If you see someone dunking themselves into a barrel of ice water in February, don’t be surprised. Cold water therapy, a regular practice in many countries that rim the Arctic Circle, has long been used by athletes to reduce inflammation. For instance, coaches such as former Stowe resident Bud Keene, long-time coach of such star snowboarders as Shaun White, swear by it to help relieve sore muscles.
Studies have shown that in addition to decreasing inflammation, that ice swimmers or people who regularly immerse themselves in cold water have a higher antioxidative defense system, lower blood pressure, and boosted immune system. Some studies have also shown ice swimming can increase insulin sensitivity, cause a drop in triglycerides, and increase cortisol, according to a meta study published in Dec. 2020 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
For some, cold water immersion is about swimming, for others, such as Lynton Moore it is part of a practice that has been popularized by the Dutch extreme athlete and cold-water guru, Wim Hof. Hof has the record for running a marathon barefoot in snow and ice and swimming 57.5 meters under ice, and developed a practice of cold-water therapy, meditation, yoga and breathing now known as the Wim Hof Method. Today, he has an international network of instructors who make taking short ice baths a practice.
Rob Williams, 54, of Waitsfield is a Level 1 Wim Hof certified instructor. He teaches cold water therapy as part of his Peak Flow coaching program, which focuses on multiple modalities of breathwork. Williams, a former ultrarunner, hosts events all around the country and last summer was teaching the Wim Hof method at the Burlington Surf Club.
“The Wim Hof approach has three pillars – ice, mindset and breath—and it helps build resilience,” he explains. “As humans, we evolved to deal with all the stresses of the natural world – cold, hunger, you name it. But today, we have so little physical stress in our lives, by inducing this little bit of stress and training our bodies to deal with it in small doses, it creates a hormetic effect that’s been proven to help as we age,” says Williams, a journalism professor with a Ph.D. in history. Williams recommends beginning with cold showers. “Now, I have a trough from my yak farm that I fill with ice and a few times a week I’ll submerge in it and I come out feeling energized,” says Williams. “It really clears your mind.”
For Stowe’s Tim Bettencourt, the mind is what led him to become a certified Wim Hof instructor. “I’d hit this rock bottom stage in my life where I was drinking too much, not eating properly, had career troubles and I needed a change. When my father was diagnosed with Alzheimers, I started reading more and more about brain health. I discovered that inflammation has so much to do with how your brain functions and mental health, and repeated sessions in cold water can help” he says. “I’d also played football in college and knew what a few concussions can do to your brain.”
At the encouragement of a coach, Bettencourt changed his life drastically – working up to running the Catamount Ultra Marathon near his house in Stowe. He left his career as a financial analyst and started his Vigor Outdoors coaching program, using the outdoors as a gym and incorporating the Wim Hof Method as one of his offerings.
This year, he based some of his classes out of Spruce Peak at Stowe where he teaches the Wim Hof Method. Participants do a core workout in the fitness center, learn the breathing techniques and then submerge themselves in a barrel filled with ice. Classes are $30. “I wanted to keep this affordable,” he says. “I really think that anyone can benefit from this.”