Did you know that cold water swimming can transform your health? In this blog, expert Rowan Clarke talks about how this age-old sport has changed her life and improved her wellbeing.
Lately, it seems like everybody is talking about cold water swimming. I’d always thought that people who did this winter swimming stuff were the types who gravitated towards insane masochistic challenges just for the thrill of it.
How wrong I was!
It never even occurred to me that there could be health benefits associated with freezing your butt off. But when three different people mentioned this suddenly trending sport to me in as many weeks, I decided to investigate.
In a stroke of luck, I happened to meet cold water swimming coach Rowan Clarke, who set me straight. Rowan has competed in various cold water and open water swimming events, including the Winter Swimming World Championships in Estonia (talk about cold!), so she couldn’t be better placed to speak about it.
Health benefits of cold water swimming
Before jumping into the interview about Rowan’s personal experience, you probably want to know how cold water swimming might improve your health.
Here’s a quick summary based on a brilliant interview that Rowan recently did with Right Up My Podcast. As well as talking about the numerous physical and mental health benefits, she gives loads of practical tips. The podcast is a perfect introduction to cold water swimming.
Physical health benefits
- Boosts your immune system
- Reduces inflammation (see below for more on this)
- Great for people with injuries/joint problems (you’re 70% weightless!)
- Can help balance sleep patterns and digestion/metabolism
- May delay effects of dementia, according to Cambridge researchers
Mental health benefits
- Helps with everyday stress management
- May be beneficial for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Combats anxiety and depression (check out this study in the BMJ)
- Can improve body confidence
- Builds a unique camaraderie with your fellow swimmers
How Rowan’s icy dips transformed her life
When I’m trying to decide whether to try something new, I always like to hear someone’s first-hand experience. So, I threw a handful of questions at Rowan, who is in her fifth season of winter swimming.
KF: What prompted you to start cold water swimming?
RC: My obsession with cold water came from discovering that I was quite good at open water swimming and that I got so much from accomplishing new physical challenges. I’d always been rubbish at sport as a child and had a negative relationship with my body, what it was capable of and how I looked.
Growing, birthing and breastfeeding three babies was the first time in my life that I felt proud of my body. When my third baby was about two-and-a-half-years-old, I started to feel a sense of emptiness because the intense physicality of pregnancy, breastfeeding and holding and carrying an infant everywhere was over.
So, I decided that I needed a physical challenge for the sake of my health and wellbeing, and my sense of self. This is when I signed up to my first open water swimming event, which was a mile-long swim in Lake Windermere.
A year later, I chose a marathon challenge to swim 10km down a river. And then, I thought, what next? And this is when I decided that I’d try to swim through the winter.
KF: How did you feel the first time you got into the cold water & when did you notice a difference in your wellbeing?
RC: The first time I swam properly outdoors was on a 2km stretch of river with a local triathlon group. Despite it being my first time, I took to it easily swimming faster and more confidently than swimmers who were faster than me in the pool. I remember thinking, this is my sport, and from then I was hooked.
As the temperature dropped, I felt my first cold water buzz at around 11/12 degrees centigrade [51.8-53.6F]. So, the post-swim highs started from that first true winter swim and the attenuation of the stress response which gives that chilled, relaxed feeling came after five or six swims at this temperature and lower.
Because you acclimatise gradually, the very cold temperatures kind of creep up on you. But I remember one swim, my first at 6C [42.8F], where my hands froze into kind of claws! As I was swimming, they inverted so that my fingers were pointing towards my wrists and I couldn’t move them – I had to swim in this awkward position.
When I got out, I felt ecstatic, amazed, in awe of what I’d just done despite my poor, frozen hands throbbing with pain!
KF: How/when did it move from a hobby to coaching & competing?
RC: That first winter, I met a group called the South West Seals, and before I knew it, I’d been recruited to join a relay team and swim at the National Championships at Tooting Bec Lido in London. There was talk of going to Estonia for the World Championships the following year, and I thought it would be absurd for me to even consider it.
But I loved Tooting Bec and swam well in water that was 1.5C [34.7F], and so I signed up for World Championships the following year, which was an incredible experience.
Later that year, I decided to qualify as an outdoor swimming coach. I had been a swimming teacher for nearly ten years, and with my open water experience, I’d ended up giving friends lessons, so I decided to get a formal qualification.
What I didn’t expect, though, was how much different coaching is from teaching, and this really helped me fulfil my goal of helping people swim outdoors throughout the year for better health and wellbeing.
KF: How often do you go cold water swimming (what about summer)?
RC: The water in the UK is pretty cold all year round. In the summer, I tend to swim further distances and this year, I started to try out swim-run. Because of lockdown, this summer was exceptionally busy with coaching, and I was in the water five or six days a week. In winter, I tend to swim two or three times a week, and it’s more about dipping than swimming.
KF: What have been the most notable health/wellness benefits for you?
RC: I need cold water. It’s like a reset button for my mind, and it eliminates the build-up of stress and quells any anxiety that I’m feeling. I think this is down to a combination of the shock of the cold, being in nature, and being in the place where I feel most like myself.
When I’m at the marine lake where I swim, I am just me, I am among friends, and I’m under a huge sky by the vast ocean. I always say to myself that no problem or stress or worry that I have is as big as the ocean, and that’s a comforting thought.
Also, being there, doing this brave, incredible thing, I am proud of my body, and that has helped me free myself from the negative feelings that I have about the way that I look.
KF: What are your top tips for somebody who wants to give it a try?
RC: I think that life is about taking risks. If you want to try winter swimming, I would first seek out information from reliable sources. Outdoor Swimmer magazine has an excellent blog with lots of information.
It’s best to start at 14C [57.2F] or above and then work towards colder temperatures. Once the water temperature is in single figures, it’s tough to start for the first time, but educate yourself and then decide for yourself.
My top three tips for new winter swimmers are:
- Don’t go alone. Go with a group of more experienced swimmers.
- Keep it short and sweet: it takes 2-3 minutes to attenuate your stress response, and that’s where you’ll get the benefits.
- Take warming up seriously: dress quickly in warm layers, wear a hat, have a warm drink and something to eat.
KF: Is there an official definition for ‘cold water’?
RC: FINA who set swimming competition rules, insist on wetsuits in water below 18C [64.4F] because that’s what they consider cold. Below 10C [50F] is proper winter swimming, and below 5C [41F] is ice swimming. In Estonia, the water was -1C [30.2F]!
KF: Is cold water swimming safe for everybody?
RC: Anyone with high blood pressure or a heart condition should check with their doctor before swimming. It’s also worth getting advice if you’re immuno-compromised, asthmatic or diabetic, and be wary if you have any joint or muscular issues that are made worse by the cold.
KF: Any other important points that you’d like to make?
RC: The inflammatory response isn’t just about physical inflammation; we have an inflammatory response to any stress, physical, mental, emotional or biological, so the anti-inflammatory quality of cold water supports immunity (the way the body fights illness), mental health, autoimmune conditions (like rheumatoid arthritis) and physical injury and pain.
If you’re interested in learning more about Rowan and cold water swimming, check out her website and this blog that she wrote for Outdoor Swimmer. Rowan’s Instagram handle is @_finsandgoggles_
Has anybody tried it? I’d love to hear about your experience!
Thanks for a comprehensive look at the sport. I’m curious about Rowan’s advice about the 2-3 minutes to attenuate your stress response. I’ve definitely noticed a response in those first few minutes in open water racing and in SCUBA diving. I wonder if it’s a biological response or warning, if you will, by your body. Could your brain be sending a signal of potential danger? Did Rowan speak about how to work through hurdles and persevere when things go awry, like hands frozen backwards?
Thanks so much for your comments! Rowan talks more about the initial response in her podcast which I linked to in the blog. It’s basically hyperventilation and yes it’s some kind of biological “fight or flight” response. In fact, she says never to jump or dive into cold water because it’s physically impossible to hold your breath under the water when you’re going through that first shock/hyperventilation. I find it all fascinating! Re: working through the hurdles, she didn’t talk about that with me, but she has a blog on her website where she may cover that.
Thanks! I will check out her blog.
You may want to check out Outdoor Swimmer magazine’s blog, too.