For many people, the idea of plunging into frigid waters seems crazy. Why would anyone want to voluntarily submerge themselves in water cold enough to take their breath away? Yet cold water swimming 12 has been practiced for centuries and is growing in popularity today as more people discover its many health benefits.
In this beginner’s guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to safely and enjoyably get started with one of the most exhilarating aquatic sports around.
The Benefits and Risks of Cold Water Swimming
Let’s start by discussing some of the main health benefits associated with cold-water swimming:
- Improved circulation and heart health – As soon as you hit that cold water, your heart rate and blood pressure increase as your body works to keep your core warm. This helps strengthen your cardiovascular system over time.
- Increased immunity – Exposure to cold helps increase the number of disease-fighting white blood cells in your system. Many dedicated cold water swimmers swear they get fewer colds as a result.
- Reduced inflammation – The cold constricts blood vessels which helps flush toxins and reduces inflammation and swelling. This provides natural pain relief.
- Enhanced mood – Your body releases feel-good endorphins to help counteract the stress of the cold. This results in an endorphin rush that lifts your mood.
- Weight loss – Your body has to work harder to maintain its core temperature in cold water, burning more calories in the process.
Of course, there are some risks associated with it as well:
- Hypothermia – This occurs when your core body temperature drops dangerously low below 95 F = 35°C. Left untreated, hypothermia can lead to complete loss of muscle control, unconsciousness, and even death.
- Cold shock – The initial plunge into cold water causes an involuntary gasp for air, hyperventilation, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. This can be dangerous for those with certain heart conditions.
- Cardiac events – The strain on your cardiovascular system from it may trigger arrhythmias or even cardiac arrest in susceptible individuals. Always consult a doctor first.
With proper precautions, however, these risks can be minimized so you can safely reap the many benefits.
Getting Started with Cold Water Swimming
Here are some tips for those eager to take the plunge:
|Find the Right Location
|Look for a lake, pond, or area along a river with a gentle, sandy, or muddy entry that is free of strong currents. Avoid swimming alone or in isolated areas. Joining a winter swimming association provides camaraderie and safety.
|Never jump straight into frigid water if you’re new to it. Instead, begin by splashing your face, then wading in slowly up to your knees and elbows to allow your body to acclimatize. Take your time advancing to brief full immersions.
|Invest in Proper Gear
|A good wetsuit will allow you to stay in longer by slowing heat loss. Opt for bright colors for visibility and a brightly colored silicone cap for insulation. Fins help propel you through the water efficiently.
|Check the Water Temperature
|Ideally, the water should be between 50-60°F = 10-15°C for winter swimming. Avoid water below 35°F = below 2°C if you’re just starting out. Purchase a waterproof thermometer to frequently monitor conditions.
|Swim with a Partner
|Having someone to watch out for you is vital for safety. They can monitor for signs of hypothermia and help remove you from the water if needed.
|Limit Your Swim Duration
|When just starting, limit your time in the water to 1-2 minutes. Even experienced winter swimmers should swim for no more than 20 minutes at a time. Get out immediately if experiencing muscle cramps, pain, or loss of coordination.
|Warm Up Afterwards
|After exiting the frigid waters, immediately dry off and change into warm, dry clothing. Consume a hot drink and keep moving to allow your body to gradually warm up. Avoid hot showers or baths right away which can affect blood pressure.
How to Prepare Your Body
To minimize risk and maximize enjoyment, be sure to take some time preparing your body for the challenges of cold water swimming:
- Acclimatize slowly – Gradually increase your exposure to cooler and cooler water temperatures to allow your body to adjust.
- Boost cardio fitness – Swim regularly in warmer waters and engage in another aerobic exercise to strengthen your circulation and heart health.
- Eat a high-fat diet – A diet higher in healthy fats will help provide the crucial insulation you need in cold water.
- Pack on some extra pounds – A bit of extra body fat acts as added insulation against the cold.
- Expose extremities – Take cold showers and frequently expose your hands, feet, and face to cold air and water.
- Activate your brown fat – Brown fat helps produce heat. Exposure to cold boosts levels over time.
- Build tolerance through repetition – The more often you swim in colder water, the more your body will adapt.
Don’t attempt extreme temperature drops all at once. Prepare your body gradually and you’ll adjust to the cold much faster.
The Effects of Cold Water Swimming on Your Body and Mind
Once you take that initial plunge, what exactly does immersion in frigid waters do to your body and mind? Here are some of the effects:
|The initial plunge causes an immediate gasp for air, rapid breathing, and temporary hyperventilation as your body reacts.
|Blood rapidly moves away from the extremities and skin to preserve core heat and vital organ function.
|Increased Heart Rate
|Your heart rate accelerates in order to pump blood and oxygen to tissues and organs.
|Blood Pressure Rise
|Cold causes an immediate spike in blood pressure for most people which gradually normalizes.
|Altered Breathing Patterns
|You begin reflexively hyperventilating as your body tries to supply oxygen.
|Numbness in Extremities
|Hands, feet, and any uncovered skin will begin to feel numb within minutes due to lack of blood flow.
|Once you exit the water, blood circulates back out to the skin causing a further drop in core temperature.
|Release of Endorphins
|Endorphins flood your system to help counteract the cold temperature stress, boosting your mood.
|As your body works to warm back up, peripheral circulation improves.
|Brief cold exposure activates your immune system, increasing white blood cell production.
The more often you are exposed to cold water, the more readily your body will adapt to these responses.
Long-Term Cold Water Swimming – Is it Safe?
For otherwise healthy individuals, research indicates that moderate cold water swimming done safely can indeed be sustained long-term. A 20-year study of over 24,000 Finnish participants found no increase in cardiac events or mortality among experienced cold water swimmers.
That said, it does place a significant burden on your heart. Those with any pre-existing heart conditions, such as coronary artery disease or arrhythmias, should consult a cardiologist first. They can help assess your individual level of risk and provide guidance on modifications or precautions needed.
For the majority of people though, it is a safe, sustainable activity providing you build up gradually and utilize proper safety precautions. Over time, your body will adapt, allowing you to push your cold tolerance even further.
Just be sure to listen to your body so you can recognize early signs of hypothermia or other issues requiring you to immediately exit the water and seek medical attention if needed.
I hope this beginner’s guide has shown you that cold water swimming doesn’t have to be intimidating. Yes, that initial plunge into freezing waters can be shocking. But once you adapt, the multitude of physical and mental benefits are incredibly rewarding.
The sense of accomplishment after conquering the cold, combined with the mood-boosting endorphins, is truly exhilarating. Just be sure to take the time to properly prepare your body and utilize essential safety precautions.
Escape the monotony of indoor pools and immerse yourself in the invigorating world of open-water winter swimming. You just may find the frigid waters profoundly healing and liberating.
See our complete overview of cold exposure methods to see which one(s) suit you best. Or check out our articles on time management, breathing exercises or relaxation techniques if cold exposure is not your cup of tea!
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it good to swim in cold water?
Swimming in cold water can have several health benefits when done properly and safely. Studies show it improves circulation, boosts immunity, increases tolerance to stress, and releases endorphins that lift mood. However, it’s important to start slowly and build tolerance. Sudden exposure to very cold water can cause shock. Overall, swimming in cool water is good for you in moderation.
How long should I swim in cold water?
When starting, limit the time in the water to 1-2 minutes. Gradually build up over several weeks to 5-10 minutes as your body acclimates. Even experienced cold water swimmers shouldn’t stay in longer than 20-30 minutes due to the risk of hypothermia. Listen to your body – get out if your lips turn blue or your limbs become numb. Build up time in water slowly.
Why can’t I swim in cold water?
Some health conditions increase the risk of complications. Heart conditions, high/low blood pressure, pregnancy, and circulatory issues may make it dangerous to swim in cold water. Some medications also increase risk. Check with your doctor before trying cold water swimming if you have any medical conditions. Introduce it slowly and carefully.
Is swimming in cold water good for your brain?
Emerging research suggests it may benefit the brain. The cold shock triggers the release of neurotransmitters that boost mood. It also improves circulation which provides more oxygen to the brain. Anecdotal evidence shows cold water swimmers report feeling mentally sharper and calmer after a dip. However, more studies are needed to confirm concrete cognitive benefits.
What temperature is cold water swimming?
Generally, water below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 Celsius) is considered cold for swimming. The optimal temperature is 50-60 degrees F = 10-15°C according to experts. This is cold enough to boost metabolism but not so cold as to cause hypothermia. Open water temps vary by location and time of year. Slowly acclimate to your local water temperature.