In the last article I wrote I talked briefly about the benefits of cold exposure for endurance athletes. Cold exposure, ice baths, and cold showers have all been the rage lately on the inter-webs for weight loss, which is definitely a benefit to endurance athletes, but there are other benefits that can be really useful for endurance athletes as well.
Before we dig deeper and go full geek on cold thermogenesis (you can skip to the bottom if you want to miss the geekness), I think it is important to state that this isn’t new. Back in 2006 when the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs built a dedicated recovery center for the 400+ resident athletes at their facility they included not only a dry sauna (which is ridiculously hot) but “ice pools” kept at approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Athletes had differing protocols using the two extremes, but all of them included at least 15 minutes spent in the ice pool. Many athletes would start in the dry sauna to allow blood to move to the skin surface to help the body stay cool in the hot environment, then jump in the ice pool to cause rapid cooling of body temperature. Good times…
Cold exposure for weight loss has been a well-studied topic for sometime now. A quick search on pubmed results for cold thermogenesis results in over 2000 studies and while not all of them have found positive benefits, a majority of them have shown cold exposure to be beneficial in elevating metabolic rate and burning extra calories. The primary theory behind weight loss from cold exposure is that cold activates brown adipose tissue (primarily found around your collar bones, sternum, and neck) to burn white adipose fat to keep the bodies core temperature from dropping. What isn’t often talked about with cold exposure is that muscles also have a similar activation when exposed to cold called mitochondrial decoupling that up-regulates metabolism and heat production.
While the BAT connection to weight loss has been well established, the adinopectin story has rarely been told. Adinopectin is a hormone that can be activated by cold that causes fat to be broken down and shuttles glucose into muscles. This not only elevates metabolism but it also has an anabolic response in the muscle which can aid in recovery post exercise. While they have shown causation, there is a correlation between low adinopectin levels and diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
Sorry your mom had it wrong, going out in the cold can actually help immune system function. Cold can stimulate norepinephrine due to it sympathetic nervous system response, which in turn activates leukocytosis and granulocytosis (natural immune system killer cells) which can improve immune function. That can be especially helpful when done post endurance exercise where we typically see an immune system suppression for 1 – 2 hours prior longer workouts.
While this is a relatively new branch of study with cold exposure, there does seem to an up-regulation of hormone receptor affinity for hormone binding. Essentially, this means your normal hormone release is more effective resulting in less of the hormone needed for effective change. This may be very helpful in cases where hormone receptors become desensitized from chronic stress. There is current research being done on cold exposure with insulin resistance that may help explain this mechanism better, but until science catches up, anecdotally we are seeing people being able to better handle stress after cold exposure and using cold to reset leptin sensitivity.
So What is the Actionable Information from all this geek speak?
Moderate cold exposure (15 min ice baths) can be extremely beneficial to help athletes recover, handle stress better, and help control body weight. If ice baths are not possible in your schedule, then cold showers can also be used pretty effectively. Ray Cronise (NASA scientist who has done a lot of research on the benefits of cold thermogenesis) has even developed a quick cold shower protocol to make the process a bit quicker. Essentially it is 5 minutes of a warm shower followed by 20 seconds of cold, 10 seconds of warm repeated for 10 times. That is a total of 5 minutes added to your normal shower time. The frequency of the cold exposure would vary depending on your goals but if you are using this to help with recovery I would suggest not using it more than a few times a week. You want the hormetic response of training to drive adaptation and techniques that may improve recovery may lessen your adaptation to training in the long-term.
If weight loss is your goal, then a few hours of low-grade cooling (fat burner vest, cold air exposure) will be more beneficial than short-term ice baths although both can be used in conjunction to increase the benefits.
A force multiplier is when two items are combined to create a greater sum than their parts. Cold thermogenesis in a fat adapted athlete is an example of a force multiplier. We are starting to see some pretty amazing results in those athletes that have made the effort to become fat adapted and are using cold exposure. I will dig deeper into the process of becoming fat adapted in the next article and take your training and health to another level!