Heat and Ice – Contrast Recovery Protocol

All information is courtesy of the experts at Symmetry.

Climbing a mountain is no easy feat. Although I trained [hard] for a year before attempting to summit Mount Everest in the spring of 2018, I still fell victim to health issues that prevented me from reaching the top.

This time, I’m employing some new techniques to help my body learn to recover more efficiently. My goal is to train harder and therefore be even more prepared to summit on my next attempt in April 2019. The first is heat and ice contrast therapy, which helps the body learn to rapidly adapt to changing conditions. The below information is from my friends at Symmetry. They’re the real experts, and I encourage you to check them out!

Heat and ice contrast therapy
What is it?
Modern conveniences and technology have created a comfortable environment for our bodies. It may be too comfortable, as our bodies no longer need to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. Contrast therapy relies on exposure to extreme heat and cold, which acts as a stressor to the mind and body. That stress allows us to adapt and, as a result, be more resilient to extreme environmental circumstances. As a bonus, recent research shows this may also contribute to mental strength!

How does it work?
First, immerse your body in cold water – and not just the cold side of the tap! This needs to be freezing cold and full of ice. This requires a conscious decision to calm your mind. To work through the discomfort, I took deep breaths through my nose. The philosophy is that if you can make it three minutes, you can do anything. Afterward and throughout your training journey, focus on breath work, which I’ve outlined in another post. [link to breath work blog]

The contrast comes when you match your cold exposure with heat exposure, such as in a sauna. Read on for more info.

Why cold water?
This exercise can increase mental resilience as you learn to control your mind and your body’s stress response. The cold water also produces some beneficial physical responses in your body, including:

- Cold shock proteins (CSPs) – These can boost the immune system, reduce inflammation and regulate circadian rhythms.
- Brown fat – This is a metabolically active form of fat tissue. The inactive or inefficient variety is common in obese individuals, so improving its quality may also mean less body fat.
- Sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic response – This improves cardiovascular health and muscular and nervous system recovery.

Why heat?
Heat exposure can increase testosterone and growth hormone while decreasing cortisol. In fact, recent studies show that just 15 minutes of exposure at 200 degrees Fahrenheit three times per week can help treat obesity and diabetes. Like cold, heat can produce some beneficial physical responses, including:

- Heat shock proteins (HSPs) – These are key to preserving cellular health, replicating DNA and modulating glucose and fat metabolism.
- Lower sweat rate – This allows the body to cool itself more efficiently.
- Endurance – A recent study showed that using a sauna three times per week increased the time to exhaustion by 32 percent for runners!
- Lower blood pressure in hypertensive patients

Why contrast?
The extreme contrast between dilating and constricting your veins can assist in removing metabolic waste products, blood lactate and markers of muscle damage. It can also improve your tolerance for and ability to adapt to extreme hot and cold protocols (great for those of us enduring extreme temperatures at, say, the top of a mountain!).

Let’s get started.
It may not be easy for you to create an ice bath and sauna experience regularly at home. But an easy way to start and/or continue between sessions is in the shower. At the end of each shower, try to use the coldest water for 30 seconds, then work your way up to longer cold sessions.