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 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 !!

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