Have you ever wondered what it’s like to swim in lake Windermere in the depths of winter? Tasmin, a passionate swimmer, recommends giving it a try. Read on, about the benefits of cold water swimming.
There is a lot to be said about the benefits of winter swimming: it’s great for stress, it makes you feel truly alive and gives you the very best natural high, it raises your metabolism, boosts your immune system, reduces inflammation and can even help to prevent dementia. Not to mention the fact that it’s great fun and provides endless opportunities for camaraderie – shrieking with laughter, sharing incredible experiences and challenges and providing a real sense of achievement – and, let’s not forget the hot chocolate!
So, unsurprisingly, the steady increase in the popularity of wild swimming over the last few years, has gone stratospheric since Covid hit. The impact of Covid restrictions on pools and leisure centres over the summer and the impact of lockdown on our health, both physical and mental, has provided the catalyst for a huge increase in people starting their wild swimming journeys. The heatwaves over the summer saw the use of rivers, lakes and beaches soar with people trying to escape the heat but, in the dead of winter, you may find yourself asking whether a dip is really what you need.
Yes, is the answer. Scientists have only just scratched the surface on the benefits of cold-water swimming, not only for physical, but for mental health too. The body has an incredible tolerance for the cold once acclimatised. Acclimatisation occurs when your body becomes adjusted to the new environment after being repeatedly exposed to cold water. There has been evidence that veteran cold water swimmer Lewis Pugh can deliberately raise his core body temperature a full degree before entering the water.
Lynne Cox and Wim Hoff have achieved incredible feats of endurance swimming while in freezing temperatures, way below those experienced in the UK. It can be done. Research on cold shock proteins that appear in our blood when the body experiences a sudden drop in core temperature is still in its early stages but has already shown that the cold shock protein RBM3 acts as a shield and can protect the brain’s nerve endings from degenerative damage.
And Dutch ice endurance athlete Wim Hof, 61, believes there are huge immune health benefits to cold exposure as a result of norepinephrine secretion as well as being able to control stress and your heart rate through breathing techniques, which can be applied to different types of stress. The Wim Hof Method is a combination of meditation, breathing exercises, and exposure to cold that can help you regulate your stress levels. How better to experience cold exposure than when open water swimming?
The wild swimming community is often perceived as an eccentric faction. A love of the water doesn’t discriminate, which is why you will find vastly different people with one thing in common: the urge to throw themselves into cold murky waters for fun! It’s a secret society, and you know you’re in it when you’re on your way for a swim, carrying your kit and wearing your DryRobe (or any other brand of winter changing robe) and you catch the eye of a stranger walking past and they give you ‘The Nod’. ‘The Nod’ is a silent acknowledgement from one swimmer to another. The camaraderie that you find in a pod of swimmers is second to none. Having everyone going through the same pain while getting in the water, makes it somehow tolerable. There is something to be said about shared trauma.
The mental benefits of this extreme shared experience can be profound. You have people to look out for you, to hold you to your word and to make sure you go in because you don’t want to catch the dreaded FOMO (fear of missing out). Having a group to swim with, for me, is what makes the whole experience.
With cold water swimming, you feel the change in seasons: the water temperature slowly dropping, the weather becoming more unpredictable, being in touch with the synchronicities of the wind and the water. Of course, there will be a sacrifice of how much time you can safely spend in the water but the thrill from the cold is absolutely worth it. It is unparalleled. That’s not to say that it feels nice while it’s happening, but to feel the giddy rush, you first have to get in.
What does it feel like getting in? Stepping into the water, the 7000 nerve endings in each of your feet start sending messages to your brain saying, ‘It’s cold, get out!’. But you keep on going, the water level rising higher, and you step further in, inch by inch. Your body is covered in pins and needles, your skin almost feels like it’s on fire. You forget about how cold your feet are because the water level has reached your waist and then, after holding your hands out of the water for as long as possible, it’s time to put them in. You feel the shocking cold creep through your fingers. It’s taking your breath away. You’re in. You did it! Fiery tingles cover your whole body as you will your arms and legs to start swimming, to keep moving, to breathe normally and to not get straight out and never do it again.
The stingy tingles have died down and your breathing is back to normal. The cold-water shock has passed and you’ve become comfortable with the cold, you feel at peace. You take in your surroundings, aware of the water, the trees along the lakeside, the small insects that flit across the surface of the water. Floating, looking up at the sky and feeling the water shift and rock you… the sense of connection to yourself? Something bigger than yourself?
What is that feeling when you’re looking down into the depths of the sea, the sun is shining through the water and you suddenly feel the huge enormity of the world, the universe? Pure blue. Before long, your hands start to feel stiff, weak. It’s time to get out. You fumble out of the water like a triumphant newborn calf. But you don’t care because you’ve just been in the coldest water you’ve ever felt. You may have been questioning your sanity before and during but the aftereffects are worth it, once you get out and your skin is tingly and you have the post dip red glow.
Struggling with towels and numb fingers trying to put on socks, you try not to flash any other water users. There is no dignity in cold water swimming. You change into an outfit that is so bizarre it’s reserved for the winter wild swimmer. Easy to put on joggers, baggy t-shirts, hoodies, gloves, hats and the ever-so-comfy DryRobe, which is a fashion statement in itself and a highly coveted item for any winter swimmer. The occasional pairing of socks and sandals, despite it being more of a spring/summer look, are staple in a swimmer’s kit bag. The only item of clothing you won’t really need is a bra; anyone who can put a bra on without feeling in their hands is a rare unicorn.
Looking back and remembering your swim, you can never really quite remember how cold it actually was while getting in. Just the memory of the exhilarating thrill and the urge to go again remains. I suppose it’s like giving birth, our body lets us forget so we can keep on going.
*Always leave wanting more is the best way to describe how long you should stay in, knowing your limits is key when starting out*
I was 7 years old when I started swimming in the sea all year round. I was born and raised in Jersey and I’ve been out in the ocean for the majority of my life. I became a member of the Jersey Long Distance Swimming Club (JLDSC) and the changing of the seasons didn’t bother me much then. The JLDSC has been my home for almost 20 years and this little club and its members have shaped me in more ways than I realize. I guess I never knew what I was getting myself into and I didn’t know anything different from my ‘unusual’ hobby. From the outside looking in it’s unimaginable, from the inside looking out its unexplainable.
Not knowing that you grew up as part of something so unique and special until it’s gone is hard. After living in the UK for 5 years, away from my swim family, the thought of going for a swim by myself was hard – I wouldn’t be swimming in the bays I knew so well with the people I had grown up with. Realizing that I would have to find my own community of people who are either crazy enough or stupid enough to partake has not been an easy undertaking and I find it hard to convince myself to get in the water when the wind is biting and I think of being bare skinned in the wilderness. Luckily, however, the Lake District has some of the best open water swimming spots in the UK.
Whenever I pass the water, I habitually scan for the tell-tale neon tow float in the water or figures huddled on the shoreline. Teaching and watching people swim has been my career since I graduated from university. Since then, I have had the opportunity to see Olympic swimmers who weren’t swimming to win medals but just for the pure joy of it. Watching a master of their craft experience the same joy that I have seen in the children I have taught to go under water and blow bubbles is mind blowing. Although I have met elite swimmers, I have also met people who have just started out swimming, people who have fears about the water, then completely conquer their fears and become completely at peace in the water. So, whilst not all cold water swimmers can reach the heights of endurance athletes such as Lynne Cox, Wim Hoff or Lewis Pugh, every one of them can experience the thrill and the incredible feeling of calm, focus and peace in an extreme environment. Why wouldn’t you?
Please note: if it is your first time cold water swimming, please make sure you go with someone who knows what they’re doing.
Before you start you must educate yourself on Hypothermia, Cold Water Shock, SIPE and The After Drop. If you have any underlying health conditions please consult your doctor. Learn about the hazards where you swim ie rocks, weather conditions, currents and find the safest entry and exit points. Swim with experienced cold water swimmers and bring plenty of warm clothes and hot drinks. Always swim within your own limits, winter is not a time to push yourself. If in doubt stay out. There will always be another day to swim.
Illustrations by Bethan Thorsby