It’s ten years since my first open water swimming winter but after three winters I stopped. This year I’m back in the cold water and loving it more than ever so I’ve been reflecting on why I’m utterly hooked again.
Ten years ago I was training for a cross Channel relay with an amazing group of people. We met every Sunday on the beach near Bournemouth and swam for as long as we could manage (no wetsuits) so that we could hit the ground running, so to speak, when the water warmed up enough for longer swims. That first winter and for the next couple of years we raced in freezing lakes and lidos for fun, swam through the night for practice, swam through jellyfish because we had to, met summer solstice dawns in the sea and managed some marathon swims for the challenge. I loved it.
Taking the rough with the smooth
The great bits were the sense of accomplishment, the glorious joy of being at one with water and nature, and the camaraderie. But some aspects of the cold were grim. I had to get through the nerves (and often a poor night’s sleep) and the walk of doom to the water’s edge. Getting in, the icy water stung on the outside and squeezed my organs on the inside, while I hyperventilated. The pain and involuntary hyperventilation is the cold shock response which is normal and is, physiologically-speaking, where the magic starts to happen for health and wellbeing benefits. If you know how what to expect and how to deal with it, with practice it becomes doable. After a couple of minutes you’re through to the glorious part of the swim and it’s all worth it.
But (and I don’t endorse this) I used to push myself and probably stayed in the water too long sometimes so experienced the deeply unpleasant sensations associated with a too-cold body cooling further after you get out. The body continues to cool when you get out of the water – it’s called the after drop. It’s also normal, but is a good reason to know your limits, learn to spot the signs and get out before you get too cold.
I realise I’m probably not selling this cold water milarkey, but bear with me. Despite all the discomfort and moaning, I kept going back so there was clearly something about it that was compelling.
I don’t live near the sea and eventually life, petrol costs, dwindling motivation and other priorities curtailed my trips to the seaside. I’ve done a few November dips and I joined the gang for a couple of autumn swimming weekends in Scotland where I was reminded how not being adapted to the cold made swimming painful and even scary, despite all my experience. I managed to enjoy the swims by putting on a wetsuit, but, watching my cold-adapted friends swoosh and dive like mermaids I was a bit sad that I couldn’t do that any more. But I didn’t do anything about it.
Now I’m back. What changed?
Fast forward to March 2023. I’ve been swimming in a local river this morning in the sun and frost. I was only in for seven minutes but it was so worth it. I’ve done this, usually with a friend, at least once, more often twice a week since September. This winter, there’s none of the dread, none of the pain but all the joy and feel-good sensations surging round my body and brain afterwards. What’s changed?
The push to extend time in the water and build towards great distance have gone. Instead, it’s purely about feeling good. Being in beautiful countryside with the birds, the sky and a chat with fellow swimmers or passers by is all part of it.
These days, instead of five mins of painful faffing, my shoulders are in and I’m swimming in three seconds. The cold shock response is still there but I’m in control of my breathing and it seems to be over more quickly. It probably still lasts 90 secs or so but now it’s not a big deal. I can be curious, noticing where I feel it most that day. Breathwork is key here. Control your breathing and you can control your response. It takes practice, but if you can control a strong stress reaction like this, it’s great practice for dealing with other life stresses.
I haven’t put my face in since before Christmas which helps, but I’m looking forward to the water warming up enough for me to swim on the spot against the current again and look down to see trout and grayling doing exactly the same. It might seem daft, but the even the fact that I’ve started wearing a woolly hat over my swimming hat means I can’t put my head in, and that takes the pressure off. No pressure, just pleasure. I always wish I could stay in longer because that glorious oneness with the water and nature is there, but I know my limits and have not once shivered let alone had unpleasant after drop sensations. Leaving myself wanting more seems to work. (Shivering is not a bad thing by the way. It’s an effective way to warm the body.)
Brilliant for mental wellbeing
But I think the biggest reason I’m back in the cold water so often is that it’s been amazing for my mood and mental wellbeing. That this is a benefit for many people is not news but experiencing it for myself is powerful. I wonder if I, or my body at least, knew this all along and that’s what drew me back to the cold water.
For me a five-minute dip is all it takes, for others it might be just a couple of minutes. Sometimes the cold water seems to rinse worries away. Perhaps it helps to give perspective. A build up of tension or anxiety can dissipate while my body is in charge for a while instead of my overactive, catastrophising brain. Dealing with the cold shock response is a full-time job for the body, making it possibly the ultimate mindful experience. It’s hard to think of anything else but what’s going on in your body.
Other times I find the pressures are still there post-swim, but because they haven’t been front of mind for half an hour means I’ve had a break. When they surface again, the stress is starting from a lower baseline and seems more manageable. And this is what’s so useful. We can’t eliminate stress – we wouldn’t want to because some stress is good for us, and it’s unrealistic to hope that life will ever be stress-free. But we can become more resilient and get better at dealing with it. What’s really interesting is the cumulative effect. One swim is great, but a couple of times a week for few months has been life changing.
On top of mental wellbeing benefits, emerging research about cold water immersion reveals accounts of improvements in pain management, autoimmune conditions and a host of metabolic issues. As a health coach, I’m very interested in the studies exploring brown fat metabolism which show promise for cold water immersion promoting weight loss and insulin sensitivity. There’s a lot of physiology going on during a cold water dip which helps to explain a lot of all this. It’s an exciting area of research. There are also well-documented benefits for open water swimmers from being in nature and part of a community.
Who can benefit, and why?
But even if you don’t know or care about any of that, you’d probably still feel the benefits. You don’t have to do it in winter – the water around the UK is never exactly warm and you’ll still get a cold shock response. You don’t need to be depressed or ill either, just curious about what your amazing body can do and how much better it can feel. At least once a week a passer-by will say something like, “you’re brave” or “I couldn’t do that”. The thing is, apart from some important medical contraindications, most people could do it. And I can’t help thinking they’d realise that if they have the strength to get into cold water, what else do they have the strength for? It’s empowering. It removes limitations. The sky’s the limit. Or it might just make some trickier parts of life more bearable that day.
My swimming buddy is going through her first winter and after a frosty January swim in 5 degree C water with an air temperature of minus six degrees C, we realised that we need never again be scared of a swim. If we can do that we can do anything. As the song goes, “I am titaaa-ni-uummm!”