Wild Swimming In Winter: Why It Is Good For You & How To Cope With The Cold
I have been wild swimming now for several years and do most of it during the winter months. It isn’t that I don’t like it in the summer, but I tend to find I am too busy with other sports such as paddle boarding, cycling and mountaineering and I just don’t find the time to get a dip in the water quite as regularly as I do in winter. I love getting out early on a Sunday morning when the sun has just risen and the world is still waking up. In winter you never really know what to expect, it can be calm and sunny days but often it is blowing a gale and the waves are crashing down. It might be raining, hailing, or snowing and sometimes the seaweed is frozen, or the sea is hidden by swirling mists slowly dissipating as the sun rises. In winter, the water temperature can be warmer than the air temperature and although it is obviously cold getting into the water I tend to find the most difficult conditions are when I wet and have to get out of my wetsuit in a freezing northerly gale. I have a strict routine that works for me, I know what kit I need, what order to lay it out in so I can get dressed quickly afterwards and do it quickly before my hands get too cold and stop working. In the water I love the calmness that settles on me, I can’t think about anything other than the sensations on my body, the conditions of the sea and the beach, mountains and sea that surround me. I often float and gaze up at the clouds and just take a moment to absorb the sunning vista and notice what is so special about the sea today, the ripples on the surface, the hail hitting the water, or the edge of the waves as they begin to break. My brain gets a total destress and I feel amazing.
So I wanted to explore more about wild swimming in winter, why it is good for you and how best to cope with the cold. I researched about the effect cold water has on our hormones and their impact on our mental health. I found out about how we can control our breathing in cold water to help us avoid the gasp reflex and keep us focused. I discovered what the experts had to say about the afterdrop effect and rewarming and the safety tips to make sure you stay out of trouble. Wild swimming seems to have had a surge in popularity during lockdown with many more people are giving it a go as leisure pools are closed and nature offers the best solutions as our natural outdoor playground. A lot of what I learned served to remind me how to swim whilst staying safe and the science confirmed what I know myself about feeling good after having a dip. I hope that this blog might inspire you to give it a go too, so here is my blog about wild swimming in winter, why it is good for you and how to cope with the cold!
"I love feeling at one with nature and the elements"
Last week I answered a post on social media that asked what I did on a Sunday morning. I replied saying that I swim in the sea off the west coast of Scotland. Most other respondents mentioned spending time with family, going to church, working, studying or doing some exercise. I got quite a few responses saying I was mad and asking what made me do it, clearly it must have stood out on the list of activities that most people considered as normal for a Sunday morning! What makes me do it is quite difficult to answer because there isn’t just one thing, I love getting out to do something just for me, I love feeling at one with nature and the elements, I get a mental boost and also helps calm my mind and keep anxiety at bay. I normally love going for a dip with other swimmers and having a chat and coffee afterwards, something I look forward to doing more of again, sometime soon. So for me it is also a sociable activity, done with friends who share similar interests and believe in the benefits of cold water swimming.
"Swimming of the west coast of Scotland definitely counts as ice swimming"
Cold water swimming is defined as swimming outdoors in sea, lochs or rivers in winter in the colder or polar regions of the world, and ice swimming is defined as swimming in water with a temperature of 5 degrees or less. Swimming off the west coast of Scotland definitely counts as ice swimming with temperatures in February (when I wrote this) already dipping to 5 degrees and the local inland lochs being even colder. There are some super amazing cold water swimmers and last year I remember looking at two videos with my children of two swimmers of them who completed extraordinary swimming achievements . Cath Pendleton, a welsh single mother who became the first person to swim a mile in the Antarctic Polar Circle, the coldest place on earth. She who trained for the trip by sitting in a paddling pool in her back garden filled with ice before graduating to lying in a chest freezer in her shed. Another extreme ice swimmer and environmental campaigner for climate change awareness, is Lewis Pugh, who swam in an Antarctic river beneath the largest glacier on the planet after spending time training on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland. He trained alongside Max Holloway one of the founding members of my local sea swimming club, Oban Seals, swimming long distances in only their trunks plus cap and goggles!
"I give cold water the respect it deserves"
I am very safety conscious when I go wild swimming. This is partly due to experiencing first hand what can happen when your body can be sent into a state of shock by sudden immersion in cold water. It might seem strange, but it actually happened to me when I was in Australia, not somewhere you would normally associate with cold water, and to be honest it probably wasn’t really all that cold. I jumped into a river from a rope swing and as soon as I was in the water, I experienced the gasp reflex that can make people drown, taking in air and water and starting to hyperventilate. Luckily, I got to shore, I remember feeling very shaky, and to this day I give cold water the respect it deserves. I would never again jump straight into cold water and for a long time I avoided it completely. It wasn’t until I moved to Argyll and started sea kayaking and paddle boarding and spent more time on the sea that my love affair with cold water started. Then a few years ago I decided to take part in a triathlon, and I needed to be able to swim in cold, and deep water, something that had always scared me. I was able to do a lot of training at my local beach which I know well and then I ventured deeper always going with friends and sometimes with the support of a RIB safety boat to keep an eye on us. I managed to conquer my fears and complete the swim and since then I have continued swimming regularly especially in winter.
"gloves and boots that are not too tight fitting allows water to remain around the extremities at a slightly warmer temperature"
I keep myself acclimatised to the cold by taking weekly dips and having a cold shower (after a hot one) most mornings. In winter I choose to swim in a wetsuit and use a cap and wetsuit gloves as well as two pairs of boots. I have learnt that wearing gloves and boots that are not too tight fitting allows water to remain around the extremities at a slightly warmer temperature stopping them from cooling down too quickly. I feel the initial searing cold as the water enters my wetsuit but after the first couple of minutes it disappears and provides an insulating layer. I focus on controlling my breathing taking deep, slow breaths from my diaphragm. Once I am fully submerged, I like to just float for a minute and take in my surroundings, let my mind calm and focus on the experience for all my senses. In winter I usually staying in for no more than 15 – 20 minutes or sometimes less. To warm up afterwards I get dressed warmly with wool against the skin sip on a warm drink that I bring in a flask. I find that going for a short walk or run on the beach afterwards helps my body temperature recover faster and avoid getting prolonged shakes as long as I don’t hang about in a freezing gale for too long!
So after doing some research to see what the experts and the scientists have to say about cold water swimming, here is what I learned.
1. Cold, hormones and mental health
Scientists have found that cold water exposure may provide mental health benefits. Exposure activates our sympathetic nervous system and temporarily increase the blood levels of beta-endorphin, cortisol and noradrenaline as well as increasing the release of noradrenaline from nerve cells in the brain too. This can bring on a natural high and increase our feelings of well-being.
Entering cold water or even having a cold shower may send such intensive amounts of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain that it might result in an anti-depressive effect. Indeed studies have shown that cold hydrotherapy can relieve depressive symptoms effectively. Being in the water can also act as a destressing technique as it makes you focus in on the present moment avoids your mind thinking about past or future worries or concerns. Instead you concentrate on the physical sensations of your body and get an enhanced awareness of your surrounds.
2. What is Cold Water Shock?
When you enter cold water there is a natural gasp reflex as the cold water hits your skin. Unless you are well practised and have trained yourself to control it, generally it isn’t just a little gasp, it can be a big gasp that fills your lung,s and you may experience several of these gasps in quick succession row. It is very hard to control this reflex and if you have dived into cold water and are still underwater when the gasp reflex happens you are likely to drown. After you have gasped you will probably continue to hyperventilate, and panicking will not help. The only way to resolve it is to totally focus in and control your breathing, herwise even swimming a few metres to the shore can be difficult. Not only can the reflex affect your breathing it can affect your heart with changes in blood pressure and blood flow which lead to confusion as your brain is impacted just as you see with hypothermia.
Research has shown that swimmers can adjust themselves to cope with their response to cold water very fast. Only 5 or 6 three minute immersions where the whole body (not the head) are immersed in cold water can reduce the cold shock response by up to 50% and even if you miss a couple of weeks you will still retain some amount of cold adapted response. Seasoned swimmers recommend that you take several deep breaths from your diaphragm before you enter the water to calm your nervous system and continue to focus on it trying hard to control the desire to gasp more quickly. This helps to control the stress hormones that start circulating and keeps our physiology more in balance.
3. Afterdrop & Reheating
Afterdrop is a phenomena that can happen after you get out of the water. I discovered that this is because when you swim, your body shuts down circulation to your skin, pooling warm blood in your core. This helps you stay in the water longer and reduces the circulation to your peripheries including your hands and feet. Meanwhile your skin and sub-cutaneous fat acts as a thermal layer, like a natural wetsuit. When you come out of the water and begin warming up the opposite occurs and blood starts to recirculate in your extremities and peripheral blood vessels, cooling as it goes. It can result in you shivering uncontrollably and drop your core body temperature by up to 4.5 degrees. While a short‐term stress like cold water exposure can have a positive health effect, going in for too long or too frequently can amount to a prolonged stress which could be detrimental. Frequent cold water swimming with prolonged shivering afterwards might fall into the latter category.
It seems that the key to warming up and staying well is to warm up slowly and gradually. If you attempt to rush it by, for example, having a warm shower or bath, you will draw the warm blood that has pooled in your core to the skin at speed, leading to rapid cooling. You will quite likely faint as your temperature plummets along with your blood pressure. The experts advice is simple, lay your kit out before you swim so it is as easy as possible to get dressed again. In winter using wool can really help to insulate you and stop you losing more heat especially if you are still damp. Make sure you have warm gloves and a hat too as you can lose a lot of heat from your head. Bring a hot flask of something to drink which can help warm you up internally and maybe have a small bite of something sugary to eat which can help to increase your metabolic rate. Get moving if you feel ok, a fast walk up and down the beach can be the best way to help your body reheat itself. Or sit in a warm car with the heater on. Only drive when you feel good enough.
4. Do you need a wetsuit or not?
Everyone has their own personal preference and I choose to wear one in winter as otherwise I struggle to stay in for long enough to make taking a dip worthwhile. Having said that most of my friends do without and even now when the sea is nearly at its coldest they can still stay in for around 10 minutes. The experts seem to agree that if you are new to cold water swimming the key is to be sensible and do what works for you. You need to acclimatise yourself slowly only going on for 2 to 3 minutes to begin with and not going out of your depth. Each time you go make it very slightly longer as long as you feel fine. Ideally summer is the best time to start which then gives you time to acclimatise before the really cold temperatures set in. Some people also find that very cold water can be painful for them or make their extremities go numb which you want to avoid. If you wear a wetsuit you still get the cold water shock but the water layer held close to you by the neoprene warms up slightly giving you some insulation.
5. What safety measures should you take?
There is no such thing as ‘safe’ wild swimming, only swimming that is done safely for you as an individual. Plus safety can change with the weather, the climate, the place and who it is done with. The best advice I found is that you should only go into water that you know or go with someone who knows it well, this should make sure you only swim somewhere with suitable tidal conditions, currents and easy places to get out of it. Ideally only go into the water along with someone else or that someone else is watching you to make sure you get out safely. Use the equipment you feel comfortable with such as a wetsuit and don’t feel pressurised to do what everyone else is doing. Use a swim float which you attach round your waist which gives you someone to hold onto if you get cramp or need a rest and it makes you more visible. Another good option for visibility is to wear a brightly coloured cap. Try to do a mini risk assessment each time you head into the water to make sure it is a sensible decision for you on the day.
So I hope that this blog has inspired you to have a go at wild swimming and given you a bit more confidence about how to it safely and how to avoid getting too cold. You might want to see if you can find out about a local club or group as there are more and more people taking the plunge and they are normally very welcoming of new members. Experienced local swimmers can give you advice on the best place to go and even buddy you along. Many wild swimmers look forward to their few minutes in the water each week as their ‘me’ time when they relax their mind, get a digital detox and feel at one with nature. For me I just love the intense focus I get which gives me an amazing feeling of calm, I love looking at land from the sea which puts it in a whole new perspective and I love the fact that the sea state along with the weather are constantly changing meaning that no two swims are the same. Do let us know if you give it a go, if you swim already share your favourite wild swim spots and your experiences to encourage others to try their first dip!
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