Taking the plunge: why you should be cold water swimming

As restrictions of what most of us can and cannot do due to the Covid virus remain in place, many people are looking for new ways to get out and exercise. As a result, there has been a significant increase in the number of people taking up open water swimming. Whilst the joys of being out in the open air, communing with nature are obvious, unfortunately for many of us, particularly those of us in the UK, open water swimming at this time of year also means cold water swimming. And there the search for the enjoyment can seem somewhat more challenging !

In my experience, those committed to cold water dips seem to have an almost evangelical zeal when trying to persuade others. They cite boosts to the immune system, anti-inflammatory benefits, cleansing of the blood cells, improved skin, energy boosts, increased mental toughness with better mental health in general, shared social interaction and a massive rush of endorphins which, quite simply, is guaranteed to make you feel terrific afterwards. These are pretty impressive claims. Who wouldn’t want all that?!  But can they be proven ?

Well, it’s a very long list and we don’t have time to study each and every claim here.  However, it is an area of active scientific investigation and results show that there is a factual basis behind many if not all of them.

Some Facts

Let’s look at a couple of examples. The Biohacker summit promotes itself as “the focal point for learning faster, performing better, living longer, and enjoying more what you wake up for every day.” The 2020 event was addressed by biochemist Rhonda Patrick Phd, co-founder of FoundMyFitness.com a website dedicated to promoting good health.  She has studied the effects of cold on the human body.  She explained that when the body is immersed in cold water it increases the levels of norepinephrine which promotes greater focus and attention, increased vigilance and a better overall mood.  The drop in temperature changes the neural pathways and the body becomes more sensitive to the effect of the production of endorphins.  It is thought this may even lead to an increase in life expectancy.  Even extremely short periods of immersion can have a dramatic effect.  Just twenty seconds in water of 4.4 degrees raises the levels of norepinephrine by as much as 300%

Photo by Katie Barnes on Unsplash

The change in temperature also triggers another effect known as mitochondrial biogenesis. This process attempts to keep the body warm by producing more energy.  In adipose tissue (i.e. fat) this has the result of burning the fat stores and reducing weight.  In muscle tissue oxygen is used for energy which increases the aerobic capacity of the body and also aids recovery of damaged tissue (which is why sport-people often take ice-baths to recover after endurance events)

In a separate study reported by the BBC in the Autumn of 2020 Professor Giovanna Mallucci of Cambridge University announced the conclusions of a three year study using groups of cold water swimmers and tai chi students as a test group.  She had found that the swimmers were producing a protein linked to the linking of cells in the brain.  It is hoped that this work may be developed to help combat the onset of dementia.  

How Tough Do You Need To Be?

However, these benefits all come at a cost. One needs to prepare carefully for a cold water swim and follow a thoughtful adaptation process. Some mental toughness is required, but not as much as you think when you follow a good, gradual process of adaptation, one that does not cause unnecessary stress to your body or mind. The physical and psychological discomforts can be perceived in different ways – making them more or less unpleasant. Under guidance, one can have a relatively pleasant experience, even from the start. It is an incredibly subjective experience but one which needs planning the advice and expertise of others more familiar with coping with the conditions. 

In fact, if you want to add another benefit to cold water swimming with a group of friends it might be that it will increase your vocabulary. Because, in addition to all the lingo for the process of adapting, you’re going to hear all sorts of words coming out of the mouths of people you would never suspect of knowing such language – let alone using it !

What About The Workout?

It is important to notice one of the things missing from the list I have quoted as well. There are many benefits to cold water that I mentioned, but getting a big aerobic workout isn’t going to be one of them for quite a while. So if you’re looking to replace your hour long gym session with a cold water swim then you might have to think again.. Granted if you get to the stage where you are taking on Ice Mile challenges and the like there is definitely going to be an aerobic benefit. However, the vast majority won’t get to that stage. For a cold water swimmer ten minutes to a quarter of an hour is a pretty long swim. Many only manage a few minutes. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t swim, just that you should recognise that these are very different beasts.

So, you’ve girded your loins nicely, taken a deep breath (don’t stop doing that!) and decided to literally take the plunge. What now ? Rule one, particularly if you are starting out is to put safety first. So never go alone. Besides, you may well need someone who is able to support and encourage you.  Choose such people wisely.  Make sure they understand the process you are going through and know how to keep you safe.  Preferably choose someone who has done it before themselves.  There is a fine line between support and encouragement on the one hand and ill-informed badgering, bullying and peer pressure, (no matter how well intentioned), on the other. Make sure that line has not been crossed. Take things at your own speed. Sure, you’ll be out of your comfort zone, but make sure you aren’t too far out. Safety first.

Photo by Glenna Haug on Unsplash

It’s a good idea to have at least one person on the bank as well. They are far more likely to be able to see what’s going on if someone gets into difficulties. And make sure you have a plan for what to do if something does go wrong. There’s no point in waiting until someone is struggling before looking round to see if there is a life-ring on the shore. Humans are not aquatic animals and there is always a certain degree of danger when we enter water. But if the temperature is low that factor multiplies significantly. Recognise that things can go very wrong very quickly. Everyone – both those in the water and those out of it – needs to be even more vigilant of the state of those around them than normal. In an emergency it is important to know what to do and how to do it. Remember too that circumstances will be different. For example, it’s no good throwing someone a rope if their hands are too cold to grasp it. So make a plan. A realistic plan. And pray you’ll never have to use it. Safety first.

One of the advantages of having an experienced friend with you is that they are likely to know the best locations in which to swim safely. It is essential that you can get in and out of the water quickly and easily. Think about conditions underfoot, the slope of the ground and, if swimming in rivers, the height of the bank. Make sure too that the water is safe. Beware of obvious things like reeds and other objects hidden beneath the water but also remember when swimming in lakes and rivers that recent rain may well have washed significant amounts of chemicals into the water from nearby farmland. Regardless of the season, if the water quality is low, don’t go in. If swimming in the sea ensure that you know all there is to know about any currents which might take you unawares. Safety first.

There is little doubt that cold water swimming can bring enormous enjoyment and well-being. You rarely see someone who has just completed a swim in a freezing river, lake or coastline who isn’t grinning like a maniac. Undoubtedly it comes at a cost but you too could feel like that. If you think you’re brave enough, go for it ! Good luck !!

Location!, location!, location!

It’s not uncommon that with swimming drills you can find yourself stuck in a rut trying to get a skill to stick so that it shows up in your normal swimming. No matter how hard or how often you practice any improvement seems elusive. If that sounds familiar here’s an experiment you might like to try.

Now, cards on the table: this might not work. But it might. That’s what an experiment is right, testing out stuff to see what works and what doesn’t ? And what do you have to lose ? It’s really simple. Just try changing something about how you are doing the drill.

I know this sounds counter-intuitive. Surely the whole point of doing drills is to try and repeat the same actions in the same way, over and over, in order to imprint them into ‘muscle memory’, isn’t it? Yes, it is. And this is why you should try changing something else about the drill. 

Let me explain where my idea comes from.

In the mid 1970’s a trio of psychologists from the University of Michigan performed an experiment to study the effect of location on learning 1. The basic structure was to take two groups of students and ask each of them to study a list of forty four four-letter words. They were given two ten-minute sessions to do this. Then, three hours later, they were tested to see how many they could recall. The difference between the groups was startling. One group averaged a recall rate of 16 words whilst the other managed an average of 24.

The difference was that the study sessions for one group were held each time in a neat bright room overlooking a courtyard. However, the better performing group held the first session in the courtyard room whilst the second session was held in a cluttered room in a basement. Care was taken by the researchers that the environment for the study was the only element of the experiment which was altered.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash Photo by Hitoshi Suzuki on Unsplash

So why the difference ? Why should the same task have an increase in success of 40% simply by varying the location in which the study was held ? Frankly, it seems that opinion is divided, and far too complex to cover here. The upshot really is that no-one seems to know for certain. What should be of interest to us though is whether there is evidence that this study using an    academic task could be replicated with a motor task such as swimming.                 

To be honest, research seems to be sparse (which is why I said your experiment may not work !). A study was done by the philosopher John Locke who observed a man practicing a fairly complicated dance in a room which contained an old trunk.2 However, having perfected it, the man had difficulty replicating the dance to such a degree of competency in environments where the trunk was not present. It’s possible that a similar connection between environment and learning may have been occurring.

So, next time you go to practice your drills I suggest you try a similar experiment and see if it works for you. Don’t change the drills themselves, instead, if you normally swim at a certain pool, in a certain lane and a certain time of the day, try changing one of those variables. If you are able, try swimming in open water rather than the pool. Even just wearing a different costume might make a difference. Maybe no costume at all if you can get away with it ! (Please note, however, that you’re on your own with that one; I accept no liability for any consequences arising from skinny dipping at the Family Swim sessions of your local pool!).

At the very least, before you get in the water, take a few moments to fully take in what’s going on around you; who else is in the pool? Is the lifeguard sitting still or wandering about? How noisy is it and exactly what can you hear? Is the water a different temperature from normal? What can you smell and is that usual? Intently tune into your surroundings and become hyper-vigilant. See if you can spot any small detail about your surroundings that might make this swim stand out from all the others. 

Photo by AllGo – An App For Plus Size People on Unsplash                Photo by John Fornander on Unsplash

Let your brain become aware of anything and everything which differentiates this session from the last one you completed. Who knows the effect of any variations might have on your success once you start the actual task of swimming?

What I am proposing is that when you change something in your environment or routine, or even just a change in your awareness, this can have a positive effect on your performance in the drills. You just might discover something new or break through to the skill you’ve been aiming for. I’d be really interested to hear how you get on


  1. Steven M Smith, Arthur Glenberg and Robert A. Bjork “Environmental Context and Human Memory” Memory and Cognition Vol. 6 No. 4
  2. John  Locke “An Essay on Human Understanding and a Treatise on the Conduct of Understanding Philadelphia: Hayes & Zell Publishers

A Systems View Of The Stroke

A Systems View Of The Stroke

In a ‘systems thinking’ viewpoint on the swimming stroke (including all of the stroke styles) we understand that each body part has an influence over other body parts and is influenced by other body parts connected to it by one or more degrees. Each section of the stroke cycle affects what happens in the next section, and is affected by what has happened in the section before.

When there is an error in position or movement of one body part, it introduces error into the other parts connected to it. Those parts must do something to compensate and recover from the error. When there is error in one section of the stroke cycle, the next section begins at a disadvantaged position and greater intervention is required to compensate or correct and get the stroke cycle back onto its ideal pattern. The error creates negative feed-back into the system – we might say it ‘holds back’ the effectiveness and efficiency of the system. This compensation and correction uses up a great deal of energy, even if the athlete ends up correcting quickly and making it look OK from the outside.

When a body part is kept in its ideal position, maintaining its ideal movement, it sets up the other parts to more easily find their ideal position and movement. When one section of the stroke cycle moves through its ideal pattern the next section is at an advantage to find its ideal pattern as well. When that next section also moves through its ideal pattern the next section benefits too, and so on. This crates a positive feed-forward flow. The more consistent this feed-forward process is, the more effective and efficient the swimmer is. Not only that, the more amazing the stroke feels to that swimmer.

Photo by Clint Adair on Unsplash

Everything is interconnected in the repeating movement pattern of the whole body. No swimmer starts with all the parts finely interconnected, just as no musician starts with a perfect performance in a piece of new music or group of musicians starts playing together with perfect coordination. You first start by making basic connections – pairs of connections – in the body, and eventually you connect those pairs to each other until the entire system of sections of the stroke cycle are connected into a rhythmic loop of action.

This principle of connections applies to all four strokes, but with more or less emphasis on certain connections depending on the style. Let’s apply it to the freestyle stroke since it is most popular…

We need to make a connection between the front (upper) and rear (lower) part of the body and the primary connection point is at the pelvis/hips. What happens in the front of the body will affect the rear and what happens at the rear will affect the front. If these two are connected well, they will feed-forward into each other. If not connected well, they will cause feed-back.

We need to connect the entire streamline side of the body, front wrist to ankle because the body will be supported on its side and water will be displaced primarily by that side. Water will respond better to a body that is straight and connected along the whole line, and respond worse to a body that is not. What happens on this side of the body will affect what is happening on the other.

We need to connect the recovery swing to forward momentum so that force will flow in the direction of travel and not work against the streamline side of the body. What happens on the recovery side affects what is happening on the streamline side.

We need to connect the two sides of the body at the moment of transition, so that the force generated on the catch side flows without obstruction into the streamline side to maximize forward motion.

I listed these in an order as if these are in a line, but they are not because the stroke is a loop of rhythmic action. When we view these as a loop then we see that you can intervene at any one of these connections to make a change – but you must keep a careful eye on how a change in that part will necessarily affect the other parts.

That is a broad systems view of the whole body system in the stroke cycle. We can also apply this view to the arm/shoulder motion itself. The ideal catch feeds-forward into the exit. The exit feeds forward into the recovery swing. The recovery swing feeds forward into the entry. The entry feeds forward into the extension. The extension feeds forward into the catch, and so on again and again in an ideal pattern.

You might start learning these parts separately, one-by-one, and that may be necessary for most people. But these parts cannot remain separated in your nervous system for long or you will be stifled in your progress. Any advanced guidance on adjustments in your stroke should have more and more systems language involved because, by that stage, you should be attentive to the interdependent relationships of the parts, of the sections of the stroke. A musician must eventually connect the sections of the music together and create a smoothly flowing whole.

If you are looking to fix an error in one section of your stroke cycle, you may want to first consider whether that error is a cause or a symptom of another error in a preceding section. Fixing this section should make things better for the next section (if those are truly connected in your movement pattern already). But if you consider fixing the section before, you might discover that this section either is easier to fix or possibly the problem goes away altogether.

When you make a correction in one body part, in one section of your stroke cycle, be aware that it may confuse the body parts connected to it because they have been used to compensating for an error and now they need to learn how to actually work when there is no error to compensate for. When you tighten one string on a guitar you may need to slightly re-tune the string next to it, because the changing of tension in one string may noticeably changes the tension on the next one or even all of them. Tuning the guitar, and tuning the stroke require systems thinking.


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