This informal CPD article Start Your Day Right: Cold Water Immersion was provided by Centre of Excellence. Picture this: its 6am. You’ve just woken up to a bright, crisp morning. You pull on a swimsuit, woolly hat and a fluffy bathrobe, and step outside to breathe in the fresh air. Then, you jump into a wheelie bin full of ice-cold water.
During lockdown, you may have come across videos and pictures of people doing just this. Their squeals of joy and wide smiles serving as evidence of the benefits, no matter how unpleasant it may sound to the disbelieving. It might look like a social media challenge to the uninitiated - but it’s actually a lifestyle. These brave souls are the cold water collective. Wild swimmers, outdoor dippers, lane-lovers and shower-lingerers alike who enjoy the euphoria of cold water immersion.
While a wheelie bin may not sound as glamorous as the seas, lakes, lidos, bathing pools or freshwater waterfalls, devotees say the benefits of cold water immersion are great. So much so, during lockdown’s ‘Stay At Home’ orders and gym closures, it was to the back garden wheelie bin many turned to for their cold water fix. Cold water dips have certainly grown in popularity over the last few years with more mainstream awareness and social media connecting groups of devotees. In fact, figures from Swim England suggest more than 7.5 million people enjoy an open water swim.
‘Why?’ you might ask. When you consider the numb fingers, the initial breath-taking gasp, the wiggling of toes waiting for your extremities to warm up - and of course, the risks of cold water - it’s a valid question.
Historically, societies have often resorted to cold water for wellbeing. Egyptian papyrus scrolls dating back 3,500 years note the application of freezing water to the body to reduce inflammation and pain. Indeed, Hippocrates himself claimed that cold water awakened his appetite and digestion.
These days, with the likes of ‘The Iceman’ Wim Hof and his method amassing a six-figure following, most cold water swimmers will tell you it’s more about a feeling of liberation and adventure.
Whether you’re swimming an ice mile or simply dipping your toes in, there is something calming about conquering your ragged first breaths in cold water and rising to the challenge of mind over matter. The physical health benefits - few of which have been scientifically proven due to rudimentary research needing further study - are believed by swimmers to be numerous.
It is said that cold water aids in increased metabolism as your body has to work harder to stay warm as you swim in cold water, in comparison to the heated pool at the gym. Some swimmers also believe cold water spurs your heart on to pump blood harder - improving circulation, ridding you of toxins faster, and giving you a nice healthy glow.
A correlation between cold water swims and better sleep has also been suggested on the basis that cold water rejigs our circadian rhythms and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps your body rest and repair.
Further anecdotal evidence can be observed across cold water therapy forums the world over. Many suffering from depression or anxiety say cold water has alleviated their symptoms after connecting with nature, finding new purpose in the pastime, making new friends in fellow cold water therapy followers, and mindfully engaging with your body’s potential. The elevated mood so many return to the waters to experience could be linked to a hormonal release of endorphins.
Likewise, some with chronic pain claim to have observed pain relief and anti-inflammatory effects from cold water, although again, there’s not enough scientific evidence to back this up.
There are also risks. Cold water can lead to diminished mobility, fatal cold shock, post-rescue collapse, and chilblains. If you’re planning on trying a cold water dip, please do so understanding the risks.
Here are some tips on swimming safely:
- Never swim alone or under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Research a local spot where points of entry and exit are safe
- Invest in cold water swimming gear, such as boots, gloves, a warm hat, a tow float or other floatation device, and a wetsuit or swimming costume you feel comfortable in
- Ease yourself in gently — do not jump or dive in
- Only swim for as long as feels comfortable, listen to your body, and know your limits
- Remove your wet clothing straight after your swim and take multiple layers of warm clothes to change into
- Make sure you warm up slowly after your swim — don't jump immediately into a hot shower
- Don’t swim during heavy rain and be vigilant about water speeds, tides, and currants as well as algae
- If you feel any adverse side effects, such as nausea, chest pains or uncontrollable breathlessness, seek medical help as quickly as possible
Of course, there’s always an ice bath or cryotherapy for those who prefer the relative control and comfort of a spa day or indoor ice chamber. If all those options feel pretty out of reach, why not try starting your day with a big deep breath and an environmentally-friendly pick-me-up by swapping your hot shower for a cold shower now and then in the morning?
If the invigorating and stimulating properties of cold water were good enough for Hippocrates, they’re good enough for us!
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