Health

The Unexpected Benefits of Cold Water Swimming

The health benefits of cold water swimming have long been suspected, from Victorians gathering in their bathing machines to the lido boom of the early twentieth century. Now science is starting to back up the anecdotal evidence with studies that suggest that there are lasting positive effects of a bracing outdoor dip. 

 Studies are still in the early stages and we are only just starting to understand how cold water immersion affects the human body.

 An Increased Tolerance to Stress

 Submerging yourself in cold water is not everyone's cup of tea. The temperature of the water creates a stress reaction in the body, the same kind of reaction we experience if we find ourselves in a scary or tense situation. The body releases the stress hormone cortisol and breathing frequency and heart rate increases. The body’s fight or flight mechanism kicks in, explaining why the natural reaction to getting into cold water is to want to get out as fast as possible. 

 As anyone who has braved an icy dip will know, the stress reaction recedes as you adjust to the temperature. There is now evidence to suggest that repeatedly putting your body through cold water immersion gradually reduces the severity of the initial stress reaction.

 It may not be that cold water swimmers become acclimatised to the water, they just get used to their body’s reaction and the reaction itself becomes less severe. 

 The real magic is that the reduction in the stress response applies in other stressful situations, not just on exposure to cold water. Your reaction to other stressful events - taking an exam, bungee jumping - is also reduced.

 A Boost to Self Esteem

 The process of forcing yourself to stay in cold water could be increasing your mental strength. Getting out of your comfort zone builds confidence and courage as well as giving you a sense of accomplishment. By becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable you increase your resilience in other areas of life. 

 Swimming as a Mindfulness Exercise

 When you immerse yourself in cold water you are sending your nervous system into overload. Nerve endings transmit responses to your brain, telling you just how cold parts of your body are.

 Your brain only has limited bandwidth and with the intense sensation of the water to focus on there is no space left for your brain to go over your to-do list or worry about anything other than the cold. This focus on the present moment has much in common with mindfulness exercises and offers a welcome time out from the constant churning of our everyday thoughts. 

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 Decreased Inflammation

 Ice baths are used by elite athletes all over the world to aid post performance recovery. The science is simple, your body reacts to the cold temperatures by directing blood away from your extremities to protect the organs in your core.

 The low blood flow to your limbs decreases inflammation and allows muscles to recover much quicker. A bracing dip can give you all the benefits of an ice bath.

 Increased Immunity

 The science isn't conclusive on this one but many swimmers report fewer coughs and colds than their non-swimming friends, and there is a theory to back it up. The stress reaction caused by cold water immersion is suspected to trigger an increase in white blood cell production, providing a natural boost to your immune system.

 When you add together the physical and mental benefits of swimming then it is certainly plausible that there is a positive impact on the immune system. 

 Radiant Skin

 Swimming in open water - especially sea water - may have beneficial effects on your skin. Salt water is awash with magnesium, calcium and potassium which is all good news for the skin. Sea water is also a mild antiseptic and may encourage damaged skin to heal. 

 Post Swim High 

 The fabled after swim high is a real thing, as the mix of exercise and cold water exposure triggers a release of dopamine, the body's feel good hormone. If you swim with a buddy or in a group the chance to share and compare your experience with like-minded people intensifies the experience. 

 The water may be chilly but there are plenty of reasons why pushing through your resistance and persisting with cold water swimming is a great thing to do for your health and well being. 


 If you're thinking of taking up the sport have a look at the Swim Secure Open Water Swimming Safety Guide for some tips on how to get started safely. 

 For more great advice, information and tips visit the Outdoor Swimming Society and Outdoor Swimmer Magazine

That One Wild Swim - by Katie Maggs

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What would I do and where would I find myself if it wasn’t for that one wild swim? A question I often ask myself when I am feeling overtired, anxious, stressed or rundown. There are times in my life as a busy working Mum that I can feel incredibly calm, confident in my journey, creative in my work and content in my surroundings – but only if I honour that ‘one wild swim’.

 In the recent Christmas break I slipped into a wonderful routine of worry-free sleep, regular dawn swimming, a quiet morning to write and a feeling of endless courage and possibility. I felt exactly how I thought I should, that time didn’t matter, and that anything was possible if I just managed to be quiet enough to listen to my own intuition and follow its advice. As I strolled the seafront and the local park with mindfulness, new ideas would fill my mind. I experienced such clarity that I felt I could achieve anything if I just made sure I did it with honesty and an authentic heart.

Upon return to work and without realising it, my normal rushed working pace resumed once more. Time mattered, deadlines reappeared, swims were missed, and all the usual noise and panic returned to my life. A day of success with a recent published piece of writing turned into a time of self-doubt, comparison, worry about the future and low mood. Without that ‘one wild swim’ I was struggling to rationalise my feelings, comparing myself to others, doubting my journey and the worth of all my past and current work.

By simply adding in just a few more have to’s and by missing my regular me time I had in such a short space of time completely lost perspective on my life and of being able to celebrate all my own personal success. I had been published in a magazine and I had, through life’s lists, lost all confidence in myself. I doubted my future, I compared my journey to others and I felt a failure whilst finding fault in my projects and my work. From absolute clarity a few days before, my mind had become cloudy and I could sense a total shift in my ability to think positively about myself and my future.

Through losing that small space in my day in that ‘one wild swim’ I had lost the space I needed to grow. We all surely deserve to live out our childhood dreams, to recall our natural passions and remember all those things we wanted to do as a child, but lack of self-care in my book continues to be the thief of living a successful and purposeful life. How can we really love our lives when we always feel we should have done better? I am forever mindful of this when I post my own images on social media. I don’t want people to feel that they must compete, that they feel bad about their own lack of exercise or ability to get up and get outdoors in the day or early in the mornings.

My aim has always been to be completely honest about my own vulnerabilities and struggles in life in the hope to inspire and encourage others to try new things, experience new places, discover new parts of themselves and to feel confident to trust their own ideas and feelings. My message is to realise that the present is not always how it will be, how we see ourselves and how others see us will not always stay the same. We are all able to change our current situation and develop who we are by engaging in a small regular act of daily self-care and personal adventure.

Over the past few weeks we have had new faces joining us at the rocks for an early morning swim – proof hopefully that the sharing of my wild swimming journey has been a help to most and not a hinderance. When we fail to regularly selfcare, when we let it slip, when we think we don’t need it we lose the ability to fulfil our true potential, to celebrate others journeys and to have the drive and inspiration to celebrate and focus on our own. To me, that ‘one wild swim’ is so much more than just a swim – it is a gateway to the future, a road to self-discovery, a journey to our real, contented and childlike selves.  It is a reminder that as children we all once had grand ideas, hopes, dreams and a fearless sense of ambition – we feared not of other opinions or of their similar abilities we just soldiered on doing something that we loved, with focus, determination and joy.

And so, as I stand frozen once more, at the edge of the sea for a swim. Instead of a loss and a feeling of doubt I go home, I am me, it’s a win.  

Katie Maggs is a swimmer and author who writes on the topics of open water swimming and mental health. Her inspirational journey has been documented in the short film Tonic of the Sea and she will be publishing her first book of the same name soon. Visit Katie’s website for more information.