The Joys of Cold Water Swimming
Pembrokeshire boasts a number of cold water swims that happen just once a year, on Boxing Day in some places, and New Year’s Day in others. They have grown in popularity over the years with more people participating in that one-off, freeze-your-bum-off experience, accompanied by lots of shrieking and followed by hot chocolate and, if you are sensible, some warm-up exercise to get the blood flowing to the extremities.
For most, it’s an experience that won’t be repeated again, until maybe the next festival day. For others, joining one of the all-year-round wild swimming groups, or solo braving the elements, is a way of life.
I have always loved the sea, and dips at midnight in late November or early January have long been a delight. I found that once I had got over the shock of the icy water reaching my chest, I had the capacity to stay in the water much longer than anyone who came with me, coming out usually only because the sight of them shivering on the beach, now fully dressed, made me feel guilty.
I thought my ability to cope with the cold was probably to do with my rather aquatic build… no, not the well-muscled shoulders and back of a seasoned swimmer, more the rounded physique of a seal or a small whale, but I recently came upon some research that says fat people are not better predisposed to managing low sea temperatures. Neither does one have to be super fit.
I have to say that I would never leap into the icy water. I find I cope better if I keep my head above the waves. Neither do I edge into the water slowly as I see so many people doing. My technique is always to walk as briskly as I can into deepening water, trying to keep my breath even and, once it reaches my chest, to spread my arms. I have read that this is the best way to deal with the cold if you fall through the ice, and it works for me in the sea. The cold is spread more evenly over the body that way, and then it feels sensible to keep the arms and feet moving.
So that’s’ how I do it, but some of you will be asking: why do it at all?
There has been a lot of research in the past few years about the benefits to physical and mental health from swimming in the cold. It has been suggested that it activates the immune system, improves blood circulation, aids natural antioxidant production, fights depression. reduces pain, and fights chronic fatigue syndrome.
In an article in the Telegraph by Jenny Landreth, a fan of cold water swimming, Dr Mark Harper was quoted as saying: “Repeated immersion helps train our fight-or-flight response.”
Apparently, our bodies’ fight-or-flight stress response is activated by the cold, increasing our heart rate and releasing cortisol. We hyperventilate, just as we do in any stressful situation. Our bodies do not differentiate between this and any other physiological or physical stress, and we can use this fact to increase our wellbeing and overcome our anxieties.
Immersions in cold water on a regular basis causes our bodies to become accustomed to the cold water. This process is known as cold water adaptation. It is claimed that this adaptation helps us to deal with other stressful situations in our daily lives without habitually overreacting.
Long before reading this, I knew that being in cold water would make me feel calmer and happier. As someone for whom anxiety and depression have played both minor and starring roles in my life, being able to walk into the sea has always been my saviour. Even when I couldn’t actually do it, I have imagined doing it and found it calming.
Some have described cold water immersion as an almost spiritual experience. I feel that this is something for the individual to decide, but I know for myself that I can bring a head full of anxiety and even panic into the ocean and find it melt away, leaving me, if not entirely cured of my concerns, definitely more uplifted and better able to cope.
There is something deeply soothing about feeling the water slip over your skin like silk (wetsuit? never), and the sky and sea meeting all around you in shades that shift constantly in subtlety and beauty. I think that the only other time we have had this kind of experience must have been in the early days when we grew inside our mothers when the womb was our whole universe.
It’s not always a quick fix. Sometimes I have actually stayed in the water for upwards of an hour in winter and more like two in spring, but if you ever had to live in my head, you might think it worth that little bit of time and some pretty freezy toes and fingers… And wow, they can really hurt when they start to warm up. Deep-sea neoprene gloves have become a must.
Here I feel I must say something about staying safe. Mild hypothermia is a risk, but studies show that it’s not necessarily a big danger.
Some studies suggest that swimmers’ temperatures dropped about two degrees below normal. That’s not really a problem. In order for hypothermia to cause major damage, the body temperature dropping to the low 90s would need to happen. Hypothermia can make you sluggish or disoriented. That’s not good in deep water when you need to get back to dry land.
I mentioned earlier that I never jump into cold water. I have to say initially that has been because of a diving incident where I knocked myself unconscious many years ago, but it does also feel like a bad thing to do to your heart. It’s actually rare for people to have a heart attack in cold water, but let’s not risk it, eh?
So, fancy giving it a go? There are a number of all-year-round swimming groups around the county. Personally, I have not yet found one that understands the need for accessibility for some of us less able to get to out-of-the-way locations, but if you are part of a such a group, please let us know.
Similarly, if you are someone looking for all-year swimming buddies and don’t mind some being a little less agile on land, please get in touch. We could start our own Pembrokeshire.Online wild swimmers.
Swimming with a group can be safer and more companionable.
Going to give it a go? Let us know your favourite places and best experiences.