Cold Water Swimming Benefits And Safety Tips
Courtesy of Swim Secure
Swimming in cold water might sound daunting at first but braving the cold and swimming through the winter can be an enjoyable and uplifting experience. Studies suggest that there are lasting positive effects from swimming in lower temperatures.
We’ll look at what makes cold water swimming so healthy and offer advice on how to swim in comfort and safety.
Beat the Stress
Submerging yourself in cold water is not everyone’s idea of fun. The temperature of the water creates a stress reaction in the body, the same kind of reaction we experience if we find ourselves in a scary or tense situation. The body releases the stress hormone cortisol and breathing frequency and heart rate increases. The body’s fight or flight mechanism kicks in, explaining why the natural reaction to getting into cold water is to want to get out as fast as possible.
As anyone who has braved an icy swim will know, the stress reaction decreases as you adjust to the temperature. There is now evidence to suggest that repeatedly putting your body through cold water immersion gradually reduces the severity of the initial stress reaction.
It may not be that cold water swimmers become acclimatized to the water, they just get used to their body’s reaction and the reaction itself becomes less severe.
The real magic is that the reduction in the stress response applies in other stressful situations, not just on exposure to cold water. Your reaction to other stressful events – sitting an exam, bungee jumping – is also reduced.
A Boost to Self Esteem
Overcoming your fear of getting into cold water has the potential to make you mentally stronger. When you get out of your comfort zone, it builds confidence and courage as well as giving you a sense of accomplishment. By becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable you increase your resilience in other areas of life.
Swimming as a Mindfulness Exercise
When you immerse yourself in cold water you are sending your nervous system into overload. Nerve endings transmit responses to your brain, telling you just how cold parts of your body are.
Your brain only has limited bandwidth and with the intense sensation of the water to focus on, there is no space left for your brain to go over your to-do list or worry about anything other than the cold. This focus on the present moment has much in common with mindfulness exercises and offers a welcome time out from the constant churning of our everyday thoughts.
Ice baths are used by elite athletes all over the world to aid post performance recovery. The science is simple, your body reacts to the cold temperatures by directing blood away from your extremities to protect the organs in your core.
The low blood flow to your limbs decreases inflammation and allows muscles to recover quicker. A bracing dip can give you all the benefits of an ice bath.
The science isn’t conclusive on this, but many swimmers report fewer coughs and colds than their non-swimming friends, and there is a theory to back it up. The stress reaction caused by cold water immersion is suspected to trigger an increase in white blood cell production, providing a natural boost to your immune system.
When you add together the physical and mental benefits of swimming then it is certainly plausible that there is a positive impact on the immune system.
Swimming in open water – especially sea water – may have beneficial effects on your skin. Salt water is high in magnesium, calcium and potassium which is all good news for the skin. Sea water is also a mild antiseptic and may encourage damaged skin to heal.
Post Swim High
The famous after-swim high is a real thing, as the mix of exercise and cold-water exposure triggers a release of dopamine, the body’s feel-good hormone. dIf you swim with a friend or in a group, the chance to share and compare your experience with like-minded people intensifies the experience.
Enough to convince you to take the plunge in cold water? Lower temperatures come with increased risks which you need to be aware of and manage.
Here are our top tips for keeping safe in cold water:
- Plan Your Swim – You should swim somewhere you are able to exit the water quickly, and make sure you leave your warm clothes at your exit point so you can heat up as quickly as possible after your swim. Remember you may need to cut your planned swim short if you get too cold. Never swim alone.
- Get in slowly – Getting into the cold water too quickly can result in reduced blood flow to your limbs and an automatic increase in your breathing rate. At worst, you could go into cold water shock and not be able to swim. Don’t start swimming until your breathing has slowed and you are confident you are over the shock.
- Make sure you are visible and supported – A brightly colored hat and swim buoy is essential. Not only will you be seen, but the swim buoy will also give you something to hold on to if you get into difficulty.
- Know your limits – Get out before you start to shiver or feel very cold, as both are signs that your core temperature is dropping.
- Beware of Afterdrop – Make sure you have warm clothes waiting for you on shore as you will get colder once you exit the water as blood returns to your cooler extremities. A hot drink at the end of a swim is a great idea, but avoid alcohol as this will cause you to lose heat. Don’t drive until you are fully warmed up. An insulated hat and a change parka are ideal for warming up quickly.
And finally enjoy it! Cold water swimming may require you to take extra precautions, but the rewards are worth the effort. Start your swims short and lengthen them as you get more experience and before you know it, you’ll be swimming year-round.
Check out the Swim Secure website and their awesome open water swimming products.