Why you should warm to cold water swimming
Having taken up outdoor swimming as part of my programme to maintain good wellbeing and mitigate those feelings of winter blues it’s been a natural leap to get into cold water swimming. Here are my reflections lest this is something you’ve considered but are yet to take the plunge.
It was during our particularly hot summer that I discovered how much I enjoyed swimming outdoors in the pleasantly refreshing waters of the sea and local swimming holes - Abbots Leigh pool and Clevedon Marine Lake, west of Bristol. I found that being in nature while swimming conferred the same soothing effect on my mood as walking in nature did, to the extent I became reluctant to head to any pool sporting a roof. Furthermore at Clevedon I had 250m where I could swim and swim and swim, free of the busyness, noise and constant turning that accompanied trips to my local baths. So as autumn approached and the water temperature fell I found myself wet-suiting up so I could continue to enjoy it. But always at the end of a swim I’d take the suit off and swim in skin for the extra freedom and to properly experience the cold.
To my surprise, within just a few months, I became a total convert. Surprise because as recently as the spring I would take a good five minutes to swim after entering the water. But now, even with the thermometer reading a chilly 5 degrees Celsius, I just walk in and swim with little hesitation. I have even begun taking cold showers.
Here’s a few thoughts on my experience, what the science says, and why I now recommend regular cold water immersion - with or without the swimming.
There’s no getting away from the fact that entering water under 15 degrees Celsius is somewhat unpleasant (no kidding you say) and when it’s really cold eg 5 degrees Celsius it can be almost painful, in a prickly kind of way. But then something remarkable happens. Your body switches to survival mode and your skin quickly goes numb, the resultant loss of sensitivity enclosing you in a protective balm allowing you to operate. Breathing becomes easier. And you can even begin to enjoy it thanks to the burst of endorphins now surging through your body. And you realise you actually want to stay in longer than you thought you would, because it is actually OK and it focuses you. Your wonderful clever body is protecting you from the cold. Then you get out, feel incredibly cold and shivery but also with this high from the endorphins. Cold water swimming brings about a sudden change in physiology the like of which you rarely experience and it becomes quite addictive.
What the science says
Entering cold water sends your body into shock, speeding blood away from your skin to your vital organs to protect your core. According to the science this does a few useful things. It:
Helps improve circulation and gets your heart pumping more efficiently.
Burns calories because your body is having to work harder.
Causes your lymph glands to contract, forcing lymph fluid through your body, which attacks and flushes out waste, helping improve your immunity.
Reduces muscle inflammation - especially useful when following strenuous exercise.
Counters low mood and depression by flooding your body with mood-boosting neurotransmitters / endorphins. Realising you’re capable of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone also provides evidence of what you’re capable of and can help make other stresses in life, such as depression seem proportionally more manageable, according to cross adaptation theory – the temporary loss of sensitivity to a stimulus following exposure to a different stimulus.
My personal view and why I recommend it
Depression is a sly, insidious beast requiring a variety of tricks to keep it at bay, especially during winter when the shorter days and reduction in light provide cover for it to sneak up unless you’re vigilant. Even if you’re not prone to depression, winter can lower wellbeing simply because it invites us out less, asks us to entertain a more subdued (but usefully restorative) mode of being and encourage unhealthy habits such as over-eating during the festive season.
I know that cold water swimming and cold showers alone are not enough to protect me from depression which I've experienced on and off in the past. But they have become an important part of how I keep low mood at bay and maintain a positive state of wellbeing. I’m much less prone to episodes of low mood and physically I feel great. An added bonus is the camaraderie that goes with joining similarly mad people in the water and sharing the experience with them (there’s also a perverse pleasure in being pointed at by disbelieving people in scarves and wholly hats by the water).
So, why not turn the shower cold for a few minutes every morning and gradually build up your tolerance and join us in the water. I’m confident that before long you’ll have warmed to cold water swimming.
Here's a couple of before and after videos to help wet your appetite (Sorry about the sound)