The New Wild Pursuit Everyone’s Jumping Into – Cold Water Swimming
I recently saw a post on Twitter asking why cold water swimmers have to post so regularly on their feeds, about when and where they swam, how long they swam for and the temperature of the water. This made me laugh as someone who has become a part of this ever-growing community of – some would say – bonkers individuals who spend their free time dipping in their local ‘blue-space’ to feel the buzz throughout the winter months.
I moved in Lockdown 1 to the Essex coast and part of the reason was to be close to the water. I had a dream of dipping daily into the sea. Within a week of moving, I searched on Facebook for open water swim (OWS) groups, as I thought this was the best port of call to find the right information; it turns out that is exactly where local swim coach, Jo Good, suggests locating your nearest swim community. I came across the Southend Seals, a page of 1.9K members, of which Jo is the admin. We met for a lesson and afterwards I began regular swim coaching.
Jo is a former city professional who, following her redundancy in 2018, turned her passion for swimming into a business. She then focused on OWS coaching and is now an expert coach in cold water swimming. Jo’s easy-going nature, empathy and patience for those more fearful of the water, plus her beliefs (backed by the science) that the water is a healer for people struggling with their mental and physical health, makes her a very popular coach with everyone.
Jo explained she believes there has been a huge increase in OWS numbers due to the restrictions in place during the national lockdowns, meaning either people who have needed to find alternative forms of getting active, or regular pool swimmers who have not been able to swim at their local leisure centre. Swimming is also a wonderful activity enjoyable for all; it is inclusive no matter diversity of body, age, level of fitness or ability. The Outdoor Swimmer found winter swimming in the UK has boomed, with 75% of people who started swimming outdoors in 2020 planning to continue through the winter. The hobby has also attracted huge public interest with the increase of reports in mainstream media covering OWS, and this is confirmed on Google with a 100% increase in the number of stories on winter swimming between 2019 and 2020.
A big part of the media coverage last year was on how a Cambridge University study found cold water swimming (CWS) may protect the brain from degenerative diseases like dementia. Which was how a world-first “cold-shock” protein had been found in the blood of regular swimmers at London’s Parliament Hill Lido. Jo has heard from her own clients with physical health problems how they often find their pain alleviated in the cold water. Jo says CWS can reduce pain, improve circulation, increase metabolism and immunity and, overall, increase happiness. I mean, let’s face it, all of those CWS posts on social media, do any of them ever look unhappy?! Linked into this “cold-shock” protein is a real understanding of how cold water swimmers are regularly exposed to the effects of the cold water shock which is where your heart rate and blood pressure dramatically rise, meaning your body becomes better equipped to deal with the stress response.
If you are looking to get started here are the Dos and Don’ts for CWS
- Do bear in mind everyone is different – for you it may not be the best time to start OWS during the winter months, so hold-off and start in the spring.
- Do start out slowly, remember less is more. It is better to do less than overstay in the cold water and you have a bad experience which subsequently puts you off.
- Don’t swim alone and do find someone experienced to go in with when you are starting out.
- Do your research: check out the Outdoor Swimming Society to keep up-to-date.
- Do understand the impact of the cold water on your body and how to acclimatise.
- Do find a coach to give you the right guidance. You can find a local coach by word of mouth or referral through your swim community. It is important to find a coach qualified in OWS.
- Don’t feel you have to buy all the latest kit. Start with the basics; all you need is a swimming costume! You can invest in neoprene gloves and socks and wear two swim hats to keep some heat in your body. At a later stage, you can purchase a full wetsuit if it is something you feel you need.
- Do purchase a tow-float for visibility if you are swimming more than dipping, so you can be seen by other water users, paddleboarders, wind surfers, jet-skis etc.
Jo says she is not the ‘Joy Police’ but OWS – particularly in the winter – is an activity which comes with many serious risks if something goes wrong and, sadly, sometimes it does. Her biggest tip is to start with the safety perspective first, by finding a local who can give you the insider knowledge of where and when you want to swim. Even as an experienced coach, if Jo swims anywhere outside of Southend, she always gets the lowdown on what to expect.
Once you have the safety angle covered, then simply enjoy and turn the nerves into excitement. Be curious about trying something new and embrace the inner joy that the water can bring. Finally, be prepared to eat a lot of cake; it’s what us cold water swimmers love.
Ruth Cooper-Dickson is a positive psychology practitioner and an accredited resilience, wellbeing and trauma-informed coach. She is the founder of CHAMPS, a global Mental Wealth consultancy and CHAMPS for Change CIC, a social enterprise and post-traumatic growth research hub.