Wild Swimming and Cold Water Therapy
Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Growing up on the rugged Cornish coastline, after school we'd be throwing ourselves into a shore dump or competing to get the highest jump into tide pools. When I think back now, these days provided such simplicity and connection. We were definitely very happy kids. Jumping into freezing water has since been a method of escape, a moment to re-channel my thoughts or a way to build closer relationships. Aside from the immediate euphoria of immersion in such temperatures, there must be more to it? Let me convince you that diving into that water may be the simplest thing you can do for your physical and mental well-being.
Living near the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca last summer, I'd spend every free moment hiking among the 6,000m peaks to dive into new ice lagoons. It makes me feel present, powerful and equally humbled, freezing underneath those snow-capped splendours.
This love for wild swimming has turned into quite the aquatic odyssey. We started out learning to manage ourselves in adverse swells on the North coast, between hot days lounging on paddle boards on the home beaches. Since, I've dipped my body into wild Caribbean seas beside turtles and rays, ethereal blue lagoons in the Andes fed by trickles of melting ice caps, soft bedded ponds on the flanks of Scafell, and deep lakes in the heart of the Haute Savoie mountains. These swims, often alone but sometimes whooping for joy with family and friends, remain engrained as my greatest memories. They've allowed me to explore places from a different perspective, not only getting closer to the people I am swimming with, but to the stories hidden in the waters of the region.
Seeing you strip off mid winter to jump in the sea, people may call you crazy. But there's method to this madness. Let's begin with some of the innumerable health benefits that cold water shock can provide.
Last time I hiked up to Scafell pike, this natural infinity pool was irresistible as I noticed the perfect fusion of water to sky, accentuated by the sharp mountain trace between Bowfell and Great End. I stripped off and took a moment of (chilly) relaxation.
The cold has been proven to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Some physical effects of this are an enhanced the immune system, increased metabolic rate, and increased mitochondria production - the powerhouse of cells. Following the cold shock, the antioxidant glutathione is synthesised in abundance, helping to regulate oxidation and reduce your long-term risk of heart disease and cancer. The sudden external temperature change causes constriction of the arteries which prevent waste tissue build up or bruising so toxins are more easily expelled. As inflammation is subsequently reduced, recovery after hard training sessions is quickened, reducing the effect of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and allowing you to get back training quicker. A triathlete's dream, right?
We'd seek solace from the relenting Guadeloupean heat below the cool green canopies, higher in the mornes. We'd bathe in these waterfalls, which seemed more alive than any other body of water I've immersed myself in. We'd share readings from Caribbean literature of maroons (escaped slaves) who had probably drank from the same water sources hundreds of years before, their spirits still believed to roam these forests. 'L'esclave vieil homme et le molosse' [The Old Slave and The Mastiff] by Patrick Chamoiseau captures the plights of these maroons with such virtuosity. Available in English here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Old-Slave-Mastiff-Patrick-Chamoiseau-ebook/dp/B077S9GQ3D/ref=sr_1_10?dchild=1&keywords=chamoiseau&qid=1591956365&sr=8-10
Beyond these physical benefits are the (arguably more important) psychological adaptions, namely increased norepinephrine production in the brain which elevates mood, vigilance and attention. During these particularly challenging or unsettling times, something as simple as immersing yourself in cold water for 5 minutes could unfurl extensive health benefits and a happier you. Cold shock reconnects your body and mind and builds mental fortitude that can be applied to other areas of your life. Often the immediate fears of painful cold, uncertain tides or sharks waiting to eat you, can seem rational and enough a reason to go as far as your big toe. But knowing that you hold conscious control over your mind will reward you with a myriad of mental tools to combat ensuing challenges with resilience and confidence.
During my multi-day adventures, the Machu Pichu trails were all to myself first thing in the morning. So I'd skinny dip in these alchemist lakes, undisturbed for as long as I could stand the cold! I'll always cherish these moments of total tranquillity and true living.
Recently, Stoic philosophy has been cropping up from conversations to literary characters to online ads, and I decided to take notice. The basis of Stoicism teaches its students that while one cannot control many circumstances in life, every individual has the power to choose how they approach adversity. Rome’s greatest emperors articulated Stoicism two millennia ago, and recent critiques defined this ‘vibrant, action-orientated, and paradigm-shifting way of life […] as “the highest point to which man can attain by the mere use of his faculty of reason”’ (Hanselman, 2016: 1). And it's available to us all! I’ve learnt from readings so far that there is so much in life outside our control, but so much within it. And learning how to deal with harsh conditions against which you build a strong soul, is critical to survival.
Dad taking a nature bath in one of Scotland's lochs half way through an ultra marathon we did a few years ago. We were woken up by bag pipes the next morning and finished the race with a dive into a river running through the camp.
“The rational soul is stronger than any kind of fortune – from its own share it guides its affairs here or there, and is itself the cause of a happy or miserable life.” –Seneca, Moral Letters, 98.2b
We spent many weekends on Marie Galante, an idyllic, rural island off the coast of Guadeloupe, snorkelling, drinking wine and cooking fresh fish on the beach. We'd enjoy kilometres of white sand to ourselves, fringed with palms to shade under. At sunset, we'd strip off and follow the sun out into the bay, pouring its molten gold into the horizon. Between sea swims we'd be stuck in our books or exploring nearby caves 'aux parois vertigineuses comme celles de l'enfer et, tout alentour, le royaume violet de la mer' - Le Coeur à rire et à pleurer, Maryse Condé, (1999: 104).
By regularly throwing ourselves outside our comfort zones, even just into cold water for a few minutes per day, we can build up barriers of mental fortitude that will make other challenges comparatively breezy. Undergo this conditioning through conscious preparations and you might find yourself similarly strengthened as the Stoics! 5 minutes of cold water therapy per day, and you are manifesting discipline of perception, action and will. That you understand your authority over building a healthy reality, and are willing to take action towards a positive lifestyle. Dealing with furlough, children running riot and those extra lockdown pounds, it all may be easier to manage as you build up your emotional and psychological resilience. Not to mention a new appreciation for what your body can do, as our bodies are truly incredible!
“We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.” -Epictetus, Discourses, 1.2.32
Strip back external expectations of happiness, heal yourself from the consumerist plague and take yourself back into nature. Pastoruri Glacier sits at 5,000m in Peru, but due to global warming it may only be present for the next decade. Back in the 70s holiday makers would ski here!
If I haven’t convinced you with the psycho-physical benefits, consider the moments of connection with loved ones and friends. Reassure each other that now there are more of you in the water, the statistical chances of being eaten by a shark are significantly lower. As the perfect way to adventure and catch up with new and old friends, it costs nothing! Maybe just a snorkel to explore the coastal kelp forests or the crystal depths of an alpine lake. These moments deeply connected to nature are holistically healing, bringing sensations of total presence. I love to glide breast stroke below the skin of the sea, the deep silence orchestrated by the tinker of stones and the distant growl of a boat engine.
Me yesterday needing some wild in my life, this high tide was just too tempting. Taken round the coast of Nansidwell, Falmouth, UK.
Wild swimming officially became a British past time in 1783 when Dr Richard Russel first published the benefits, after which Prince Regent went straight to the Sussex coast to dip in the sea. He quickly rented property to be able to continue his new joy, shortly after converting it into the Brighton Pavilion that stands today. The Victorians went on to cultivate wild swimming as tourism flourished and railway lines facilitated access to the summertime coast.
Most day trips usually turn into a quick jump off something high! This was taken in 2015 while exploring Annecy in the Haute Savoie region of France. What are you waiting for? Jump!
According to 'Wild Swimming Coast' by Daniel Start (2009), while folkloristic tales of Cornish mermaids and Scottish selkies enrich our island’s watery underworlds, wild swimming also allows us to approach Britain’s prosperous coastal history. From Arthurian legend on the coast of Tintagel to spiritual retreats such as Holy Island off the coast of Northumberland, Britain has a wild swimming set up for every taste. ‘And with new access laws opening up large swaths of coast, and water quality better than at any time in living memory, there has never been a better time to swim and explore the natural wonders of our coastline’ (2009: 8). This book is an excellent place to start planning your next wild swimming adventures.
This photo was taken on a trip to Cyprus, the clearest water I've ever swam in. The water becomes saltier the more tropical you go, so opening your eyes can really sting! I find this makes duck diving a challenge when surfing in warmer seas.
However, real dangers such as rip currents, tidal pools, hypothermia and shallow waters from jump spots do exist. Do not swim if you feel the water is unsafe or you do not feel confident going out of your depth. Watch out for signs of hypothermia like difficulty talking or confusion and make sure to get warm immediately afterwards. Don't let this put you off your search for a perfect spot though! Bring some friends along so you can look out for each other and read up on weather and tide before you go. You could even ask a local where it is safe. People are always happy to share the treasures of their homes when enjoyed safely and responsibly.
Although, you don't have to have access to the sea or a lake to get the health benefits of cold water therapy. Even starting the day with a glass of icy water or a cold shower for 5 minutes can have similar restorative benefits to your immune and muscular systems. But while Wim Hof is out there enduring two hours of full body contact with ice, or Ross Edgely is unwinding after his 157 day swim around Great Britain, I think we can all manage 5 minutes of teeth chattering cold or a quick plunge back into nature. And a personal repertoire of tools against mental health strains never goes amiss!
Mum will be up most mornings at the crack of dawn, heading to our local beach for a quick dip before the day begins. This is her warming up after the healthy ritual! Her bespoke, handmade dry robes can be found on Instagram @bybettyblue or on Etsy byBettyBlue.
For a sense of community and shared adventure, how about starting with the #30daysofswimming movement led by @wildswimmingcornwall: 'Finding community, self care and an affinity with nature through cold water'. Go check out their page!
Stay wild and keep swimming,
British Triathlon Federation: https://www.britishtriathlon.org/london/news/tips-for-cold-water-swimming_5621
Doctor Rhonda Patrick ‘Cold Shocking the Body - Exploring Cryotherapy, ColdWater Immersion, and Cold Stress’
Start, D. (2016), Wild Swimming Coast, Punk Publishing Ltd