Need to know: Cold water swimming
Cold water swimming has seen an explosive resurgence in recent years. Organized clubs, individuals, and enthusiasts enjoy the mental and physical health benefits this activity yields. Moreover, cold water athletes such as Wim Hof, Grace McLaughlin, and Marcin Szarpak have helped promote the healing benefits of cold water therapy. And there is also empirical evidence in the literature field supports the mental and physical health benefits. That said, some contrasting opinions and viewpoints blur the actual benefits. For me, cold water swimming is an action-based activity and using myself as a research vessel, I can share my knowledge and experiences.
I have been living in the Julian Alps since 2008. While here, I’ve always been within walking distance lies the stunning Lago del Predil, sandwiched in a glacial valley at 1000m elevation between the Kanin massif in Slovenia and the Jôf Fuart massif in Italy. A pristine mountain lake flanked on all sides with beautiful summits and ridgelines.
Despite a decade of ignoring the beauty of this lake, in May 2018, I eventually took the plunge (literally) and commenced my journey into cold water immersion. In May, the water temperature is around 9C, and I remember the shock my body felt when I submerged myself. I also remember how invigorated and alive I felt after exiting the water. Immediately, I pledged to take frequent immersions to see if I could continue through the summer months and into October.
I established a disciplined approach and made sure I continued my immersions every 3 days when possible but certainly never exceeding 5 days between my dips. Consequently, as the warm water cooled considerably after the summer months, I found myself being able to extend my immersions past October and into the winter months. This required breaking the ice to enter the lake and being able to comfortably withstand extremely cold water temperatures of around 1C. 5 years later, cold water immersions remain a component of my life that I enjoy all year round. And so, what are my observations and advice to anyone looking to start this activity?
First, like any other activity, it requires a disciplined approach. It is a well-known fact that the most difficult part about the training is showing up, and this is never more evident than in cold water swimming. There are a hundred excuses not to go into the cold water, but it requires a disciplined mind to leave the ego and reasons at home to venture out into the cold water. Time spent in the water during the summer and autumn months will pay dividends during the winter. I believe it is the incremental benefits sustained over a lengthy period that yield the greatest results.
Easing into cold water swimming
Second, for any newcomers to this activity, start in the summer when the water is warmer. This will allow sufficient time for the body to adjust to the shock of cold water. Recent research claims that it only requires the body to be exposed to six frequent cold water experiences to reduce the shock of cold water by as much as 50%. So commencing in the summer months when the water temperature is around 12C might be a smart way to acclimatize the body and prepare it for colder water temperatures later.
Listen to your body
Third, I believe a dedicated and frequent approach to cold water swimming should remain the focus, as opposed to being attached to water temperature or time spent in the water. There are days when my body hurts in the water at 3C and I have to get out after 1 minute. But there are other days when I can remain in the water at 1C for over 5 minutes. The important point here is to go in the water as per your determined frequency and observe what your body is telling you. If it is a painful or extremely uncomfortable experience, then get out of the water and try again.
Fourth, learn to perform diaphragmatic breathing to help relax the body in the cold water. When the body is subject to discomfort or stress, it engages the sympathetic nervous system. This triggers fight-or-flight responses to the immediate situation or experience. Diaphragmatic breathing helps reduce this fight-or-flight response and can help engage the parasympathetic nervous system. This allows the body to become relaxed in the cold water, which significantly improves the cold water experience.
Finally, prepare well to mitigate the risks of ‘afterdrop’. Afterdrop is the process of a further decreasing body temperature that occurs after you exit the water that can last for 10-40 minutes. In my experience, the body gets used to regulating this more efficiently the more the body is exposed to frequent cold water immersions.
However, it is critical to get dry and create warm barriers against cold water or wind. So always ensure you have an abundance of dry clothes, hats, gloves, scarves, and footwear to change into immediately after exiting the water. I believe that the nervous system is recalibrated and relaxed after being exposed to cold water, so I drink hot tea instead of coffee which is a stimulant and may reverse the effects of a calm nervous system. I have found that cold water therapy has helped reduce inflammation in my joints, facilitated circulation, and optimized my immune system. Certainly, since I started cold water immersions in 2018, I have experienced improved physical and mental health.
Many cold water swimming clubs have contributed to improving mental health. Tom Mason and Dan Bidder, who run Blue Balls Cornwall, a Cornwall cold water swimming group, believe their club helps address mental health issues. Cold water swimming amplifies feelings of vulnerability and exposure because there is nowhere to hide when you go in the water. Consequently, this creates a ‘comrades-in-adversity’ feeling amongst club members where individuals are equal. This helps create an ideal forum or arena to open up and discuss physical and mental health concerns. In my experience, a disciplined mental approach to cold water swimming confirms that we are stronger than we believe. We can endure extreme temperatures that can help reinforce self-belief in other aspects of our lives.
A final word on safety: Make sure you can comfortably access the water and go with someone when possible in case of difficulties.