Do you ever experience those weird moments of synchronicity in life where something keeps being presented to you over and over - almost as if the universe is trying to guide you in a particular direction?
That’s been happening to me over the past few months with cold water swimming. I’ve always loved wild swimming in open water. My skin hates chlorine, so although I have an brilliant outdoor pool close by, I still much prefer diving into the ocean or a clear blue lake.
The last time I went swimming outside in this country was September at St Mary’s Loch in Scotland. I’d taken the van up for the weekend and met with friends who were equally keen to get out on the water. We took kayaks, canoes & paddle-boards and floated out on this breathtaking lake surrounded by mountains. As usual, I was the only one crazy enough to actually dive in! The sun was shining but the air temperature was only just above 20c during the day, to me the water already felt chilly and that was still summer!
There’s something incredibly exhilarating about swimming in nature, especially in the cold. Those first few moments where the freezing water literally takes your breath away and the subsequent mind-over-matter battle of convincing your system everything is just fine. Reassuring your body ‘I’ve jumped in on purpose, we’re not fighting for survival here.’
As kids, the neighbours used to take my sister and I out to Tatton Lake with their huge Bernese Mountain dogs. I loved those swims, but hated the reeds and moss on the lake bed and the muddy banks down to the water. I completely embrace the mud and moss these days, it makes for soft cushioning beneath my feet and I oddly like the feeling between my toes.
The Wim Hof Method
It was during a Skin Healing Workshop I hosted up in Yorkshire last year that I first heard the name Wim Hof. A lovely lady on the course was sharing her cancer battle with the group and she explained that Wim Hoff’s cold water method had formed a huge part of her remission. She’s not the only inspiring woman I’ve met who swears by plunging into ice cold waters. My wonderful friend Vicki battled breast cancer a few years ago, and she regularly shares pictures of her winter swims in the sea off the coast of Anglesey.
Iceman Hof’s name kept coming up in various conversations this winter. I heard somebody mention him on a podcast, I read an article about him in a magazine, a friend tagged me on his Instagram - I felt as though something was nudging me to learn more about this guy.
‘The Iceman’ as he’s referred to, is a Dutch extreme athlete, noted for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures. He has set Guinness world records for swimming under ice and prolonged full-body contact with ice, and he still holds the record for a barefoot half-marathon on ice and snow.
Wim’s back story is in itself incredibly inspiring and the inspiration behind his method is fascinating. He believes that regulated exposure to the cold triggers a cascade of health benefits, including reduced inflammation, a fortified immune system, balanced hormone levels, improved sleep quality, and the production of endorphins - those feel-good chemicals in our brains that naturally elevate our mood.
We’ve become so comfortable in our daily lives that we very rarely feel exposed to extremes. I can turn up the heating with my phone and press a button to warm my seat in the car. Wim's theory surmises that we’ve greatly reduced the natural stimulation of our bodies and, as humans, have developed a different attitude towards nature. We’ve forgotten - he says - about our inner power.
Testing the Theory
In summer, and even early autumn, I’ll pretty much dive straight into the lake. That’s definitely not recommended when the water temperature is below 10C. Cold water shock is a killer. Your legs can cramp up, you’ll struggle to catch your breath, your body literally begins to fight for survival - it’s a deeply unpleasant feeling.
There was a white frost on the ground this morning as I made my way across the field to a small fishing lake in the Peak District. I've no idea exactly how cold the water was, and I'm not sure I needed to know. Bloody freezing just about covers it! The edges of the water were icy, but the sun was shining and despite the cold, I felt oddly comfortable about going in. I began by wading in gently, using my paddleboard as a float and staying close to the bank. The ice cold sting felt painful across the tops of my feet and along my calves. It’s important to concentrate and focus intently on breathing when that cold water bites. Gradually the odd burning v’s numb tingling sensation began to lift and I began to feel more comfortable. I managed ten minutes, submerged up to my shoulders sitting in the soft moss on the lake bed. It felt like a real combination of sheer willpower and a strange, almost meditative calm. I have to say I liked it.
I’m not sure my willpower or determination need much work, but I’m a big believer in challenging myself each day. I like to practice something until it feels simple. Cold water swims are definitely going to make up part of my endurance training this winter and I’m excited to learn more about the benefits of ice water on my body, mind and skin. Fancy giving it a try? Here’s why it’s so good;
Good for our Skin
Dermatologists say rapid, cold water showers are the best for our skin health and promoting blood flow. Itchy skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis can benefit from cold water swimming, as warm water and chlorine strip away the skins natural oils and dry it out. Cold water on the other hand, helps to constrict blood vessels to tighten pores and reduce redness.
Gets the Lymph Moving
I’ve spoken before about the importance of getting the lymphatic system moving when it comes to eliminating waste from the body, particularly to heal skin. Think of the lymph nodes like blood vessels, they pump lymphatic fluid around the body. But unlike our blood vessels, the lymphatic system doesn’t have a pump like the heart to do that job. Bathing in ice cold water constricts and open vessels manually, which helps stagnant fluids in your lymph nodes move around the body again. Increased blood flow also floods our cells with nutrients and oxygen.
Speeds up Muscle Recovery
The theory is that immersing limbs in ice cold water speeds up recovery post-exercise by lowering body temperature, blood flow and inflammation in muscle tissues. It’s the reason we apply a bag of frozen peas to swollen ankles or wrists when we’ve injured ourselves. Athlete Jessica Ennis would regularly submerge herself in a wheelie bin full of ice to aid leg muscle recovery.
From a mental standpoint, you’re challenging your body by being exposed to different stresses. Cold water bathing increases the release of the hormone norepinephrine, which in turn works to calm the mind. It also positively impacts our mood, vigilance, focus, and attention. As Iceman Hof explains; “Both cold exposure and conscious breathing require patience and dedication. Armed with focus and determination you are ready to explore and eventually master your own body and mind.” He describes it as “a practical way to become happier, healthier, and more powerful.”
Would you try it?
- Begin outdoor swimming in summer or early autumn when the UK water temperatures sit between 15 - 20C
- Go on a calm day with little wind. Ensure the water is still and that there are no dangerous underlying currents
- Join a wild swimming club if it isn’t something you’ve done before
- Never swim alone. Always ensure you’re with a group or strong swimming partner and let somebody know where you are
- Start shallow and stay shallow if you need to. There’s no need to swim out to the deep. Sitting in the shallows is safer and equally powerful
- Gently and slowly submerse yourself, it will take a few minutes for your skin to reach the same temperature as the water. Focus and breathe
Check the Outdoor Swim Societies website for more information
More safety information here on Outdoor Swimmers website
Check out Wim Hof’s website for more details on his method & the courses he offers