The hardest part is before you get in, when you are shivering at the water’s edge wondering if it’s too late to turn back. I have been swimming in cold water regularly for six years now but every time I take the plunge I have to give myself a stern pep talk. At West Reservoir in Hackney, I try to ignore the chalkboard with the water temperature scribbled on it and think instead about how I will feel afterwards. There’s a sharp intake of breath when you hit the cold water but the exhilaration after you’ve pushed through lasts the whole day. Alexandra Heminsley, who wrote Leap In: a Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim, describes it as “a hangover in reverse”: pain followed by a high.
Yes, it’s sad that summer is over, but the silver lining is that London’s lidos, ponds and reservoirs are finally emptying out and the water is cold enough for the most energising type of swimming. The mistake is to think of cold water swimming as like other exercise. You won’t be able to measure your achievement in lengths or people you have overtaken. The benefits are less tangible and more wide-ranging.
Cold water swimming evangelists (and I call them that because it does inspire an almost cultish devotion) talk about how it can help to heal a broken heart, ease anxiety and ward off colds and flu. At the moment, when the world feels like it is imploding, the shock of the cold is a welcome reboot.
Psychologist Sarah Gingell explains: “Our minds can be our own worst enemies, tending to run in overdrive in unpredictable times such as the present. Cold water swimming can act as a reset, interrupting our worries, and over the longer term may act to recalibrate our stress responses so they are more in proportion to the degree of immediate danger.”
There are studies to support this. “The modern world is geared to keep us in our comfort zones, warm, dry, well-fed,” Gingell continues. “Paradoxically, this can make the real, unpredictable world seem more threatening, and we tend to overreact. Studies show that exposure to cold water over a period of time reduces adrenaline-driven responses to other stressors, and also increases our ability to calm ourselves down after stress. This cross-adaptation effect lasts for months.” But cold water swimming has always been divisive. In ancient Greek times the historian Herodotus warned of the dangers of cold water, while according to the physician Hippocrates it boosted energy, and US president Thomas Jefferson used a cold foot bath every morning for six decades to “maintain his good health”.
Wim Hof is the current leader of the cold water swimming pack. The Dutch extreme athlete douses himself in chilly water daily, saying it kickstarts the body’s recovery process, combined with deep-breathing exercises. “With the help of the Wim Hof Method, you will become able to take control over various processes in your body, and thereby improve your overall health,” he says.While nothing has been proven, this makes it interesting for those studying how people recover from Covid.
Hof’s approach is extreme (and don’t mention him if you want to avoid sounding like you have joined the cold water swimming tribe) but there is research that shows the benefits of a n icy plunge. Cold Water Immersion, Kill or Cure?, a joint report by the University of Portsmouth and Royal Sussex County Hospital, cites studies that found cold water swimmers suffered fewer, shorter and less severe infections. Their stress and inflammatory responses were lower, and a 2015 study found they developed fewer colds than their partners. Women responded better to it than men.
The journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine found regular cold water immersion helped boost levels of antioxidant glutathione, which helps to regulate the process of all other antioxidants in the body. Cold water also activates brown fat, which burns through calories at a higher rate. If you already do a lot of other exercise it can aid recovery. The British Triathlon Foundation says that its effect is similar to using an ice pack; it “constricts arteries, preventing swelling and muscle soreness”.
The key is not immersing yourself for too long. Mike Tipton, physiology professor at Portsmouth University, who wrote the report, says: “There are some theories to do with the beneficial impact of cold water immersion on inflammatory-related illnesses, stress responses and up-regulation of the immune system.” But he adds a note of caution: “Anyone wishing to start should do so after a medical check-up, incrementally, carefully and under supervision, for example by joining an open water swimming club.”
The social factor is a draw — I only started because a friend encouraged me (being proud and not wanting her to think I didn’t dare go in may have played a part too). Outdoorswimmingsociety.com has tips and groups to join. So take the plunge, the water is lovely. Really.
Ice, ice baby how to take the plunge
1. Get kitted out. You may enjoy the feeling of water on your skin, but as the water temperature drops, protecting your extremities is important (otherwise you may lose feeling in your fingers and toes for hours afterwards). Wearing a swimming hat is the first priority, followed by neoprene gloves and boots, then a wetsuit when the weather turns colder.
2. Take it slow. Do not dive or jump in as your body will go into shock from the cold water. Instead, immerse yourself gradually, so your body can get used to the change in temperature.
3. Keep moving but don’t stay in too long. It’s natural that you will feel cold on entering the water, but your body will adjust to the water temperature. Don’t overdo it on your first dip and don’t wait until you are uncomfortably cold to get out, a few minutes is enough.
4.Tempting as it is to immediately have a hot shower afterwards, resist. Warm up slowly, taking off wet clothes and putting on warm ones, then heat your core with a hot drink. This way you’ll avoid after-drop (violent shivering, which your body uses to warm-up again)
By Simon Murie, founder of SwimTrek