After years of cold training in cold showers, ice baths, frozen over lakes, snow walks, and just good old fashioned midwestern winter air, I finally got the opportunity to try cryo. It was all thanks to my wife, who for my birthday made me an appointment for a full day of cryo, sauna, and float tank.
Cryotherapy is something very near to my heart. As a Wim Hof Method practitioner and instructor of many years, I am a firm believer in the power of cold therapy on the body and mind. I firmly believe that some degree (pun!) of cold therapy is right for everyone, and it is one of my greatest thrills to guide people who attend my workshops and one-on-one sessions through their very first ice bath. One of the most common questions that I have gotten in this time is about “cryo,” and until today, I have never been able to provide an answer from experience. I have heard top athletes and health professionals sing its praises, and since it does involve using cold exposure as a stimulus for recovery, I assumed that it was at least a good idea.
But the question that people asked me wasn’t whether it was a good thing or not. The questions has always been: “How does (ice bathing, cold showering, etc.) compare to cryo?” Until now, I couldn’t say. But today I can give you may verdict.
My cryo experience
My cryo experience was a three minute session. I was required to wear protective thermal gloves and socks in the cryo chamber the entire time. Other than this, I only had my underwear on. I was actually kind of nervous about this experience because of the reported temperatures that the chamber can produce. The operator told me that the cryo tank would go down to – 240F (-150C). Wow! That is really cold, right! And let’s face it, that is really cold. That is the thing that you can only get from cryo— an exact measurement of the air temperature that is colder than anything that one can naturally experience on the planet.
I got on the platform and was raised so that the cold air would only reach up to my neck. I was kind of hoping for a frosty beard, but oh, well…
The operator activated the cold and watched my reaction to gauge how cold he should go. The temperature did not instantly go to -240F (-150 C). It was gradual. The temperature did become unnaturally cold within the first few seconds, however. The last minute was at the full coldness of -240 F (-150 C).
I got out feeling great, and I was really pleased with the experience.
So, how does Cryo stack up against everything else?
First of all, I think cryo is great, especially for people who live in cities who might not feel comfortable going outside in the winter time. It’s especially good for people who live in warm climates so they can get a taste of what the rest of us feel during the winter months. Having said that, here is what I think about cryo compared to everything else:
An ice bath is to a frozen over lake what cryo is to a windy day around 20 F (-7C).
I am speaking completely from experience here. I didn’t take blood samples to test the effects or do anything scientific, but if you have taken a 3 minute bare-chested walk in 20F (-7C) in a moderate breeze, you have experienced the natural version of cryo. Pretty awesome, right?
Cryo is the next best thing to walking outside in the freezing cold. Having said this, I think the draw to cryo comes from the sci-fi-ness of it. It’s in a “chamber.” There are visible gases swirling around your body. There is even lighting that accentuates the experience! The fact that the air reaches such depths IS unlike anything you can find in nature… unless you are walking in hard nature for a little while, and the breeze finds you.
I am not saying any of this to knock cryo therapy. I really liked it. However, I want to let you know, from a guy who has spent a lot of time in the cold, that you can get the same benefits for free if you find yourself free for a few minutes on a cold day in the winter. You might have to walk a little longer, maybe 10 minutes instead of 3, but that is about it. Again, this is just my approximation from 1) the way I felt in the cryo chamber 2) how I felt when I got out of the experience 3) the way I felt in the minutes and hours that followed.
- The way it felt— again, it felt like walking in shorts on a cold winter day with a small breeze.
- When I got out of the chamber— I barely felt cold anymore as soon as I got out. I was almost instantly back to normal.
- The way I felt minutes and hours later— For me, when I do cold exposures of any significance, I can often feel that I have expended a large amount of energy -kind of a tired feeling, but the kind of tiredness that comes from exhausting a muscle. Basically, a certain level of healthy fatigue. I did not feel this after 3 minutes of cryo. Does that mean others will feel the same way? Of course not! I have been training in the cold for years. I’m just saying that the extremeness of the cold did not cause me to feel any more fatigue than I would feel after a 5 minute cold shower or a 10-15 minute cold walk, which are on the low end of my cold training exercises.
So what does this mean for me, Jesse? Should I try cryo? And will you ever do cryo again?
I like cryo, and I will likely do it again. I think you should try it if you live in a place where walking in the cold air is not possible or practical. Here are some things to consider:
- Gradual temperature change— This is where I was a little disappointed, but I think lots of people will prefer it. Unlike jumping into an ice bath or walking outside in the cold, the temperature is adjustable, so the operator can help make the experience more conducive to your level of comfort. For those of us who practice controlling our fight or flight response, the cold shower, cold walk, ice bath is far superior in my opinion.
- Exact measurable temperature— This is something that we cannot really control in “hard nature.” Even if your thermometer tells you the temperature, windchill is something that is very hard to accurately measure in the moment. In fact, I really don’t think one can do it without a team of scientists following close behind. The positive to having an exact temperature is that it is perfect for scientific study. This is why you will see it mentioned so much in the journals! It isn’t because it is superior. It’s because it is measurable! This is something that I embrace because I want science to tell me as much as it can about the effects of cold exposure on the body. We just cannot assume that there is anything special about the cold that one experiences in the lab. Cold is cold. The problem, however, is that in this setting, the extreme cold air makes it difficult to find an exact correlation between cryo chambers and the cold outdoors. This is why I want to give you my approximation from the prospective of one who has felt a lot of cold in his life.
- “Safety”— I put this in quotes for one reason. I think that people assume that cryo is safer because it is in a controlled setting. It is as if the cold that we find outside of our homes is more raw and unsafe for some reason. The reality is that the cold -no matter where it is experienced- can be dangerous. It can also be safe. It really all depends on the operator. At the end of the day, however, I know that I will always be able to breathe the air outside (pollution aside). However, the cooling agent in the cryo tank is devoid of oxygen, and that is why you will always need to have someone watching while you do cryo. I think all of that is cool, but I do like the freedom of being able to walk around and enjoy nature when I am experiencing naturally cold air. I also prefer being able to get my head cold in a natural setting, which is not possible in a cryo chamber.
- Speaking of freedom— cold winter air is free! This is why I will likely not visit a cryo center during the winter time. I might hit one up in the middle of the summer, but not when it is nice and cold outside for free.
How does cryo compare with cold showers, ice baths, etc?
Cold showers and any really cold water cold exposures are more intense than cryo therapy. This makes cryo therapy great for people who are afraid of taking a cold shower or an ice bath. Again, there is also the added feeling of safety because someone is guiding you through the experience. However, if you want to experience the benefits of cold exposure, you only have to look to your shower or the great outdoors. If you have been taking cold showers in the northern half of the USA during the winter time, you are experiencing a more intense cold exposure than a 3 minute cryo session. Not even close!
So, what do I think of cryo? I like it, but it will not hold a place on a pedestal in my book. I will likely do it again, but not because it is better than my regular ice bath. I just like variety, to be honest! If you have been wondering about cryo, just know that, while it is nice, you don’t have to go to a cryo provider to experience the benefits of cold exposure training. Take cold showers. Walk outside. Those things are free. If you want to step it up, go to a Wim Hof Method workshop, take an ice bath, hop in a iced over lake. And if you really want to experience cold that I don’t believe anything can compare to, try finding a stream in the dead of winter. Most of all, be safe and keep it fun! Cryo is great, but there are many other options and most of them are free!
Jesse Coomer is a Wim Hof Method Instructor.