How has winter become the season for outdoor swimming? Over the last few years, cold water swimming has gone from being a niche activity done by a crazy few to being a craze. It was growing quickly anyway, but since the pandemic and exposure in the mainstream media, it's boomed.
So, why is cold water swimming so wonderful? And how can we do it safely? We asked our resident Open Water Swimming Coach, Rowan Clarke.
How is cold water immersion good for you?
Getting into cold water puts your body under great stress. This sounds awful, but it's what happens after you first get in that's so good for you. When you get into cold water, you have this stress response called cold water shock. Your heartrate, blood pressure and breathing rate increase and you release a load of stress hormones. It's your fight, flight or freeze response or sympathetic nervous system that's kicking in.
But cold water shock only lasts 60 to 90 seconds. And, as you calm yourself down by using your breathing, you tap into your rest and digest or parasympathetic nervous system and you're essentially teaching your how to respond to stress.
How does that make us feel good?
If you think about it, human beings respond in the same way to threat now as we have done throughout our existence. Only, the kind of threat we respond to has changed enormously - as has the frequency. So, instead of being chased by wolves from time-to-time, our stress response gets spiked several times each day by things like being late, losing our keys, getting cut up at a roundabout. Those small, frequent 'threats' elicit the fight or flight response. And that constant triggering of the stress response adds up to chronic stress and other mental health conditions.
The theory goes that by giving ourselves a proper big threat just like the kind we evolved to respond to, we learn how to cope better with the many stresses of modern life.
Cold water also helps in other ways like improving circulation, reducing inflammation and helping regulate things like sleep and digestion. On top of that, we're exercising and getting out in nature.
What makes winter swimming so special?
You do get all those benefits from swimming outdoors most of the year round - in any water below 15 degrees. But colder water seems to trigger a stronger response and lots of swimmers report a more intense post-swim high.
There's also something very special about feeling bold and brave by stepping into freezing water in mid-winter when most people won't even take off their coats!
In the winter, I think you have to work harder to enjoy the great outdoors. In a landscape that feels bleak or on a day that feels dreary and cold, finding somewhere to swim makes you appreciate the beauty of the seasons more acutely. You notice the way fog, ice, snow and even rain changes the whole landscape, and that's really beautiful. Or your working hours mean that you have to swim at dawn, dusk or in the dark and again, the whole world changes with the light or lack of. It really changes how you feel about winter.
What safety considerations are there in winter swimming?
You need to consider everything that you think about in the summer and then a whole load more! A good way to think about it is by going through the stages of cold water immersion and preparing for each one.
Start with cold water shock. It's sudden, it's brutal and it's the biggest killer of people getting (and falling) into cold water. But, it's also quite easy to navigate by getting in slowly and steadily. Whatever you do, never jump or dive. Instead, walk steadily into the water and immerse yourself to your shoulders. Stop there and get your breath before starting to swim.
Next, think about cold incapacitation. When you get into cold water, your body cleverly constricts blood flow to your feet, hands, skin, arms and legs so that your core gets most of your warm, oxygenated blood. But this means that your arms and legs can feel heavy and sluggish and you might find in hard to swim. So, stay in your depth and/or close to the exit. Always remember that you will not be able to swim as fast, far or easily as you can in warm water.
Finally, avoid hypothermia by keeping your dip short. Learn your limits and how you recover by listening to your body. If you're brand new to cold water swimming, stay in for two or three minutes. If you're more experienced, pay attention to how you feel. Bear in mind that you only need to stay in for two minutes to get the full benefits - there are no prizes for staying in longer.
After you get out of the water, the blood vessels in your extremities that constricted dilate and the cold blood mixes with the warm blood at your core. You core temperature will therefore carry on dropping for a while after you get out of the water. This is called the after drop. That's why it's so important to warm up well. Whatever you do, though don't have a hot shower or bath as this will make your after drop deeper and harder to recover from.
It's best to swim with other people or at least have someone on the side to help you warm up. Consider the weather and water conditions and plan your exit well.
What should I wear?
Your D&B, of course! It's double-bonded fabric gives you extra warmth. But other than a swimsuit, you just need a hat (bobble or swim cap) and lots of warm layers for afterwards.
Warming up is the most important part of your swim. Take off your wet stuff immediately and wrap up in lots of layers. A hat and warm waterproof and windproof layer are essential. As is a warm drink. I always say, dress for the weather and then add two extra layers.
Also, make sure you have a bag that won't let your stuff get wet and dirty while you swim. I use my D&B Keep it Dry Bag, of course.
Can anyone cold water swim?
Pretty much and that's one of the reasons it's so wonderful. Things like age (it gets harder in old age) and body composition (it's easier if you have more body fat) might make a difference to how you handle the cold, but anyone can get into cold water. If you have a disability things like access and changing will need a bit more consideration, but being in the cold water is brilliant for all bodies.
Do bear in mind that illness, tiredness and being dehydrated or hungry can negatively effect your ability to cope with the cold. And if you have high blood pressure, a heart condition, lowered immunity or you're pregnant, please check with your medical professionals first.
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