Thump, thump, thump; your heart pummels your chest; icy water stabs your bare skin; adrenalin surges through your body; short, sharp gasps before you steady your breathing. Inhale, exhale, look ahead: endless blue. Endlessly alive. Ever since the late 18th century, cold water swimmers have known what we’re now collectively starting to realise – that immersing yourself in sub-20-degree waters can enhance not only your physical health, but your mental wellbeing, too. We spoke with ocean swimmer Beth French, Outdoor Swimming Society advisor Mark Harper, and author and journalist Alexandra Heminsley, to find out exactly why.
“Getting in cool water meant relief. Freedom to move when I couldn’t walk – my body being supported and encased in this life-giving stuff.” For record-breaking ocean swimmer Beth French, cold water swimming hasn’t just been a hobby or profession – it’s been a way of life. Suffering from Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) – a neurological condition that affects the nervous and immune systems – since the age of 10, Beth was only officially diagnosed at 17.
Confined to a wheelchair and suffering from chronic pain, inflammation and frequent temperatures, the diagnosis was devastating – not just physically, but mentally too. No competing in the pool at county level. Having to watch her friends move on with their lives. The possibility of recovery a distinct uncertainty.
But rather than letting the water (and an inability to swim strongly in it) be a source of frustration, the passionate swimmer embraced it even more, using it as a way to cope with her condition. “At my illest, being in the water was the only place I got succour and felt even vaguely like my old self,” she explains. And even now the symptoms have gone, cold water still plays a major role in Beth’s life. “For me, swimming helps keep me in balance,” she says. “It’s as if my body doesn’t shift stress chemicals and so they accumulate, leading to immune response.
“Swimming, particularly in cold water, helps me move it all and get that endorphin boost whilst encouraging me to metabolise better,” she continues. “If I feel pent up, I can go for a thrash about. If I feel weak and vulnerable, I can float and play. Water doesn’t care, and getting to the state where you exist in equanimity and move yourself through water, fully alert but relaxed, is exactly what my life needs.”
“If I feel pent up, I can go for a thrash about. If I feel weak and vulnerable, I can float and play. Water doesn’t care, and getting to the state where you exist in equanimity and move yourself through water, fully alert but relaxed, is exactly what my life needs.”
Alive and kicking
Beth isn’t alone in finding the joy of life through cold water. The Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) – an international collective of open water swimmers – boasts a staggering 27,000 members, all of them united by a love of cold water and how alive it makes you feel. There are myriad reasons as to why gliding through sub-20-degree water under expansive skies amplifies your sense of being, but a lot of it has to do with how we function on a purely physical level. And if you’re not used to cold water swimming, there’s some acclimatisation to be done before you’ll start feeling the real benefits.
“If you’ve never done it before, initially lots and lots of adrenalin is released,” says Mark Harper, the OSS’s cold water expert advisor. “Your blood pressure goes up, your heart rate goes up, you get a sudden release of stress hormones like cortisol – that’s more of a long term effect – but also you start hyperventilating. You can’t control your breathing. So it can feel really stressful; if you can’t control your breathing and you’re hyperventilating, that’s like a panic attack.”
If you’re not careful about how you enter the water, there could be serious consequences too. “For most people the danger is this uncontrolled breathing,” says Mark. “The thing that kills most people who aren’t used to swimming in cold sea, is they get a lungful of water because their head goes under, they can’t control their breathing, and they inhale a litre-and-a-half of water into their lungs. Straight away.
“It’s just a matter of being sensible – don't go anywhere you’re going to be stuck under water immediately,” he advises. “Make sure you’re able to control your entry into the water.” So while jumping in and getting it over with quickly might be tempting, slowly and surely will reduce the risk of this cold water shock reaction.
The good news is that it only takes six short sessions, once a week, to adapt, according to Mark. And once your body becomes accustomed to cold water, it’ll stay that way for a substantial amount of time. “One study shows that if it’s 14-degree water, and you’ve been in six times, 14 months later you could still have 60 per cent of the cold water adaptation,” he explains. “But in terms of that real buzz you get? That’s the release of adrenalin, which is fundamentally what cocaine does for you. It’s a natural way of getting a high.”
Mind, body and soul
Beyond how we physically react, swimming in cold water can profoundly change the way we look at life – in an instant. In a world of modern technology that’s firing digital stimuli at us from all angles, we’re becoming more distracted, more stressed, and living less in the now. For many cold water devotees, it’s the mindful aspect of their particular mode of swimming that keeps drawing them back to its chilly embrace.
“Swimming in the sea or in cold water is forced mindfulness,” says Alexandra Heminsley, author of Leap In – a book that details her journey from landlubber to sea swimmer. “The nature of swimming is that there’s no point worrying. There’s nothing to be gained and a lot to be lost by fretting about how tired you might be in 20 minutes’ time, because if you lose focus in a choppy sea, or if you drift off and slow down when you’re swimming in a current, it can literally be a matter of life and death.”
While other activities – like running, for example – can lead to moments of mindfulness, the repetitive nature can also prompt the mind to drift away, distracting from the now. Thinking about the to-do list tomorrow for example, or re-living all the things that went wrong over the course of the day.
“Swimming makes it so actual,” continues Alexandra. “You have to let go of, ‘Oh, did my thighs look big when I was getting into the sea just then’ if you’re trying to inhale, and there’s a giant bit of swell heading for your face. The strictest mindfulness teacher you could have is the sea, because it doesn’t just talk the talk, it walks the walk in terms of making you live in the moment.”
“The strictest mindfulness teacher you could have is the sea, because it doesn’t just talk the talk, it walks the walk in terms of making you live in the moment.”
Like Beth, Alexandra was battling some personal demons when cold water came to her rescue. Going through the emotional rollercoaster of IVF treatment, she felt like her body was failing her. But swimming in cold water reminded her that she was much more than just her ability to get pregnant. “You feel ready for anything when you come out of the water,” she explains. “You realise you might not be able to make a baby in a heartbeat, but when you feel your heart literally pumping the warm blood around your body and warming you up from within, you’re reminded on a truly visceral level how amazing bodies are.”
Beth concurs: “Your brain is flooded with information from every single part of you in an instant, and that’s as good as it gets,” she says, boiling it all down. “The biochemistry means you’re alert and on a high. And knowing your body can do it makes you fall in love with your body for what it can do, regardless of what it looks like.” She pauses. “And, well, cake. Cake makes you feel alive. And cold water swimming and cake are very close buddies!”
Images by Chrissie Baldwin, Kevin Meredith and Chris Floyd