Are you someone who fears winter because the cold seems to settle into your bones? Do you wrap yourself in layer upon layer, only to find you’re the first to start shivering the moment you leave the house? Do you spend winter inside constantly trying to find a balance between staying warm whilst also avoiding dehydration as a result of the high heat temperature you set? If this is you, then you’re definitely not suited to being a cold water swimmer, right?
It’s actually cold water swimming that - ironically - might just put an end to your winter woes.
Welcome to our ‘New You’ series where we take 2021 to a whole new level by exploring ideas, challenges and concepts that you might have considered, might have flirted with, yet never ever thought you’d undertake. Like, for instance, cold water swimming.
Before you diss and dismiss, give us a moment. If you live near the beach or a popular swimming area, then just go for a winter walk. We’re willing to wager that, at almost any time of the day, you will see several, if not swathes, of people out taking a refreshing dip. And they can’t all be crazy! In recent months, especially during 2020, cold water swimming has become something of a phenomenon across the United Kingdom. It’s swept the country.
There are now clubs UK-wide set up purely for people to go out and enjoy a near-freezing dip. And enjoy, they do. You see, it becomes addictive. It sounds counter-intuitive, but every swimmer will tell you - there is some kind of insatiable pull that develops the more you go out. Your body begins to crave it. You have to get your fix. Read more about the benefits of cold water swimming below and, you’ll have to agree, it’s one healthy addiction.
What are the benefits of cold water swimming?
We should in fact, simply ask what the benefits of cold water are, as opposed to just swimming. Indeed, if you’re not near a beach, lake or river, then a cold shower is going to have, by and large, the same health benefits.
1.0 Helps ease itchy skin caused by conditions such as psoriasis and eczema
Hot water can strip away natural oils that help to protect the skin’s surface. This can accentuate the symptoms of certain skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis. The heat also stimulates more blood flow throughout the dermis, which can amplify the itchiness. Cold water, of course, has the opposite effect. It doesn’t remove natural, healthy oils, nor does it amplify any itching; if anything it helps to cool and calm it.
2.0 Boosting the immune system
The famous Wim Hof, aka the Ice Man, has a cult-like following of people who expose themselves to cold temperatures and specific breathing exercises to train their bodies to withstand certain threats (such as the cold). Wim and some of his followers have even employed these techniques as part of an experiment when injected with pathogens in an effort to minimise or suppress symptoms, thereby demonstrating a robust immune response. Now we’re not suggesting you practice these sort of techniques as a path to pathogenic self-experimentation! But it is quite amazing to read about how such techniques can improve and power the immune system - especially at a time when immunity is big news.
3.0 Reduce inflammation
We’ve all seen elite athletes recover from a game in an ice-bath, right? Maybe even race horses getting a run in the cold sea after they’ve exerted themselves?
Well, exercise triggers the sympathetic nervous system, the body’s natural reaction to stressful situations. Inversely, our parasympathetic nervous system is in control when we are in rest and recovery stage. Its job is partly as a damage response to the effects caused by the sympathetic nervous system. Studies show that cold water immersion can accelerate the activation of our parasympathetic nervous system. So, in short, cold water immersion helps our body recover and repair at a faster rate.
4.0 Fight or flight
When we take fright or shock, our bodies instinctively go into survival mode, often referred to as a flight or fight response. As we enter this stage, we become hyper alert and our adrenaline levels increase. A wave of cold water over our body is certainly a shock to the system, and will result in us being more alert, enlivened and in-tune. In other words, we become wired for the day ahead!
5.0 Mental health
Flowing on from this, it is believed that the shock of cold water sends electrical impulses to the brain, which could work as a natural anti-depressent. Hydrotherapy has actually been in use since ancient times as a way to balance the body and mind. The Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, is often also referred to as the Father of Water. According to him, water therapy provided a range of curative properties. He encouraged bathing in spring water to “allay lassitude”, or in other words, to decrease mental weariness.
6.0 Weight loss
Cold water exposure is believed to activate brown fat. Before you start thinking that fat might be the last thing you want to activate, read on. Unlike the white fat that many of us work hard to burn off, brown fat helps to raise body temperature. However, in order to do that, it needs an energy source. When our bodies are in a cold temperature, they have to keep the heat up, so to speak. That’s when brown fat works its magic, and it draws on white fat as its energy source. Interestingly, as babies we have good levels of brown fat. This is partly because at such a young age we’ve not yet developed a strong shivering technique, so we need that brown fat to stay warm. It was believed that as we grew up, our brown fat deposits reduced. However, it turns out this is only the case in obese adults. On the contrary, brown fat and lean bodies go hand-in-hand. Exposure to cold encourages the development of brown fat deposits.
7.0 Keep up your sperm count
Heat can have an adverse affect on men’s sperm count, so a daily cold blast might play a part in maintaining fertility! A 1987 study found that keeping the testicular temperature between 31 to 37°C (88 to 99°F) allowed optimal DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis. This results in better sperm production.
A 2013 study even found that cold winter temperatures improved sperm morphology (shape) and movement.
What does cold water swimming feel like?
Everyone has their own impression and personal reaction, of course. However, many will say that the immediate physical effect is, ironically, a burning sensation. Your body begins to feel as if it’s being hammered with tiny pins. It sounds terrible, but it’s actually and oddly a really great feeling for many - it’s invigorating. From an emotional perspective, many swimmers talk of a post-dip euphoria or buzz. They feel energised and enlivened.
Tips for starting - and sustaining - cold water swimming?
Firstly, respect that this has a degree of danger and therefore, be as prepared and careful as possible. As you become more experienced and more resilient towards the cold, you can think about staying in for longer, or immersing your whole body and head. For now, however, err on the side of caution and start with baby steps.
Swim somewhere safe at the right time of day
If you’re headed to a wild water swimming location, be sure you understand the water. By that we mean be aware of rips as well as high and low tides. Be careful of sharp rocks, shells, floating debris and other material that might potentially be harmful. Avoid swimming anywhere that has water traffic other than fellow bathers (eg boats, kitesurfers, windsurfers etc). Ideally, whilst you’re still a newbie, we recommend staying in shallow water so that your feet can always touch the bottom should you wish or need.
Swim with other people
Never cold water swim alone. No matter how experienced you are, something unexpected might go wrong one day and you don’t want to be on your own if ever that happens.
Get the right kit
We consider the essentials to be a fluorescent inflatable bag that you can tie around your waist and have trailing behind you. This can serve multiple purposes - several models can act as a dry bag and therefore store your keys and phone whilst you swim. The fluoro nature means you’re more easily spotted out in the water. Lastly, it can act as a veritable safety device should you suddenly have a bad reaction to the cold, cramp, lose control of your breathing etc. Neoprene beanies, booties and gloves are also fantastic for keeping extreme body parts as warm as possible.
Don’t stay in for long
The general rule of thumb is not to stay in any longer than a few minutes until your familiarity and resilience builds. This will vary given the water and air temperature, but anything more than four to five minutes is probably too ambitious at first.
Take it slow, breath steadily and keep your head out of the water
Walk slowly into the water and give yourself time to become accustomed before you go deeper and deeper. All the while, work to regulate your breathing. Many new swimmers find the cold is such a shock that they involuntarily begin to breath fast, shallow and sharp and essentially start to hyperventilate, which can lead to panic. Our breath is the language we use to speak to our body. So, reassure it and keep it calm by controlling your breath. Avoid total, sudden immersion for reasons just stated. In those early days, avoid immersing your head at any point. Getting the head wet attributes to some ten percent of overall heat loss. Keeping your head dry will also probably mean you will stay standing on ground, both of which form good practice for beginners.
Warm up after your swim
Depending on where you swim, the air temperature might in fact be colder than the water temperature. Regardless, you might well find yourself feeling colder once you’re back on shore. Warm up fast by wrapping yourself immediately in a poncho. We recommend a good quality garment that has a fleece lining as well as wind shielding features. Once you’re snug in your poncho, use it as a mobile change room and take off your wet gear immediately, otherwise you will really start to freeze. A great tip is to come with a hot water bottle, which you can wrap into your poncho to warm it up whilst you’re in the water. This, as well as a flask of hot tea, will do wonders in warming you up.
We hope we’ve inspired a potential new cold water swimmer in you. Find a friend, give it a go and who knows, you might well become hooked like so many others around the UK!
The information we have provided herewith, and all linked materials are not intended nor should they be construed as medical advice. Moreover, the information herewith should not be used as a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. Please refer to our Terms and Conditions and consult your General Practitioner for advice specific for you.