If you follow me on Instagram you might have noticed that I’ve been cold water swimming a lot the past week or so. Given that the temperatures in the UK have plunged down to freezing most nights it might seem like an odd time to suddenly develop an increased enthusiasm for it. My love affair with cold water tends to come and go a bit. I’m a cyclical woman. So there are times in my cycle when I have absolutely zero interest in plunging my body into water that is below 10 degrees. Possibly even topped with ice. But for the rest of the time.. It’s like a balm for the soul.
How I started cold water swimming
I started cold water swimming back in 2018. It was one of those choices that followed a moment of heartbreak. I felt like I needed to get out of established patterns and set my life on some kind of different path. It represented a huge change of direction in terms of who I had been for most of my life (a Londoner, into fancy things and fashion, comfort, the indoors life etc). And to be honest it changed everything that came next.
The first thing you go through with a cold water swim is complete denial – “it’s not possible” – followed by enormous waves of self-doubt (“I can’t do this, who am I to think I can survive this, I’m not Bear Grylls!”). Sometimes, that’s as far as you get and the swim just doesn’t happen. If you’ve planned to go with someone else and you’re both in that same space then it’s all too easy just to bail. Which is sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself – I, personally, don’t think that approaching a cold swim in winter through a sense of obligation is ever a good idea. But there’s a difference between listening to an instinctive sense that today is not the day for it and not giving in to a very natural fear reaction.
Our bodies are programmed to protect us from harm – like water that is so cold it could give you hypothermia – and especially when you factor in the negativity bias, there is definitely an element of having to override the impulse to stay in the warm. But that also requires some attention to detail. You’re not just thinking “right, fck it let’s just jump in and see what happens.”
Planning and preparation are essential for this kind of swim (see my tips below), as is taking the elements seriously. If you’re swimming in the sea and the waves are too high or the current too strong then all you’ll be doing is putting the lifeboat crew in danger if they have to come and rescue you. You’ll quickly learn your limits in this game but, before you know them, caution works.
There is danger in a cold water swim – it’s a risk. I don’t know if that’s part of the reason I like it. But I think it definitely contributes to the expanded comfort zone that exists after every single swim I do. It also feels wonderful – ok, not initially when the shock of the cold really hits you for the first time. But once you breathe through that your body settles. It’s a kind of calm that I have never really experienced anywhere else.
You don’t have to do breathwork to swim. I actually prefer not to in winter, I find it better just to get in the water straight away. And you don’t have to do yoga on the beach afterwards. The whole experience is completely up to you. Swim in a wetsuit, swim in a swimsuit. Wear gloves or don’t. Don a cute bobble hat or dunk your head, slip into some river shoes or go bare feet.
The benefits of cold water swimming
The craze for cold water swimming – and cold showering – has made this feel like a bit of a fad. But the reality is that there is hard science here – with an increasing volume of research being compiled as the years go on. So, if you’re keen to take up this challenge these are the benefits that you can expect from it:
- Your immune system gets a big boost. The shock of the cold water forces an increase in your body’s white blood cell count. This gives your system more practice at reacting and creating a more resilient immune system as a result. There is a lot of research out there about the positive impact of cold water swimming on the immune system – this activity is tried and tested, and not just by me and my mates on Instagram.
- Endorphins… ever wondered why every single Instagram photo of cold water swimmers seems to be a sea of grinning faces? Your body releases endorphins because cold water swimming takes you close to the pain barrier and also because it’s exercise. As well as being a natural high, cold water swimming is also natural anxiety relief. There are now studies that have established cold water swimming as a viable treatment for depression. And cold water swimming is also a possible treatment for psychological stress.
- Cold water swimming can ease the symptoms of the menopause. From night sweats to depression, loss of libido and vaginal dryness, there is increasing evidence that you can cold water swim your way through this transition to take the edge off it.
- Let’s talk about brown fat. Brown fat is basically fat burning fat. It doesn’t just sit in your body like white fat but activates in certain environments (e.g. the cold) to burn through calories. It’s a fat that is found in lean bodies – and disappears completely from obese bodies. Cold exposure stimulates the production of brown fat, creating little pockets of calorie burning fat around your shoulders and spinal cord. The more you have, the more efficient your metabolism is likely to be.
- And also about sex.. You might have come across the idea that a cold shower is what you need if you’re getting a bit .. hot and bothered. But it’s actually likely to have the opposite effect because the cold water increases the production of estrogen and testosterone. So, you’ll have an increased sex drive and possibly enjoy a fertility boost too if you’re regularly dunking yourself in cold water.
- It just feels great. Cold water swimming is fun. No, seriously! It feels adventurous and is a great opportunity to meet other like minded souls. It will take you outside of your comfort zone in a healthy way. And it will open up your mind to what else might be possible if you can tolerate these icy dips on a regular basis.
My tips for cold water swimming
- Acclimatise yourself slowly. You only need to stay in for 4 minutes to get the cold water therapy benefits. So, work upwards from that.
- Get out of the water straight away if you start to shiver – or to feel warm…
- Get your wet suit/shorts off quickly and get into some warm, dry clothes.
- Hot tea, cosy socks and a hot water bottle are great for warming up. Don’t have a hot shower or bath for at least a couple of hours.
- Go with someone and make it fun.
- Wetsuit boots make it much easier to cope with cold, hard pebbles under frozen feet (ouch) or muddy river banks (yuk).
- Wearing neoprene gloves can stop your fingers going numb, which makes it easier to get dressed after. BUT remember that your hands can be a good indicator of when it’s time to get out. If my thumbs are numb I know I need to get out and get warm.
- Listen to your body and don’t push yourself for the sake of it. Hypothermia is no fun.
- Get a photo for the gram or it didn’t happen 😉