I took an ice bath every day for two weeks – and it really eased my back pain

Here’s what our writer discovered when she braved a daily icy dip.

Dunking yourself in ice cold water every day might sound like total madness. But over the past few years, it has become a wellness sensation, practised by celebrities, athletes and the general public.

Supporters claim ice baths, or cold water immersion, can help with everything from circulation to mental health. But what does it involve, and does it really work?

“Cold water therapy and breathwork have become increasingly popular, because so many of us are feeling disconnected and want to reconnect to ourselves again,” explains Anna Marie Gough, a breathwork and cold water therapy coach. “We have become human ‘do-ings’ rather than human beings.

A woman grimacing in a Cold Pod ice tubCredit: Exceptional.com
Exceptional’s Phillipa Cherryson taking the plunge in an ice bath

Gough’s clients have included the Yorkshire County Cricket Club, and her husband is the former England cricketer Darren Gough, who is a convert to the cold water technique.

“Getting into cold water means your only focus is on the here and now – that of controlling your breath and surviving in an uncomfortable environment,” she shares.

“You have to shut out distractions, silence your ‘monkey mind’ [internal chatter], and just be in the present.

“It isn’t only about reconnecting; the therapy teaches you how you can adapt your stress response with your breath, which you can then apply across all areas of your life.”

To find out if that was the case, I sought expert advice, mastered some breathing techniques (outlined below), and then took the plunge myself.

Did it make a difference? Read on to find out – and to decide whether to take an icy dip or not yourself.


My ice bath experience

To discover the experience of cold water therapy for myself, I tested the Cold Pod. It’s a portable ice bath and can be used indoors or out.

Once I got it set-up and filled with cold water, I took a daily dip for two weeks (in an unseasonably cold April, I might add).

Sounds chilly, right? It was. Here’s what I learned…

Getting in is the hardest part

I won’t lie, I found it difficult to get in. It’s not just the process of clambering into freezing cold water – just thinking about it beforehand literally left me feeling cold.

A lot of my friends are wild swimmers and members of cold water swimming groups, such as The Bluetits. They find the encouragement of other people plays a huge part in helping them get into freezing water.

With a Cold Pod you really are on your own.

But despite my misgivings, I had agreed to do this, so I was determined to get in.

Ice bath breathing technique

Try this simple breathing exercise before entering cold water.

Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Take 30 breaths and try not to pause on the inhale or exhale.

At the end of the 30 breaths, exhale and hold until your body naturally needs to inhale, then inhale deeply and hold until you naturally need to exhale.

Try to repeat this three times, slightly increasing the intensity of your breaths as you progress. When you enter the cold water you can use this technique to help you adjust to the temperature and immerse yourself in the experience.

Expect a shock – and maybe some swearwords

I did the breathing exercises outlined above beforehand. Then I gingerly clambered in. Yes, it’s a shock and yes, I swore.

I had to battle to control my breathing because all I wanted to do was jump straight out. But I stayed focused on my breath – on the inhale and exhale.

I did my best to relax – and I lasted all of one minute before I leapt out and grabbed my towel.

It did wonders for my mood – and my back pain

Once I’d dried off and got dressed, I did more breathing exercises and got myself moving again. Then, you know what? I felt great! Really, really good.

I’ve had spinal surgery and although that was a success, I still suffer daily back pain. That 60-second dunking took the pain away. The effects didn’t last long, but it was enough to spur me back into the water the next day.

A cold pod, ice water bath, being filled with waterCredit: Exceptional.com
Phillipa’s ice bath filling with cold water

Staying in longer got easier

By day three I was staying in the Cold Pod for two minutes. It doesn’t sound long, but the water was still unseasonably cold. I took my dip after a 7km (4.4 miles) trail run. I didn’t get the heaviness in my legs I often suffer from.

Every day I managed to stay in the pod a little longer, and by the end of my two-week trial, my minutes had reached double figures – but only just.

Keeping up the daily habit is hard

Now that the test has ended, I confess that I haven’t used the pod every day. The excuses have crept back in, although I’m still going in several times a week.

I know that getting into cold water will remain a battle for me, but I keep doing it and I keep feeling better for it. That in itself is motivation enough.

Think about where you fill your ice bath

The Cold Pod was simple to assemble – it took just a couple of minutes to put together.

But it’s important to be careful about where you locate it. Once it’s full of water, it’s so heavy you won’t be able to move it, so consider how you’re going to drain it.

I put mine on paving slabs next to a downpipe drain so I could easily empty the water down it.

What are the benefits of an ice bath?

Supporters say there are many benefits of cold water therapy – it can boost immunity to the common cold, combat symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve circulation, stimulate the lymphatic system and reduce swelling and soreness.

There is some research backing up some of the claims, but many studies are small scale or anecdotal. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t work – just that there isn’t yet enough scientific evidence to support all the benefits reported.

A group of people in an ice bathCredit: Anna Gough
Gough and her friends take an ice bath

Gough says: “I’ve taught hundreds of people and all of them have been helped by the cold water. Some benefits are temporary, but if we’re looking at things like back or joint issues, regular cold exposure means that temporary relief builds up to something more permanent in your daily life.”

She says other benefits are longer lasting: “I suffered from anxiety, and cold water has made a lasting difference to my life. It has made me realise, like so many others, that we are more than our thoughts and so much more resilient than our anxiety makes us feel.”

You can find out more about Anna’s work at The Big Retreat Festival, in Pembrokeshire, next month, where she will be running breathwork and cold water workshops.

We answer your ice bath questions

Gough warns that although most people can safely give it a go, some people should not get into cold water. 

“If you have high blood pressure, epilepsy or heart disease, then I wouldn’t let you get into cold water.”

Gough also doesn’t teach pregnant mothers as people’s core temperature continues to drop for 45 minutes after getting out of cold water and there are, as yet, no studies on the effect of this cold on an unborn child.

“I also wouldn’t recommend it for anyone undergoing chemotherapy. Once that is over, though, cold water can become a great part of your cancer recovery,” she advises.

“But if anyone has any doubts, I always tell them to speak to their doctor before trying it.”

Cold water therapy means immersing your body in cold water that is less than 17°C (62°F) – water out of a cold tap is normally 10-20°C (50°F-68°F).

Ice bathing is a more extreme form. This takes place in water that’s no more than 5°C (41°F). It’s become popular in recent years, and is an integral part of the Wim Hof Method.

Both practices include breathing techniques and mind exercises.

Gough says you don’t need to break the ice Wim Hof-style to feel the benefits.

“Any water colder than 17°C (62°F) will make a difference,” she says. “I recommend that beginners start at this temperature and then gradually make the water colder as they get used to it over the next weeks and months.”

Again, Gough recommends taking things steadily.

“A beginner will only want to do a couple of minutes to start with,” she says. “The rule of thumb is to spend one minute in the water for each degree centigrade (For example eight minutes if it is 8°C and 15 minutes if it is 15°C). To get the most out of cold water therapy, in an ideal world, it is most beneficial if you can do ten to 15 minutes per week, broken down across days of your choice. The most important message is not to force it. The cold can be merciless.” 

Gough says this is one of the most important aspects of cold water therapy and ice baths.

“First set your intention (that you are going in). Then do some specific breathing exercises  before you get into the water to get your diaphragm moving and build a bit of excitement in the body.

“Once you’re in the water, your focus will be completely on your breathing, along with creating a state of surrender where you don’t resist any sensations you feel within your body.”

Gough says once you are out of the water, dry off and put on warm clothes. 

“It’s then vital to get moving – but nothing intense, as you’ve already put your body through stress in the ice bath. Instead gentle movement, like walking or gentle lunges and squats for about ten minutes, are great to get the blood flowing.

“I’ve met people who’ve been put off cold water because they haven’t done this and have remained chilled for the rest of the day – this adds extra stress to your body, which is something you don’t want, and the whole experience becomes detrimental rather than beneficial.”

She also recommends having a hot drink, such as herbal tea, as part of the rewarming process.

Ice baths – my verdict

I’m the first to admit that cold water dipping isn’t something I look forward to, but what keeps me getting in is how I feel afterwards. I feel so much more alive, my back stops hurting for a few hours and any other aches and pains go away too (albeit temporarily).

Long term, I will be interested to see whether those benefits continue and whether it helps my Raynaud’s – other sufferers have told me cold water therapy can help.

My partner reports that I’ve been a lot more cheerful since cold water therapy. And an added bonus is that he has been too – he’s laughed more than he has for years while watching me take a dip!

Would I recommend it to other people? Yes, I would, with the usual caveats. If you have health issues check with your doctor, if you’re nervous, then enlist the help of a cold water coach.

But otherwise, give it a go. Once the shock wears off, I think you may become a convert too.

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Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her


Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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