes, or even stepping into the cold plunge tub. It’s most people’s primal instinct to immediately exit ice cold water once getting in. But if you resist the urge to get out, there are benefits to cold plunging a bit longer. The question is how long do you have to cold plunge to achieve those benefits? Let’s take a look.

Cold Plunge Temperature and Time for Different Goals

We’ve already talked about how long to stay in the sauna, which has many health benefits. It turns out that cold water immersion has benefits too. Knowing the minimum effective dose is important – if you can master that, you’ll reap the benefits. You can continue beyond that, but the metabolic benefits plateau. However, resiliency builds over time, since staying in cold water takes commitment and mental strength.

Water temperature influences how long you should stay in – the colder the water, a shorter amount of time is needed. Sauna house sets the cold plunge pool to 11.7 ℃/ 53 ℉ which is chilly, but tolerable, and can produce benefits. It’s generally safe to stay in this temperature longer, compared to freezing water.

Cold Plunge for Improved Metabolism

In an interview on the Huberman Lab Podcast, researcher Dr. Susanna Soberg tells us that precisely 11 minutes of cold exposure in divided sessions per week is enough to get the metabolic benefits of brown fat activation. This could amount to 1-5 minutes of cold therapy 2-4 times a week. In her study, winter water temperature ranged from 1-9 ℃ (34 - 48 ℉), but participants also swim year round in slightly warmer water temperatures [1].

We’ve written about the Soberg Principle – which is to end with cold, which forces your body to reheat on its own. This should induce shivering which is key for boosting your metabolism by helping your body generate heat. Cold exposure also helps white fat turn to brown fat (explained in this article). This transformation of body adipose (fat) can be protective against diabetes, heart disease, and obesity [2].

Cold Plunge for Better Mood and Focus

A few studies have shown that cold water immersion leads to a significant increase in positive mood and less distress. One study showed immersion in 13.6 ℃ (57 ℉) water for up to 20 minutes achieved these benefits [3]. Another study had participants in just one 5-minute cool water immersion at 20 ℃ (68 ℉) – which is not that cold [4]. This shows that the minimum effective dose to get the good mood benefits doesn’t have to be super long or cold.

Cold triggers the chemicals dopamine, serotonin, cortisol, norepinephrine, and beta-endorphins which influence mood, focus, and attention [4]. A study on people in cool 14 ℃ (57 ℉) water for an hour up to their neck showed increased dopamine up to 250% and norepinephrine release up to 530% [5]. Don’t have an hour? Colder, shorter immersions still pack a punch – just 2 minutes at 10 ℃ (50 ℉) or 20 seconds at 0-2 ℃ (32-35.6 ℉) doubles norepinephrine levels [6,7].

Cold Plunge for Muscle Soreness

Cold water immersion reduces muscle damage, swelling, inflammation, spasm, and pain. A common protocol among studies is 11-15 ℃ (52-59 ℉) for 11-15 minutes divided into sets, although there’s success with as little as 5 minutes [8,9,10]. Dr. Andrew Huberman’s newsletter suggests that shorter intervals lasting less than 5 minutes can help with physical recovery after high-intensity exercise or endurance training. But timing is important because while it can help decrease muscle soreness, it can also negate muscle building and endurance benefits if done immediately after exercise.

How To Cold Plunge Longer

If you’re looking to improve your cold plunge practice, check out these tips:

  1. Pro Tip: Stay Still. According to Dr. Craig Heller, if you get into the cold plunge and stay still and make sure the water stays still, you’ll feel warmer and not lose as much heat as moving around. So if your goal is to try and stay in the cold plunge as long as possible, try this out and let us know how it worked for you. If you’re trying to gain cold water benefits or challenge yourself more, it’s good to move your hands and feet, even though it'll make the experience a bit more uncomfortable.
  2. Regulated Breathing. We encourage readers to review this 2022 study entitled “The positive effects of combined breathing techniques and cold exposure on perceived stress: a randomised trial” [11]. The study evaluates breathing techniques that have recently grown in popularity. You can regulate your breathing once you get in the water by trying to slow down and deepen your breaths. It’s natural for us to hyperventilate when we hit the cold water, with short, shallow breaths and an increased breathing rate [12]. Focusing on breathing can help the body and mind remain calm in an uncomfortable physical state [11].
  3. Mind Over Matter. Similar to other mind-body disciplines like martial arts, cold exposure can be a practice in mindfulness. Dr. Soberg says on her Instagram channel, “I never liked the cold. But during my scientific journey I learned that cold water is a source of healthy stress. I still don’t love the cold. But then… that’s exactly how it should work. Accepting the uncomfortable. Coping with the cold. Getting more resilient to stress.” With practice, your thoughts can help you overcome the discomfort. As you enter the cold water, it may be as simple as having a mantra you repeat saying, “I’m okay”.
  4. Start Slow. Gradually build your time in the cold plunge. Maybe you only get in halfway up to your waist to begin with and eventually work up to your shoulders. Gradual cold exposures over time help your body become cold-adapted. As your body adapts, you’ll be able to beat your own personal records. It does get easier.

What Happens if You Cold Plunge Too Long?

Unless you’re Wim Hof, who holds multiple world records for staying in an ice bath for almost 2 hours, you’re probably not adapted to staying in the cold water that long [13].

Hypothermia is a risk, especially in older folks [2]. The medical definition is when the core body temperature drops below 35 ℃ (95 ℉). The amount of time to develop hypothermia varies from person to person and depending on water temperature, so it’s important to know the signs. In general, it takes around 30 minutes in freezing 0 ℃ (32 ℉) water for the signs of hypothermia to set in [12].

People with heart problems should check with their cardiologist before taking the plunge due to arrhythmias and other cardiac abnormalities from the shock of the cold water [12]. Even a brief dip in the cold can be risky, so we always caution people with serious health conditions to check with their healthcare provider before trying the sauna and cold plunge.

Doing the Math

Sauna House’s Hot-Cold-Relax regimen encourages up to 3 minutes of cold water immersion with each cycle, repeated 3 times. That could amount to anywhere from a few seconds to 9 minutes of cold plunge time each session. The minimum effective dose that will achieve all the health benefits is around 11 minutes each week. So a minimum of 2 weekly visits to Sauna House could technically satisfy those goals. Beyond that, the choice is yours – if you’re looking to challenge yourself to build resilience, try staying in longer.

This blog post was researched, edited and written by Dr. Christine Krall, Naturopathic Doctor (ND). See her bio here.

Book your next sauna session here.

Citing our sources:

1. Søberg S, Löfgren J, Philipsen FE, et al. Altered brown fat thermoregulation and enhanced cold-induced thermogenesis in young, healthy, winter-swimming men. Cell reports Medicine. 2021;2(10):100408.
2. Esperland D, de Weerd L, Mercer JB. Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water - a continuing subject of debate. International journal of circumpolar health. 2022;81(1):2111789.
3. Kelly JS, Bird E. Improved mood following a single immersion in cold water. Lifestyle Medicine. 2022;3(1):e53.
4. Yankouskaya A, Williamson R, Stacey C, Totman JJ, Massey H. Short-Term Head-Out Whole-Body Cold-Water Immersion Facilitates Positive Affect and Increases Interaction between Large-Scale Brain Networks. Biology. 2023;12(2).
5. Srámek P, Simecková M, Janský L, Savlíková J, Vybíral S. Human physiological responses to immersion into water of different temperatures. European journal of applied physiology. 2000;81(5):436-442.
6. Johnson DG, Hayward JS, Jacobs TP, Collis ML, Eckerson JD, Williams RH. Plasma norepinephrine responses of man in cold water. Journal of applied physiology: respiratory, environmental and exercise physiology. 1977;43(2):216-220.
7. Leppäluoto J, Westerlund T, Huttunen P, et al. Effects of long-term whole-body cold exposures on plasma concentrations of ACTH, beta-endorphin, cortisol, catecholamines and cytokines in healthy females. Scandinavian journal of clinical and laboratory investigation. 2008;68(2):145-153.
8. Moore E, Fuller JT, Buckley JD, et al. Impact of Cold-Water Immersion Compared with Passive Recovery Following a Single Bout of Strenuous Exercise on Athletic Performance in Physically Active Participants: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis and Meta-regression. Sports medicine (Auckland, NZ). 2022;52(7):1667-1688.
9. Machado AF, Ferreira PH, Micheletti JK, et al. Can Water Temperature and Immersion Time Influence the Effect of Cold Water Immersion on Muscle Soreness? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine (Auckland, NZ). 2016;46(4):503-514.
10. Bleakley C, McDonough S, Gardner E, Baxter GD, Hopkins JT, Davison GW. Cold‐water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing and treating muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2012(2).
11. Kopplin CS, Rosenthal L. The positive effects of combined breathing techniques and cold exposure on perceived stress: a randomised trial. Current psychology (New Brunswick, NJ). 2022:1-13.
12. Knechtle B, Waśkiewicz Z, Sousa CV, Hill L, Nikolaidis PT. Cold water swimming—benefits and risks: a narrative review. International journal of environmental research and public health. 2020;17(23):8984.
13. van Marken Lichtenbelt W. Who is the Iceman? Temperature (Austin, Tex). 2017;4(3):202-205.

April 22, 2024
By: Gavin Jocius