Written by John Walters, Founder & Director of Questae Collective
This is the second iteration of this article.
Why? Well for those of you who follow my personal instagram feed (@johncawalters), you will have seen that on the evening that I penned this, I inadvertently overwrote it, and I can tell you what, every single item from my resilience tool kit was used in that moment, every single one…oh and a very large glass of red wine!
My friend Jess suggested that the second draft would actually be better than the first. Well I do hope so – thanks Jess! Then another fiend of mine’s husband came to the rescue and the document was retrieved, happy days…and I enjoyed the wine even more lol. Thank you Scott and Lauren!
So cold water swimming, what is it all about then, and why has it become so popular?
Is it a fad, a trend, something to do to be cool (haha bad pun intended!), or is there something deeper, more meaningful, and real about the many
benefits claimed to be enjoyed? Well let’s take a look shall we, but before we do I want to be honest here and say that I cannot take 100% credit for this article. You see since April last year my youngest daughter Mia, has been joining me at least once every month. She gets in no matter the
temperature and I am so proud of her for doing so, and this last weekend she created a chart outlining these benefits I will be speaking of – so thank you Mia for your input, inspiration, and cold water swimming companionship!
Her twin brother Zac, well he refuses to get in, but he is the local crab expert, so not all is lost eh. You see, as a child I grew up in-land and nowhere near any water that could be swum in. Yes I would go to the local swimming pool, but this was a treat because neither of my parents enjoyed the water. But on our summer holidays in Cornwall, I was never out of the water.
Fast forward a few years (a lot of years) and I moved to Margate. So I found myself surrounded by the sea, suddenly it was right there, right on my doorstep, available to me anytime I wanted it. I did swim regularly but I have to admit that it was during the warmer months, the late spring, summer, and early autumn. Then it would be the gym pool and the warm embrace of the calm, smooth, and ‘heated’ water. This was then the norm for a good few years until November in 2019 when after a run on a beautifully still, clear, sunny, but cold, morning, without thinking I just got in, and fucking hell it was cold – jeeeeeez!!! I stayed in for less than 5 minutes, I got halfway across and then decided to turn back, got out and walked home shivering…my god the shower that morning took some time haha.
What I wasn’t expecting was the euphoria that I experienced afterwards, how good it made me feel, how energised I was, and how focussed I was throughout the entire day…mmm maybe there’s something to this cold-water swimming?
So I decided to lean more…and I was amazed.
- Regular exposure to cold water can increase the while blood cell count which leads to a more efficient immune system.
- Exposure to cold water improves circulation as it causes blood to be directed to our organs to keep them warm.
- It makes our heart work harder, moving the blood around our body more efficiently and effectively. Then after the swim, and as we warm up, blood is returned to our extremities causing a tingling afterglow which feels so lurverly!
- Endorphins are released, and this happy hormone reduces discomfort, eases pain, and reduces any nagging, chronic condition. Endorphins also make us feel happy and euphoric giving us a natural high!
- Dopamine and Serotonin, another pair of happy hormones are also released, and both these hormones are essential for keeping depression at bay as well as so many other benefits – ask me about ‘happy hormones’, I love them!
- Calories are burned faster, and not just because we are exercising, but because our body is working harder to maintain its core temperature, in fact some studies have found that frequent exposure to cold water may actually increase our metabolism.
But it doesn’t stop there, there are so many other added benefits to cold water swimming, and one of those is stress, and how our body handles or manages stress, or it’s reaction to being forced into a stressful situation.
I am sure that we have all experienced that moment, whether in a shower, a pool, or even having a bucket of icy water tipped over us (remember the ice-bucket challenge?), that moment when we are shocked by the cold and our breathing goes bananas, we hyperventilate, can’t catch our breath…you’ve experienced that yea?
Well, this is caused when our body is ‘forced’ into ‘fight of flight’ mode. It’s our natural response to fear, or shock, or stress – our heart rate sours, our chest beats, our breathing becomes rapid, and we want to flee, or hide, or fight, and this is known as our ‘sympathetic’ nervous system kicking in.
Getting into cold water triggers the sympathetic nervous system which is why one of the effects is to breath super quick, hyper ventilate, and feel stressed at that moment of entry. This is when those happy hormones are supressed, the adrenal glad produces cortisol and adrenalin, which are the hormones needed to trigger stress and the ‘fight or flight’ response.
The key however is to trick the body into triggering the ‘para-sympathetic’ nervous system, which is the absolute opposite of ‘fight or flight’ and one of ‘rest and digest’. This is where we supress the adrenal gland and activate the ‘happy hormones, and our heart rate reduces bringing a sense of calm.
But to trick the body into engaging our ‘parasympathetic’ nervous system we need to learn how to control and regulate our breathing.
For me this means deep diaphragmatic breathing for a couple of minutes before entering the water. Breathing in through my nose for 4 seconds, and exhaling from my mouth for 8 seconds. I also inflate my belly when breathing in rather than using my chest as this gets the air right down into the bottom part of the lungs using the entire lung space, as opposed to just a part when we chest breath.
This breathing exercise engages the vagus nerve which connects the brain to our organs including the heart and the lungs, and doing this exercise regularly (at least once a day) will increase, and improve, what is known as the vagal tone which will improve our mental health and mental wellbeing.
For example, if you have a high vagal tone, this means that your ‘parasympathetic’ nervous system is working, and this means that your body can relax more quickly after experiencing stress. And one way to stimulate the vagus nerve is to regularly practice breath work, the other, no surprise here given the theme, is by immersing your body in cold water.
And whilst some therapists and experts will say that taking a cold bath, or shower, or by simply immersing you face in a bowl of cold water will do, which is still great and definitely better than doing nothing, cold water swimming simply cannot be beaten.
So there you have it, the many benefits of cold water swimming, and here are my top tips for cold water swimming…
Join a local group – great for camaraderie, meeting new friends and community spirit. I belong to a group called ‘Mental Health Swims’ which is a fantastic group to be part of (see below for link to find your local group).
You should never swim alone and always tell someone when you are going, where youre going, and how long you expect to be.
Wear a hat, neoprene gloves and boots, maybe get a wetsuit (I wear a wetsuit jacket in the colder months).
Always have a towel, a change of clothing, a robe (I use a dryrobe®) and a flask with a hot drink, a snack is also advisable.
Do NOT dive in – really silly, it’s hard to regulate breathing, and you really don’t wat to hyperventilate underwater!
Acclimatise and know your limits – if youre just getting started then a simple and quick dip in and straight out is good. Just build the time up youre in the water, your body will get used to it, and it will thank you.
Warm back up slowly – don’t just get straight into a hot bath or take a hot shower, this can be very dangerous for many reasons so warm yourself up using clothes, towels, blankets, or a robe, and enjoy the hot drink.
And please, always take medical advice before embarking on any new physical activity.
If you are interested in cold water swimming here are some resources that you may find useful.
If you have read this and you would like to know more, or if you would like to find out how we can assist, guide, and implement a Wellbeing programme tailored specifically for your organisation, then please do get in touch 😊