Cold water bathing, AKA wild swimming, outdoor swimming, the Wim Hof method, possible madness… The Victorians were mad for it, and it’s currently enjoying a huge resurgence in popularity. People are hurling themselves into winter seas, ice holes and cold showers and raving about the benefits.
Sitting on the sofa, wrapped up in my dressing gown with a hot cup of tea and half a packet of digestives in hand, I can’t think of anything I’d like less than to plunge into the cold abyss of the English sea right now. But apparently it’s an experience an increasing number of people are choosing.
You only need to pop down to Brighton beach on any given morning to see the brave members of Brighton Swimming Club huddled together, laughing and preparing themselves for a quick and invigorating dip in the fresh open sea. ALL YEAR ROUND!
But what drives someone to take on this extreme pursuit? Could it be that we are simply becoming a nation of daredevils? Or are we so bored with the day to day slog that we need an epic buzz and no longer will a few G&Ts suffice. Are we hard wired to need this kind of stimulation, now that our lives have become so safe and cushy?
…it was the high I got from pushing myself mentally; first to take the plunge and then to swim for longer
According to Sue Fisher from Cornwall, it’s a combination of the mental strength needed to swim in these extreme conditions and the camaraderie with other swimmers that makes it so addictive for her.
“I initially thought it would be a good way to improve my physical fitness, but I soon found out that it was the high I got from pushing myself mentally; first to take the plunge and then to swim for longer, that really made the experience. Plus the friends I have made of course. Nothing beats the support, and the ribbing, that comes with an extreme sport like this.”
But surely swimming in temperatures of only 5 degrees or even colder can be dangerous? Not to mention the depth and current of open waters. There’s a stark difference between wading out into the calm sea on a warm summer’s day than there is to plunging into the icy depths of the unknown on a cloudy, depressing morning in the middle of the winter.
Sue explains that it is all about knowing your limits and taking responsibility for your own personal safety. “I would never dream of taking part in a new hobby such as sailing or canoeing without proper training, support and advice,” she says. “But people think that swimming in the outdoors is the same as swimming in a pool, just a bit colder. This is not the case. The conditions are completely different, and you need to prepare and train your body to be able to deal with these conditions.“
The Outdoor Swimming Society recommends the following advice for those who are new to cold water bathing or outdoor swimming;
- Do not jump straight into the cold water as the shock to your system will force your body to take aninvoluntary sharp intake of breath.
- Instead wade in slowly and keep your head above the water.
- Do not swim alone.
- Start off slowly and gradually build up your tolerance in the water.
- Wear a wet suit to help your body deal with the cold.
- Always dress immediately afterwards, starting with your top half and ending with a hat and gloves.
- Follow with a hot drink to help bring your body temperature back up to normal.
So what kind of person does it take to not only take on this extreme hobby, but to also to thrive from it? Dutch athlete Wim Hof (also known as the Ice Man), a man with seemingly superhero abilities and the ability to push his body to the absolute limit and back again, is a huge advocate of the effects of swimming in cold water.
(Just to give you a little background information on this man and famous control he has over his body; he’s previously run a marathon above the Arctic wearing only shorts and sandals, swum under ice for 120m with only one breath, climbed Mount Everest wearing just shorts, and run a full marathon in the Namib desert without water.)
“We spend all our time in a warm, comfortable environment, not being stimulated”
Obviously, Wim has adapted his body to be able to endure extreme conditions, but how are these experiences affecting his health, particularly aspects like wild swimming, and swimming in outdoor waters? Only in a positive way, according to the man himself.
“It’s important that we continue to adapt… by exposing ourselves to nature. We spend all our time in a warm, comfortable environment, not being stimulated,” he states. “I swim in natural water every day. It gives me a rush of energy as it activates my body and mind and forces a deep concentration.”
Now this makes sense to me. How often do we push ourselves physically? I know I read about people doing extreme things and think, ‘good for them’ or ‘maybe I’ll give that a try,’ but then go back to my safe and comfortable routine. Maybe it is time to push our own boundaries and discover for ourselves some of the health benefits listed below of swimming in the cold. So I did a bit of research, and the positives are pretty persuasive…
Helps with mental clarity
There’s nothing like a quick, sharp shock to the system to help you see things more clearly. Not to mention the mental strength that is takes to take the plunge in the first place.
Boosts your metabolism
Your body has to work extra hard to raise your body temperature when it’s experiencing extreme cold, meaning it burns calories quicker, resulting in weight loss.
Increases your physical fitness
Even if you already consider yourself a fit person and can easily swim 50 laps of your local pool, swimming in the cold is a whole different ball game.
Easier on the injuries than other sports
In the same way that an ice pack can help stop muscle swelling or bruising, those who swim in cold water can expect less soreness than with other exercises.
Boosts your immune system
Again, rather than being in a chlorine-heavy pool, the outdoors, whether it be in the sea or a lido, will leave you exposed to a plethora of germs (in a good way), meaning your immune system will be strengthened.
Improves your circulation
Swimming in cold water increases blood flow throughout the whole body.
Okay, okay; I’m convinced. Cold water is good for you. But I’m still not sure if I’m ready to brave the sea or even the local lido in the winter yet, so is there another way to get all the benefits without taking the plunge, so to speak?
Wim Hof suggests starting with a daily cold shower in order to reawaken your system, and then to gradually move on to swimming in the outdoors. Many wellness aficionados are already singing the praise of ‘cold showering’ with groups appearing on social media such as the 30 Day Freezing Shower Challenge. Apparently Elle Macpherson is a fan.
Or perhaps we could take a leaf out of Finland’s (or indeed most of Scandinavia’s) book and experience the virtues of extreme heat and cold combined? Although we don’t have access to regular snow or freezing lakes, we could book ourselves into a spa and indulge in the sauna, quickly followed by a dip in the ice-cold plunge pool?
There is the also the rise in popularity of cold yoga, where unlike Bikram yoga, participants stretch and contort their bodies in low temperatures. Now that sounds a bit more like MY kind of thing! But maybe I’m missing the point.
Swimming in the cold is all about stepping outside of your comfort zone. Pushing your body rather than just sitting back and doing the same things you always do. Couldn’t we all do with a bit of that in our lives?
I’m still working up to a plunge in the sea but definitely going to give the cold shower treatment a go. I’ll let you know how I get on.
For more information on outdoor swimming in your area, visit www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com
Watch Wim Hof do his thing here…