For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a runner at heart. I loved sports days as a child and especially competitive sprinting. My mom was ‘that’ mother cheering louder than any other from the sidelines. It was exhilarating – her cheers propelled me forward, faster, faster, faster.
Years later, when injuries forced me to cross-train, I included walking, hiking, and cycling into my exercise regime. A few of my friends and physiotherapists suggested I take up swimming too but that activity didn’t interest me in the least. Partly because I didn’t feel I was any good at it, but mainly because I’m more comfortable on solid ground. Until recently. My husband and I were hanging out with friends in Hermanus and while chilling at the side of the Marine Tidal Pool, I decided to wade in the cold water, mostly because my legs ached from an earlier bicycle ride. After the initial cold shock, I started enjoying the feeling of frozen bones and immersed my entire body. As crazy as it sounds, I thoroughly enjoyed the way my body felt. It was such a foreign experience, highly uncomfortable at first but then almost addictive. The pain turned to numbness and despite the blue tint to my complexion, I began to feel calm and rejuvenated in that state.
I was further inspired to brave the cold water after observing a friend, Shonee Cornelissen, going through the paces when her passion for swimming began with her completing the Cape Mile in 2019. The bug had bitten and she started partaking in 2.5 km events. A while later, she completed the Robben Island crossing, then a few 12 km swims and an 18 km challenge in Langebaan. Most recently, she joined Troy Mayers in a challenge beyond their comfort zones. They partook in a 24.5 km swim in Langebaan to raise funds for the Rohan Bloom Foundation. I was glued to social media that day to check that Shonee had accomplished the challenge safely. When I congratulated her on her achievement, I had so many questions, the main two being i) “Did you wear a wet suit? Six hours in cold water is quite something.” “No, I was just in a costume”; ii) “Did you feel scared of what may be lurking beneath you?” “No, it’s in the Langebaan lagoon and the boats next to us lookout for everything, so I didn’t feel scared at all.” Wow! All I could think of was hypothermia and sharks.
I felt Shonee’s elation and passion as she shared more about her experiences in cold water, “Swimming has definitely become my place of tranquillity, peace, and happiness. I had no idea I would be where I am today in terms of swimming. I was open and willing to give it a bash and it has lead me to something beautiful. Mindset plays a huge role when it comes to the cold water and having goals makes it all worthwhile. Swimming with a purpose is what it is all about for me. I have also met incredible people along the way. My recent 24.5 km swim was an amazing experience, one which taught me a lot about myself. The crowning moment was when seals joined me as I swam. An experience I will treasure.“
I wanted more. So, I recently took up a few swimming lessons to improve my stroke and started incorporating cold water swimming into my exercise routine. No matter what the ambient temperature, I still force myself to get into the water even if I can only stay in for 10 to 20 minutes. I find that if I swim through the initial shock, my body eventually eases into a rhythm and I feel invigorated and enjoy every minute. The most irritating factor is that I can’t yet stay in for longer than 30 minutes max. If the water temperature is between 12 and 18 degrees, I can manage 20 to 30 minutes, but anything lower reduces the length of time I can withstand (for now).
Years ago, I would’ve considered taking part in such an activity as a sign of insanity. But now, I find that it clears my mind, rejuvenates me, heightens my senses, and most of all it relieves stress. When you’re so numb from the cold, your thoughts are not focused on the worries of life. This experience revived a memory of when I was on holiday in Norway. A group of us were having discussions about depression with some of the locals. Their view on the subject was, “We don’t need counselling or medication, we simply jump into ice water.” Not to underplay the serious consequences of depression, I believe they make a valid point.
Since experiencing this cold water joy, I decided to conduct some research on the topic. I found that there are significant health benefits to swimming in cold water. Take a look at what some studies reveal below. If you haven’t yet, you may find yourself heading to the nearest pool of water after digesting these benefits.
Natural immune booster
Several studies have been undertaken on the effects of cold water on the immune system. Cold water aids in increasing the white blood cell count as the body is forced to respond to the flux in conditions. Repeating the experience causes your body to improve at activating its defences.
During a cold water swim, your blood vessels are flushed. Blood is forced to the surface to warm your extremities. If you expose yourself to bouts of cold, this repeated exposure will adapt you to the cold. This has certainly been the case in my experience. Before I started swimming in cold water more regularly, I could barely tolerate my big toe being dipped in.
The brain produces a chemical called endorphins (my drug of choice) to make us feel good. Exercise usually activates endorphins and helps to treat depression. Endorphins are also released when we experience pain – the release of this chemical helps us to cope better with the pain. Since cold water swimming draws us close to the pain barrier, it triggers a release of endorphins.
Burns more calories than warm water swimming
Far more calories are burned when swimming in cold water because the heart has to work so much harder and pump faster to keep you warm in those conditions. The body must act when your body temperature decreases and through that process, more calories are used up.
Swimming in cold water places additional stress on the body physically and mentally. But, instead of it causing more stress, studies have identified a link between cold water and a reduction in stress levels. Cold water swimmers regularly report that they become more relaxed and generally feel calmer.
One would think that cold water represses sexual urges. But no, paradoxically, studies have found that it increases libido and fertility. You also don’t have to go to extremes, regularly having cold showers can boost oestrogen and testosterone production.
Despite these benefits, remember that cold water swimming comes with risks too. Safety is key in any sport. Here are a few tips to keep in mind before you go diving into cold water.
It’s best not to swim alone. Open water swimming can be particularly dangerous, whether you’re a seasoned strong swimmer or not. Respect the ocean and ensure that you’re able to get in and out of the water quickly and easily.
Never dive into cold water
Diving into cold water, especially water below 15 degrees, can cause cold water shock which affects breathing and movement. It can be extremely dangerous, even causing death. Rather immerse gradually.
Wear swimming kit you feel comfortable in. Since you lose most of your body heat through your head, start by wearing a swimming cap, or even two. Some swimmers even add woollen hats over their swim caps. Neoprene gloves, booties, balaclava, or a wetsuit can also be worn. I’ve tried a few different items of clothing and I’m most comfortable in a tri-suite with a rash vest over it and a swimming cap. If I swim in a rock pool, I also wear aqua socks.
Start by only going in for a few minutes at a time, increasing the time you stay in as your body gets used to the cold water. The best way to acclimatise is to keep at it and go regularly, at least once a week. It’s best to start during the warmer months so that your body is used to it by the time winter sets in. It’s also less of a shock when the ambient temperature is still warm.
A general rule of thumb
As the temperature decreases so should your time in the cold water but it is best to always listen to your body. The general rule is that you only spend 1 minute per degree of water temperature in cold water (e.g. 8 degrees = 8 minutes).
Warm-up slowly afterwards
Your body temperature drops for about 20 to 30 minutes after you’ve exited the water, so make sure you have warm clothes ready for when you exit. Get out of your wet clothes, dry yourself off, and dress warmly. Add thick gloves and socks too and have a warm drink. It’s best not to have a hot shower straight away as this can cool your core which can be dangerous. Shivering will happen naturally too. As you thaw, you’ll shiver less.
Take-away (and I don’t mean you in a body bag)
Now that you have a synopsis of the benefits and risks of cold water swimming, why not give it a try for yourself if you haven’t yet. Be warned, you may feel a rush of chilled euphoria afterwards. For some, especially in these challenging Covid-19 times when joy seems to have eluded many, that may be unfamiliar territory. In my experience, its certainly a welcome state of being.
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Authored by Delilah Nosworthy