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Cold water swimming: is it safe?

Is cold water swimming safe?

Wild swimming—swimming in rivers, lakes and oceans—has seen a significant uptick in popularity in recent years. Between temporary pool closures during covid, more interest in triathlon and scorching hot summers, it’s not very surprising that people are braving the open water.

But there are risks and hazards associated with the open water. Certainly, not all waterways are suited for swimming. And Britain’s waters are very cold all year round. Still, interest is growing, in spite of everyone asking the same question about cold water swimming: is it safe?

How does it help?

Ice bath

Immersion in cold water puts the body under stress. The body responds by changing the blood circulation, breathing and hormones. These changes create risk, but proponents of the practice swear cold water swimming gives a range of health benefits.

If you’ve heard of the ice cube hack for panic attacks, then you already understand why cold water swimming could help mental health. The all-consuming intensity of the cold forces the mind to focus on the immediate present. It also releases endorphins, which stimulate a post-swim dopamine hit. In other words, it makes you feel on top of the world. But there are other reported benefits besides a better outlook on life. Namely:

  • Resilience
  • Endurance

Exposure to the cold floods the body with cortisol—the so called ‘stress hormone’. This hormone has anti-inflammatory properties, potentially assisting with pain relief and reducing immune response. This might be why swimmers with auto-immune disorders or chronic pain report improved health resilience from cold water swims.

Over time, repeated exposure to the cold water lessens the feeling of stress. It’s not totally clear how this works in the body. What is shown, however, is that cold water swimmers build up endurance to stress—both physical and mental.

Fixed for a dip

Acclimating your body to the cold takes time and practice. But doing it properly means you can get the full range of benefits of cold immersion while lowering the risks.

The fact is, being in cold water will bring your core body temperature down. And that means it has to come back up once you get out again. To ensure you get warm quickly—and safely—here are some tips:

  1. Don’t spend too long in the water! Prevention is the best medicine, of course. The newer you are, the less time you should spend in cold water. Max it at 10 minutes until you are more experienced.
  2. Get dry as soon as possible. Wet = cold, so towel off and get into dry, warm clothes ASAP.
  3. Have a warm drink. Warming up from the inside is key to help bring core body temperature back to normal.
  4. Don’t have a steaming hot shower. As tempting as it might be, it can cause a dangerous drop in core body temp. Instead, give yourself some time to recover first.

When you are warming up dry side, blood gradually returns to your hands and feet and surface of your skin. They will feel flushed and warm. But the blood itself will cool from circulating in cold tissue. When it returns to your heart, it can bring your core temperature down further for up to a half hour after you’ve got out of the water. This effect, called ‘after drop’, needs to be waited out before you consider yourself properly recovered.

The big shock

Winter swim cold shock

Cold water shock is the biggest risk of this activity. Cold water shock is reflexive response when the head is submerged in very cold or freezing water. The first instinct is to gasp, which results in water inhalation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much inhaled water to cause drowning.

Cold water shock affects everyone. Even seasoned cold water swimmers can be caught off guard. However, it can be lessened significantly and even overridden with best practices.

  1. Never dive or jump into freezing water. The abrupt change in temperature between your body and the water can cause a dangerous increase in blood pressure.
  2. Dress appropriately. If you’re new to cold water swimming, invest in a good wetsuit. Not only will it insulate your body but it also adds buoyancy. This makes it easier to stay at the surface.
  3. Get your head wet slowly. Wet your face with cold water. Then try floating on your back. Once you’re more acclimated, slowly submerge a bit at a time. If you feel panicky, come back up immediately.
  4. Don’t get your head wet at all. Many recreational cold water swimmers don a woolly hat and simply keep their head up for their swim. However, if you accidentally go under, you may still run into problems.

Safety first and last

Cold water swimming safety

As with any swimming activity, take a few precautions to stay safe:

  • Swim with a buddy – swimming alone is dangerous!
  • Choose a good location – research safe, legal and clean waters before taking the plunge.
  • Wear a bright cap – visibility to other swimmers and waterway users is helpful.
  • Know your limits – take it slow and avoid unnecessary risks.
  • Understand hypothermia – watch out for signs in yourself and others.

Easing in

So, is cold water swimming safe? Like all sport activities, there are risks involved in cold water swimming. Speak to your doctor before starting cold water swimming if you have underlying health problems, especially issues with:

  • Heart health
  • Blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma, and others.

On the other hand, you may find that a dip in the cold helps with your health. In particular, people with these conditions report benefits from cold water swimming:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Chronic pain
  • Inflammation

If you’re an inexperienced swimmer, consider some lessons with an instructor before getting into the cold. A good swimming teacher will help you develop the skills needed for competent, strong swimming in outdoor conditions.

With guidance, good sense and a grip on the dos and don’ts, you should be able to safely participate. If you’re interested in speaking to an instructor about lessons, get in touch!

by Alistair Mills

In 2016 I saw an opportunity for a new swimming company that did things a little bit differently and here we are almost 4 years later, having built a family of teachers and clients that we are all really proud of.

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