cold water swimming
cold cold cold
COLD WATER SWIMMING
The aim of this article is to pull together information from a range of sources, such as health websites to medical journals, to describe the complex physiological and emotional responses exhibited when you go for a swim in cold water. Hopefully you will have more understanding of your body and be more forgiving if it sometimes stops you doing what you want to do.
A word of caution: this article is not intended to tell you how to swim in cold water; you always swim at your own risk and if unsure then book an open water coaching session. Also, cold water swimming should be avoided by anyone with an underlying heart condition. If you have any doubt then consult your doctor. Picking somewhere safe to swim is also outside the scope of this article.
WHY CHOOSE COLD WATER SWIMMING?
Some enjoy the feeling of cold water, even becoming addicted to it. Some avoid heated indoor pools. Some miss the exercise over winter so put up with a cold dip. Some do it for health benefits. Some for social and doing an activity with others. Whatever the reasons, cold water swimming will stress your body in ways no other activity will. There are plenty of studies that show swimming in cold water is beneficial if done carefully, however there is still much that is unknown and research is ongoing.
For most people it tends to be when the water is under 15C and often triggers shock, gasping and a desire to get out. These feelings are a natural reaction by your body; they are a survival stress response from our tropical evolution, so anything colder is considered a threat. As a comparison, the thermoneutral water temperature for an immobile undressed person is about 35°C where very gradually cooling occurs over a long period. Generally, the greater the temperature difference between your skin and the water, the more likely it will trigger a stress response, and the colder the water the greater the overall response.
There is a misconception that all stress is bad for you. Stress can be good for you if used in ways to benefit your health. Bad stress is known as distress, but good stress is known as eustress, which is a term invented by endocrinologist Hans Selye in 1975.
- Distress is where you feel unable to control whatever is making you anxious so it becomes intolerable and bad for your health. Distress has a terrible impact on productivity, creativity, and mental health.
- Eustress is controllable and tolerable, short term and exciting, pleasurable, motivating, challenging yet achievable and leads to a positive outcome.
A stress response is an automatic survival instinct evolved to preserve homeostasis. Homeostasis is the balanced state of internal, physical, and chemical conditions needed to preserve life: if homeostasis is successful, life continues; if it is unsuccessful, it results in a disaster or death.
At a cellular level a steady internal body temperature is needed to metabolism enzymes to repair, grow and live. Think of your body as a big chemical factory with a drive to survive. Cellular metabolism is supported blood flow delivering hormones, nutrients and oxygen from upstream digestive and respiratory systems. So internal sensors automatically monitor things like temperature, blood pressure, hydration, respiratory rate, glucose levels to achieve homeostasis and your general wellbeing.
Threats to homeostasis are detected through your senses ie sight, smell, hearing, touch etc. This sensory information is fed to your brain to decide an appropriate response. This happens in an instance and why you can react with lightning speed when needed. Your brain draws on past memories and their associated emotional value, so previous threats and responses are recalled quicker for survival.
In the right doses, you can use stress to benefit your wellbeing. Friedrich Nietzsche said: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
All life requires stress to function, grow, and survive. Without challenging your body or mind they will wither. At the right dose, stress induces changes in cells, hormones, neurons, organs, and nervous system function to produce increased skill, strength, health, immunity, or cognition. The ideal is to push yourself enough but without being overwhelmed. Setting challenging yet achievable goals. Finding the “sweet spot” where stress is beneficial: too little leaves you unchallenged; too much may lead to health problems. However, everyone is different with different thresholds, which will also vary day to day.
Hormesis is the use of good stress or eustress for beneficial effects. This is an approach whereby your body derives long-term benefits and strength from short, potent episodes of challenge or stress. To be beneficial, the stress must subside at some point. For example, over-exercise can lead to injuries whereas shorter bursts provide sufficient stress to avoid injury and get stronger. Methods of training your body to handle a controlled amount of stress so you are better able to handle other stresses is also known as cross-adaption.
Cold water swimming is one approach but there are plenty of others, it triggers your stress response to release a flood of hormones that cause other physiological changes. Short durations have a positive impact on your wellbeing. Staying in too long may negate any benefits and risk severe hypothermia.
Cold water swimming is not for everyone, especially anyone with a heart condition. You may have read articles saying how good it is for wellbeing and feel pressure to jump on the bandwagon. Ignore the pressure, you have options because many other activities provide the same main benefits, namely:  Exercise: regular, moderate-intensity exercise is one of the best stresses, stretching the body and mind  Social: isolation is not good for wellbeing so meet and chat with others  Challenge: provides a sense of achievement  Outside: being outside in a natural environment helps mood and wellbeing.
So, if you don’t like cold water swimming, you try other activities like running, cycling, walking. These can be done on your own but try to do some as part of a group to provide beneficial social interaction. Exercise can be indoors but being outside brings other benefits. Here are a few other suggested “stressors” you could use to your benefit: Heat exposure: sit in a sauna if you don’t like the cold; Diet: intermittent fasting is another stress. Eating chillies is another; Cognitive activities – challenge your mind, crossword puzzles or learn a language. So mix and match to suit you, however, if you are still interested in cold water as your main form of stressor, then read on.
Getting into cold water is possibly the biggest stressor the average person’s body will tackle. Nothing else will shock your body in the same way as ice cold water hitting every part of your skin. It is your biggest organ and covered with hundreds of thousands of nerve endings all sending alarm signals to your brain at the same time. There are ways to get the benefits while reducing this shock, let’s look at four factors:  Location of the cold water  Temperature of the water  Duration you stay in cold water  Exposure and amount of your body you wet. The following are a few suggestions you can try if you want to use cold water as a stressor but minimise the shock and risk.
First off, you get all the benefits in the first few minutes, starting when the cold water triggers the initial shock until the point when you calm yourself and get your breathing back under control. Beyond this and you are straying away from all the cold therapy benefits into hypothermic territory. Bear this in mind if you want exercise beyond the immediate cold therapy and the longer you swim for exercise the colder you will get.
- Take a shower: this offer the most control while done in a safe environment at home. You decide how long to stay in, the temperature of the water, the duration and how much of your body to spray. Start on your legs and work your way to a full shower
- Take a cold bath fill your bath with cold water, add ice cubes to lower the temperature further if you want. Have someone with you or nearby if you are new to it. Maybe wear a top to help regulate your body temperature.
- Place your face in cold water
- Lidos such as Portishead lido often reduce their water temperatures over winter, running their heating at a lower setting to reduce heating costs. It is outside, you swim in with others, there are lifeguards and changing rooms.
- Sea temperatures rarely get as cold as lakes and rivers in the winter. Seas are like big radiators and slowly cool to their coldest around March. Clevedon sea is an estuary and gets colder than seas in Devon and Cornwall.
- Lakes and rivers are affected by air temperatures so go up and down over a winter
- Wetsuits keep you warm, wear a full wetsuit or a shortie or just gloves and booties depending how you feel about the cold.
- Stand in the water up to your waist, duck under if you feel like it. You will not get as cold standing in the water as you will swimming in it because you warm a small layer of water around your body.
- Swim breaststroke or head up front crawl to keep you head out of the water
To feel the benefits from hormesis and eustress, you need to feel the stressor is manageable and you are in control; feeling helpless makes the stressor toxic. To get the best from a swim session, pay attention to the dose/response relationship: high doses are toxic; low doses need to be uncomfortable but achievable so they are beneficial and activate positive responses, like resilience, repair, cellular pathways etc.
Cold water is the ideal stressor: it is a controllable stressor and there is probably nothing else that will shock your body so suddenly and acutely. Control in terms of how long you stay in, whether you swim or stand still, up to your waist or neck, head in or out, wetsuit or skins. It is up to you.
So, you need to use cold water as the stressor in a controlled way that works for you. You know your body and capabilities and what will work day to day, dip to dip. There comes a point where you get diminishing returns for effort expended, when you stay in too long but won’t necessarily improve your acclimatisation or experience, instead, you get hypothermic and don’t enjoy it.
While hormesis is about manageable bouts, you must also pick when you undertake your swim, assess your current stress levels, beware of doing too much because trying to fit it all in around a packed schedule will just add to your stress; if your cup is already overflowing, it may not be appropriate to then undertake extra stressful hormetic situations. Do it when you feel like it, but don’t find excuses to avoid. This is another reason for doing it as a social group, they will help motivate you but if you really don’t feel like it then don’t, but you will still have got out and socialised. Also beware of certain rhythms and when you have low energy and may sensitise you to cortisol, the stress hormone.
Women should consider easing off just before their period, when your oestrogen levels drop and can lead to cortisol sensitivity (your stress hormone) so your body is susceptible to negative effects of additional stressors. There is also your circadian rhythm which we cover under Endocrine system.
The ideal is to combine cold water as your stressor but do you swim with a group but try and focus on your own swim, call it the golden triangle. You could do these separately but the compound effect makes them so much more potent together. In the words of Aristotle, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.