Whilst submerging yourself in 10-degree water might not be everyone’s idea of winter fun, cold water swimming has surged in popularity during the pandemic so much so, it’s become something of a lockdown cliché with everyone wanting a bit of this natural high.
Water, particularly the sea, has a way of reminding us that we’re all part of something much bigger than us
For many people, cold water swimming has provided a sense of solace and escapism during a time when everything on land went a tad tits up. Water, particularly the sea, has a way of reminding us that we’re all part of something much bigger than us and that whatever personal challenges are ahead of us or behind us, it’s comforting to know the existential problems we face are quite literally a drop in the ocean.
With more and more people stoically dipping their toes into the hobby, we thought we’d look into the key benefits of bracing an outdoor dip.
It’s group therapy
Whether you’re wild swimming in lakes, sea swimming or putting in the lengths at your local lido, there’s a great sense of community and camaraderie amongst cold water swimmers.
The aim here is to tend to your wellbeing and enjoy the profound effect that swimming outdoors has on your mental health.
You’re all there for your own reasons but you’re all rooting for one another and that shared experience can be transformative for your mind, body and soul. No one’s interested in competitive swimming or smashing PBs, the aim here is to tend to your wellbeing and enjoy the profound effect that swimming outdoors has on your mental health. That’s it. Bottom line.
From letting go of your inhibitions and dicking about with your pals for a few minutes to sinking a cup of tea on the beach in that blissful post-swim euphoria, a lot of the benefits of winter swimming happen outside the water as much as in it.
The mental calm & clarity
Being in the water, particularly when it’s cold, fosters here-and-now-thinking because your brain has limited bandwidth to think about anything other than the sensation of the cold water and its natural stress response. It anchors you in the moment and offers mental clarity as well as physical weightlessness, which is why it’s arguably one of the best ways to switch off, de-stress and enjoy a 10/10 digital detox. So, to summarise, blue views should be available on prescription.
It’s great for your circulation
Swimming in cold water causes our heart to pump more blood to our organs, increasing blood flow throughout the body, flushing out toxins and improving circulation.
It boosts your immune system
The initial shock of entering the water kick starts the body’s stress reaction, triggering an increase in white blood cells and boosting your immune system. On regularly immersing yourself in cold water, your body becomes even better at activating that shock defence.
The blue buzz is electric
There’s one consistent and indescribable benefit you’ll hear every cold water swimming evangelist waxing lyrical about and that’s the great buzz.
For many, the feeling of being in contact with the water can evoke memories of free-spirited days spent on the beach as a child, for others it can offer relief from emotional or physical trauma and pain, either way you don’t need to be the next Wim Hof ice man to believe that the blue mind hype is real.
Betty Lewis-Griffiths, a trainee breath facilitator and Brighton mermaid, started sea swimming regularly last year and never stopped. It’s since become her go-to energy shaker, offering her year-round equilibrium, joy and peace.
Coldwater swimming helps me feel grounded because what better way than connecting with the elements than being in them! In the same way that a walk in the woods is soothing and gives you a fresh lease of life, cold water swimming injects me with life and I feel like I can do anything afterwards (once I’ve warmed up!). It makes me feel all the emotions. There isn’t anything that compares. I feel alive, at peace, grateful, full of love and deeply connected to nature. When you’re swimming in the sea into the horizon with the sun setting, there is no other feeling like it and everything else just melts away for those moments.Betty Lewis-Griffiths
Well, that’s us sold!
The mental challenge is exhilarating
It’s cold water. Of course it will be chilly but that’s as bad as it gets, right? Once you break through that mental wall, you can quite matter of fact about the idea of willingly getting your body in the water for a few minutes, which then unlocks this huge sense of achievement and fulfilment once you’ve proved to yourself that you’re resilient and capable of pushing through discomfort.
How to stay safe when cold water swimming
Chilly water swimming can be restorative, healing, invigorating, joyful and everything in between but it is not without its risks, especially if you’re trying it for the first time.
Knowing your limits, staying safe, understanding the hazards and preparing with layers, a hot water bottle, a woolly hat, neoprene booties and a steaming flask of tea is key.
Acclimatise to the temperature gradually by easing your body in slowly and in a controlled manner
Avoid jumping or diving into the water as this can cause cold water shock and gasping of breath. Acclimatise to the temperature gradually by easing your body in slowly and in a controlled manner, always allow your breathing to settle before swimming and stay in the shallows where you can touch the floor or get out if you need to.
Everyone’s cold tolerance and swimming ability is different, depending on how much sleep you’ve had, what you’ve eaten that day, stress and recent acclimatisation, so don’t compete with what other people can endure. Stay in your lane!
Always check tide times and conditions ahead of swimming – the sea will dictate if you can swim or not. Sometimes wave bathing on the shoreline (or pilcharding as it’s known locally) is just as exhilarating as a full swim.
If you get into difficulty in the water, remember the ‘float to live’ survival advice – fight your instincts to flap in the water, get onto your back, extend your arms and legs into a star fish position until you can control your breath before calling for help or swimming to safety, if possible.
How to warm up after your swim
Afterdrop refers to the physiological response to being in cold water. When you swim, your body shuts down circulation to your skin and pools warm blood in your core to help you stay in the water for longer. As you emerge from the water and start to warm up, blood starts to recirculate and your core temperature drops which can lead to shivering, hyperthermia and dizziness.
Throw on lots of layers promptly including a hat and gloves and heat your core with a hot drink and a sugary snack.
Your body temperature will continue to drop for up to 10 minutes once you’re out the water so, dry off by patting your skin rather than rubbing, throw on lots of layers promptly including a hat and gloves and heat your core with a hot drink and a sugary snack. Lots of experienced cold water swimmers also swear by Haramaki, a traditional Japanese core-warmer.
To minimise the risk of afterdrop, remove wet layers asap, get dressed immediately and, as tempting as it is, resist the urge to jump straight under a hot shower when you’re home as this can draw the warm blood away from your core at speed, leading to rapid-cooling as your body temperature and blood pressure drops.
If you have a heart condition or asthma, it’s best to sit this one out and get back in when summer rolls around.