Hot and Cold Water Therapy—A Restorative Ritual

Posted by Kendra Nickerson on

Known as the “Nordic Cycle”, the “Viking Bath”, hydrotherapy, contrast bath therapy, and other names, hot and cold water therapy is a ritual that has been around for centuries. 

The transition from one extreme temperature to another is a restorative tool for the mind and body, and is supported by many health and wellness benefits.

To us, hot and cold therapy stands out as a challenge of fortitude. As you move outside your comfort zone—where you’ve defined limits of what feels too hot or what feels bitterly cold—it becomes a whole-body-and-mind experience. 

The resulting feeling is euphoric. 

Nordic sauna and cold plunge tub

Roots

The intriguing history of this ritual clearly extends back to the Nordic Countries, and it’s fascinating how these practices have surged in popularity in the past decades—even more so during the pandemic.

Hot and cold therapy is deeply rooted in sauna culture. The earliest versions of saunas are believed to be from around 7000 BC in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Russia. Often set upon the shore of a picturesque lake, the sauna became integral to the culture’s way of life, not only for regular cleansing and relaxation purposes, but also for connecting with others.

sauna tradition

The sauna tradition remains the same today: A small room or hut is heated by wood, with a basket of hot rocks to throw water on and create steam. You remain in the sauna until your body is sufficiently heated, before going outside to dip in the glacial lake or for a roll in the powdery snow. Then you return to the sauna, and repeat the cycle at least two times. 

The Vikings adopted bathing rituals discovered while invading Russia, and brought these practices home. They began bathing in hot springs and utilized a form of sauna, a steam bath, to produce a cleansing sweat. Eventually this led to the practice of washing off the sweat in the snow or a nearby body of water.

Nordic Cycle ice swimming

In Sweden, ice swimming is more recently (in the past three centuries or so) a daily ritual for many. This frigid dip is sometimes combined with a sauna, and followed by breakfast or coffee with others.

Nordic Cycle - GOODLAND

The Ritual

Contemporary hot and cold water therapy is a three-step relaxation ritual:

1 / Heat

Experience a source of heat, such as a sauna, hot tub, or steam room for 10-20 min.

  • In this step your body is storing heat.
  • Pores are dilating, your body sweats, and you eliminate toxins.

2 / Cool

Immediately expose your body to cold water, such as a lake, cold plunge tub, or shower for at least 10 sec (ideally longer).

  • Full immersion in the cold water is needed for as long as you can to experience the benefits.
  • The shift from hot to cold produces a thermal shock, releasing adrenaline.

3 / Rest

Relax near to your hot and cold temperature sources. You may want to sit outside your hot tub or lay in a hammock. 

  • This period allows your elevated heart rate to settle.
  • Spend 10-15 min before repeating the cycle.
    Nordic Cycle - resting the body

    Nordic Cycle Benefits

    Alternating between hot and cold water temperatures has numerous benefits, and many of them are backed by science. 

    • Stimulates your body systems: activates circulation and raises heart rate
    • Boosts the immune system
    • Fires up the lymphatic system 
    • Reduces swelling and inflammation
    • Relieves muscle soreness
    • Improves mood: releases endorphins
    • Increases pain tolerance (see the Wim Hoff method for more on this concept)

    Other claims include improved sleep quality, lower body fat, accelerated healing, and a longer life.

    While raising your body’s temperature in a hot environment, the increased blood flow to the skin and muscles activates a state of unwinding, peacefulness, and introspection.

    hot bath cold shower therapy

    The act of immersing yourself in ice-cold water immediately diverts your attention to your physical state. Acutely aware of the bracing sensation on the skin, you must concentrate on giving in to the intense frigidity. There’s a blood pressure shift, stimulating blood flow and forcing your heart to pump efficiently.

    By the time you reach the moment of rest to stabilize your body, it’s fully engaged in the benefits of the Nordic Cycle: flushing toxins, relaxing the muscles, and resetting the brain. When you feel ready to return to the heat, you find yourself looking forward to repeating the sequence. 

    After a few cycles, your body feels at once energized and calmed, while your spirit finds inner peace.

    cold water therapy - ice swimming

    Grounding Yourself in the Landscape

    Engaging in the natural surroundings is an integral part of the Nordic Cycle. Even though this ritual is deeply rooted in barren frozen landscapes, it could easily translate to other terrain and seasons. 

    During each phase of the cycle, ensure you remain connected to nature or a dimension of the natural elements. When you are outside, witness aspects of the landscape. Take in all the sensory experiences—the burning of wood in your heat source, the fragrance of the forest, and the stillness of your surroundings.

    benefits of soaking in a hot tub

    How Does the GOODLAND Hot Tub Fit In?

    You can use our Wood Burning Hot Tub as either a source of heat or cold in the Nordic Cycle. The simplest way is to alternate immersion in the hot tub with an ice-cold outdoor shower.

    If you have access to other sources of heat such as a sauna, our hot tub can be used as a cold plunge tub without having to buy a chiller. After filling the tub with cold water and ice, the aluminum shell and surrounding insulation allow the water to remain frigid for several cycles. The length of time will be dependent on surrounding air temperature.

    contrast water therapy

    Tips to Improve Your Nordic Cycle Technique

    1. Start with a very short cold cycle and challenge yourself to increase the time spent in the cold (same goes for the heat segment).
    2. Focus on the breath—exhale as you come into contact with the cold water, then focus on slow and steady breaths.
    3. Make a quick transition from hot to cold, not allowing yourself to cool down.
    4. Practice mindfulness to get through intense moments. Be in the moment, and focus on an element in the landscape; or the sensations your body is experiencing.
    If you have questions regarding utilizing your GOODLAND hot tub for hot and cold water therapy, let us know.

     

    Image credits from top: Cold water plunge - Tyler Lillico; smoke sauna - unknown; Oslo sauna - Atle Mo; lake plunge - Harri Tarvainen; ice swimming - Sara MacKey.

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