On Cold Water Swimming

There has been a push in recent years to health-based living. We are no longer at the mercies of cigarettes and alcohol. Instead we drink our vegetables whole and run as herds in public parks on weekends. There is no shortage of options available to the consumer in the modern world where good health is a marker of good wealth.

The wealthiest man alive

As a result, there are many health trends which want to capitalize on your desire to be healthy and your limited time. We are promised turnaround times of three months where a “new you” waits around the corner. We are told that adding these pills or those supplements will instantly transform you into the avatar for beachwear. We are told that the joy of health comes from its ease. That true health is a simple and unfettered process where the reward is close to instantaneous.

It is hard for the average consumer, this deep in the age of quackery, to be able to turn to a treatment without some part of you thinking it is a fad. Though I am no dietitian, I have always subscribed to my father’s robust approach to weight loss and health as simply being “move more, eat less”.

That was until I started swimming in cold pools.

It all happened rather by accident. I doubt anyone voluntarily enters an exposed pool in mid-winter. Despite the initial shock to my system a bizarre thing occurred: I swam well. Not only did I swim well but I swam really well. I am no Ian Thorpe, but the sensation of my skin burning off me in the cold water as I pumped my arms got me thinking as to its merits.

So I did a little digging.

Turns out this is actually a thing.

Though many of its proponents proclaim open water swimming is on the rise, I am more inclined to believe it simply exists. That being said, with the likes of Wim Hof dick-slapping nature only in his shorts, it is hard not to be taken by the romance of doing something others consider extreme. The same appeal exists behind cross-fit and forgetting to take out the chicken from the freezer for dinner like Mom asked.

Pictured: Tuesday’s dinner at 18:15 after your beating

The concept is simple: swim in cold water as supposed to the cushy indoor pool at your local gym. Find yourself a reliable body of the coldest H20 and train there.

I live in Durban which means it is difficult to find the glacial lakes enjoyed by those in the Northern Hemisphere. However, Durban’s winter does allow for outdoor pool temperatures to sink comfortably into the 15/16-degree spectrum. This does not sound like Elsa’s rectal thermometer reading but believe me when I say it still shocks your system.

The consensus is that outdoor swimming in cold water does a number of things to you. Basically, your hypothalamus is shocked into releasing a combination of hormones to maintain your internal temperature. If the science is to be believed, the consequences are better muscle responses, improved circulation, metabolism, recovery and endorphin levels akin to Charlie Sheen watching girl’s netball.

The problem is that there are no easily accessible articles regarding hard scientific data that proves swimming in cold water has more health benefits than doing so indoors. I would love to be able to post links to papers but those which I have seen are not particularly convincing. That is not to say there is not a fair amount of science behind these claims. A lot of sports scientists are quickly looking towards treatments such as cryotherapy for athletes (to both improve performance and recovery) and recently academics in Poland are investigating the effects of cold shock on depression. For the time being it does all feel rather vague and ethereal but there seems to be a growing number of hard to impress proponents of the idea that shocking your system with cold (whether it is swimming in it or even having a cold shower), comes tied to health benefits that are (potentially) legion.

However, when you read up on those who go for cold dips, there is plenty of very convincing anecdotal evidence. Listicles aside, there are definitely those out there who swear blind swimming in cold water has been hugely beneficial for them.

I am very happy to say I am one of them.

My routine is simple, I swim a kilometer. That’s it. I pair it off with visiting gym in the evening for reasons I will explain a later.

I tend to throw myself into the pool. The shock of the cold water is fleeting and it helps that with a kick off the side I am on my way to doing my lengths. It does not take long for the coldness to become nothing more than a state and not a pervasive intrusion on my system. It is a fascinating effect. Where you know that outside the water you would wince with a solitary foot in the pool, now that your whole body is pummeling through it, it becomes nothing more than a sensation like a light breeze. I find it takes me longer to find my rhythm but once I do, I maintain it considerably better. In the twenty or so minutes it takes me to complete my lengths, a little pink body emerges from the water, blinking into the crisp winter air.

Nailed the Franco Squint.

Though being Durban that is about 24C.

Now, here is the really weird bit.

I am not cold. I know my skin is cold but I am not shivering or yammering away as though I had discovered Methspresso. Another funny thing – I am not at all stiff. Usually my exit from the pool is marked by my back in some state of rigor mortis. In this case my entire body feels as though I could twist my legs behind my head to perform forbidden moves of the Kama Sutra. This general feeling of physical well-being is percolated through a state of mindful clarity. I am calm, relaxed and generally quite congenial when I am done. The rest of the day, no matter how pushed for deadlines at work, assumes an ease which definitely did not exist before the swim.

In the evenings, I will go to gym. I then proceed to have a stellar hour prancing from station to station. Without fail, if I had a cold-water swim earlier in the day, my gym routine that evening glides by on the wings of creatine angels.

The light and the whey

And that has been my experience so far. Each and every time I get into that cold water the discomfort of the first fifteen seconds gives way to unencumbered bliss for the rest of the day. Little by little we are starting to understand the science behind it. Little by little more people join this semi-noble pursuit. It is hard to get into but also hard to leave.

In this world where health is the fashionable currency, perhaps we focus too much on the façade of the product. Pills that make you leaner. Quick routines to shave off fat. Being chased by Vinnie Jones for a monthly fee. Submerging yourself and exercising in cold water has absolutely no appeal on the written page. I can harp on and on about its perfect track record in my life but you would still remain unconvinced unless you took the plunge yourself. I think that is the problem with the health industry. While you drink your veggies and suck on vitamins, the truly rewarding practices remain out of your view. We are horses all, opaque blinders slung about our heads to the reality that the most beneficial of any health pursuit is not the simple or the quick, but the hard and uncomfortable. Swimming in cold water has taught me to learn to love the bomb. With it I have started doing other things I previously thought impossible. I have changed my diet because hey, my frame of reference for difficult health pursuits is something that is hard but I can do. Maybe that is the right approach. Maybe it is less about eating less and moving more.

Maybe good health is merely a change of reference.

And for that reason alone, I will continue to swim in the cold.

2 thoughts on “On Cold Water Swimming

  1. You’re brave! I find it hard to even embrace the Highveld’s icy winds! Cold water swimming? I’ll leave it up to you young ones.


    1. See that is the thing! Cold water therapy was actually developed for the elderly. Have a look at what cold water swimming does for conditions such as arthritis. It is fascinating stuff.


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