The Health Benefits of Swimming In Winter
By Fenwick Ridley
A growing number of cold-water swimmers swear by the mental and physical benefits.
When you’re chilled, you’re more stress-resistant
Initially, cold water swimming puts stress on the body both physically and mentally, but just as stress causes an adrenalin surge (which culminates in a person’s fight or flight response), it also kick-starts the immune system and activates the body’s defences. Just think, every time you repeat your cold-water swimming experience, you’ll have more control over your stress response, which will ensure you’re in better shape to cope with stress when you’re out of the cold water too.
Chilled to the bone, but great
While cold water will increase our capacity to cope with stressful situations, it also reduces inflammation as well as our risk of depression too. While it’s easy to focus on the cold, it’s what happens afterwards—the surge of endorphins—that’s the real secret. You can expect heightened alertness, improved concentration and a mood lift following each cold-water swim, because, as well as activating your endorphins, cold water swimming is also a form of exercise, which is proven to help mental health.
Plunge into cold water and while you may only feel the electricity of liquid burning cold, your blood is on the move! Essentially the cold water allows your blood and oxygen to flow faster around your skin, your vital organs, and your body in general. It solidifies in that overwhelming sense of warm flush you feel when you get out and warm up. Basically, cold water swimming is a win for your heart health!
How to get started?
Ever heard the phrase ‘you have to learn to walk before you can run’? Well, the exact same goes with cold water swimming. Before you get carried away, understand that every cold plunge will be an individual experience and your body can react differently every single time depending on external factors.
In the beginning, it needs to be a staged activity; keep it small calm and collected. Enter the water in a normal state; there’s no need to ‘warm up’ prior as then you’re heightening your body temperature, which can lead to cold water shock.
On the 1st or 2nd run, you may not last long and that’s normal; don’t fret, you’ll get there in time. A lot of people think they can go from swimming laps in a normal pool to cold water and that’s simply not the case. Swimming in lower temperatures can burn up to triple the amount of energy and is not to be taken lightly.
As you enter, don’t focus on swimming; just focus on being in a small space, taking measures on the body’s change into cooler conditions and allowing the body to go through a huge change in temperature and energy.
Try to avoid following your instinct and splashing your chest; instead, go for your arms and especially your face, as this is known to have a calming effect and can reduce your heart rate by approximately 10-25%. By instantly splashing your chest, you’ll heighten your gasp reflex and that’s when we see people go into panic mode.
Next up, I advise a blowing out technique for getting your breath under control. This shouldn’t be a massive breath in, but a strong one; there’s no need to completely fill the lungs.
Stay in until you’ve had enough. If you get to a point where your hands are numb, you’ve gone too far. Take it one step at a time.
When leaving the water, bear in mind that your body temperature will continue to drop even once you’re back on land. Take this activity slowly and your body will reward you afterwards.
To dry off, gently pat yourself down with a towel, avoiding any vigorous drying techniques as this can lead to sensitive skin and itching. Get yourself cocooned in clothes and a good quality change robe. Warming yourself from the inside out is crucial.
Next up, it’s time to get a bit of fuel in to replenish all that energy you’ve just burned off. For this I recommend something like a hot chocolate, as it acts as a delivery system for sugar, along with that liquid heat.
Warming back up can take longer than the swim itself, so don’t plan to rush off; give yourself time to relax and enjoy those post plunge benefits.
Your post dip response will depend on what you’ve done prior. For example, were you stressed, dehydrated or not properly fueled? These elements can kick us out of the water sooner and cause us to shiver for longer afterwards.
Whilst this may all sound a bit daunting, the euphoric feeling does become addictive and the positive mentioned above, outweigh any rocky starts. So long as you start slow and don’t have too many expectations, it will become an enjoyable ritual that you can’t live without.
Get The Right Equipment
Part of what has made cold water swimming so popular is its simplicity. Below are a few additional items that can make it a little more enjoyable.
1. Changing Robe
Unlike towels, which aren’t the best insulators, throwing a Red Paddle Co waterproof changing robe into the mix is ideal for changing and warming up comfortably.
2. Swimming Cap
Not only are swim caps helpful for managing long hair and keeping you warm, but they are often brightly coloured which will help keep you nice and visible. I recommend silicone over latex as it’s more environmentally friendly.
3. Swimming Tow Float
Like a brightly coloured swimming cap, using a swimming tow float helps with more than just visibility on those murky weekend swims. They can also add as a perch to hold onto if you or your family members need a breather; some even hold a drink, snack, or mobile phone!
4. Bring the Friends
Inviting family and friends along can turn cold water swimming into a social event as much as anything else.
Fenwick Ridley is an ice swimmer, adventurer, cold-water junkie and a Red Paddle Co ambassador.