When the thermometer hovers just above freezing, an open water swim is probably the last thing on your mind.
But, in fact, the growing number of open water swimmers who keep going through the winter are on to something. Going for a cold water swim is probably one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health.
The science of cold water swimming
In 2018, the British Medical Journal reported on the health benefits of cold water swimming.
The scientific team examined how cold water immersion could help your body cope with the body’s stress response, our flight or fight mode.
The theory is that the initial shock, or gasp for air, as you first enter icy water, triggers your body’s stress response. Your body releases a stress hormone, Cortisol, there is a surge of adrenaline and endorphins to help relieve pain and your immune system kicks into life.
The more often you swim in cold water and expose yourself to this shock, the more you get used to the response. You learn to control your heart rate, your breathing and the body’s flight and fight response. You are more prepared to cope with the feelings brought on by stress in your life.
There are also other benefits of open water swimming – the physical exercise makes us happy and even more so when it’s outdoors and in nature.
Helping mental health and depression
The power of cold water swimming is now recognised for its mental health benefits. There is a growing number of personal stories of how cold water swimming has helped people to overcome depression.
For example, Wim Hof, the extreme athlete known as The Iceman, believes that wild swimming helped him to survive the death of his wife. In the BBC documentary “The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs”, Dr Chris van Tulleken met swimmers who use a cold dip as an alternative treatment to depression.
Groups of like-minded swimmers are now starting to come together around the UK and Ireland. Mental Health Swims is a free support group for anyone to turn up, swim and meet others.
Getting started with cold water swimming
Before you jump in the next river or lake, think about what you will need.
Wim Hof, The Iceman, recommends getting started by turning the water to cold for a few seconds at the end of your shower, and getting used to things from there.
You should also think about kit for open water swimming – a swim safety device, towel and warm clothes to put on afterwards.
After a swim, a swim robe or changing robe can help to prevent the danger of hypothermia or ‘after drop’ when you start shivering as your core temperature lowers.
For added warmth during your winter swim you might want to wear a neoprene swimming cap, boots and gloves to keep your hands and feet warm. Or even a wetsuit for those longer swims.
How to swim safely in open water
At TekraSport, our ethos is to swim with a buddy, always! You should have a flotation device, ideally a swim safety device like our TekraPod. TekraPod offers a streamlined alternative to swim buoys and tow floats. It is instantly inflatable should you ever need a rest or want to alert help.
If you have any health conditions or concerns, chat to your GP before taking up cold water swimming, just to make sure you have no underlying issues which could be exacerbated by the cold water.
You should ease yourself into the water slowly before starting to swim. Be aware that you will experience cold shock and rapid breathing as your body gets used to the cold.
Keep an eye on the time you are in the water and how you’re feeling. Cold water swimming can take more out of you so recognise when you might be getting tired.
The general rule is that you should spend about 1 minute in the water per degree of water temperature. So, a January dip in the sea when it’s on average 5 to 10 o C will mean you should be about 5 to 10 minutes in the water.
Top places for wild winter swimming
The UK and Ireland has a huge variety of places for wild swimming, from scenic beaches to reservoirs and rivers.
Take care to check out the place before you go. Some spots are better suited for beginners while others can be challenging even for the most experienced swimmers. See our guide to the best spots to swim in the UK and Ireland.
In winter, rivers can be fast flowing with unusual currents, and the sea will be colder than usual, but don’t let that put you off.
If you’re thinking of a way to kick-start a happier, healthier year, then cold water swimming might be just thing.