By Cassie Anderson
Last Sunday I rallied a group of friends to join me at the beach for a winter swim in Vouliagmeni, Greece. Why would anyone want to go swimming in the middle of winter you might well ask? Let me tell you….
My first experience with cold water swimming was a quick dip in the Firth of Forth estuary near Edinburgh in Scotland on New Year’s Day 2008. I had arrived from an Australian summer just weeks before and was embarking on a new adventure in the UK. Taking part in this annual tradition called the Loony Duke seemed like a great way to mark the start of what was about to be a year full of new experiences.
I remember the buzz of the crowd and the stirring sound of bagpipes playing as we marched down to the water’s edge. There were so many people I had to keep moving and within seconds, I was up to my neck in the icy seawater. I’m not going to pretend. It was cold. Extremely cold. And it took me a while to warm up afterward. But my most powerful memory of that day was the natural high I felt afterward. I felt more alive than I had in a very long time, and that feeling lasted for hours.
While I didn’t make a regular habit of winter swims, I did snap up a few opportunities to jump in the cold waters of Scotland over the years, including the Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye and surf lessons in the North Sea at Dunbar. I always felt amazing afterward and after watching the documentary SuperCharged a couple of weeks ago, I now understand why.
SuperCharged (you can watch it here) explores the science of bioenergetics (energy flow through living systems) and how we can increase our cellular energy beyond diet and nutrition. It explores different ways to improve our health and wellbeing through natural energy sources such as water, grounding, light, movement, environment and cold or ice water immersion.
So what are the benefits of cold water swimming?
Increased metabolism – your body works harder in cold water to keep warm and so you burn more calories, even after you get out of the water because your body is working to warm up.
Improved circulation – the extreme drop in temperature signals to our heart to pump more blood to our organs, improving circulation and helping to flush toxins from your system.
Stress relief and a natural high – the repetitive action of swimming and focus on breathing helps to bring you into the present moment. Add to that cold water and your body gets to work producing endorphins to fight the cold, giving you the feeling of elation once you get out.
Deeper sleep – cold water stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, helping your body to rest and repair itself and providing a feeling of relaxation and calm that aids in good sleep.
Immune system boost – the shock of regularly immersing yourself in cold water can kick-start the immune system, helping to produce more white blood cells and antioxidants.
Whether it’s summer or winter, an indoor pool or swimming in the great outdoors, safety should always come first. Some tips to stay safe winter swimming include:
Always swim with a group and look out for one another.
Know the entry and exit points where you are swimming, be aware of tides, currents, and potentially dangerous sea creatures.
Get in slowly, do not dive into the water.
Know your limits, listen to your body and get out while you still feel great. Do not wait until you are shivering or short of breath.
Consider wearing a wetsuit and using a tow float for added comfort and safety.
If a cold water swim is not for you, you can start small–splash cold water on your face first thing in the morning to reap some of the water benefits listed above. And if that step seems to easy, you can spend a minute (or more) under cold water in your shower. The Kundalini Yoga teachings recommend cold water showers.