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A Ritual Of Reward: How Cold Water Swimming Can Make Us Happier And Healthier

Words by Lydia Paleschi, cold water swimmer and co-author of A Guide to Wild Swimming in Cornwall. Lydia also co-founded Wild Swimming Cornwall, to promote the mental and physical health benefits of cold water swimming. The website includes tips on cold water swimming, how to stay safe in the ocean and other information to make it as easy as possible for others to access the water.

A ritual of reward

Starting your day doing something wonderful for yourself, where you move your body and push yourself out of your comfort zone is unbeatable in the benefit it brings for the rest of the day. Add to that the nourishment that comes with spending time outdoors and you’ll begin to understand why I love cold water swimming so much.

There’s a power that comes with submitting yourself to the cold, substituting the cosy contentment of warm bed sheets pulled up to your chin with the shocking sensation of pushing your shoulders under the frigid water. It grows as you fight the resistance to return indoors, whilst the vast waters of the ocean envelop you and its coldness infiltrates your every fibre.

It’s not all discomfort whilst cold water swimming though. Alongside the pain, there’s a sense of calm. As your body’s fight or flight response is triggered, you have no choice but to be in the present moment. There’s no space for nagging thoughts whilst your body adjusts to the sudden onset of near-freezing temperatures. No room for work. No room for chores. No room for worry. All there is, is room to breathe. Persevere through a few rounds of shuddery inhalations and exhalations and you are rewarded with a major mood enhancement. As your bloodstream fills with dopamine, endorphins and adrenaline, discomfort makes way for elation. You smile knowing that you’re getting stronger. You’ve begun your day doing something you can feel proud of. You’ve started it with intention and are rewarded with a sense of joyous satisfaction, which you carry with you for the remainder of the day.

Rebecca Rees

Why cold water swim?

When my friends and I first decided to share what we know about the power of cold water swimming to make us feel happier and healthier, we realised it was rooted in simplicity. Whilst there are plenty of benefits – both scientifically backed and reported anecdotally – for us it’s all about three core elements.

Investing in self-care both mental and physical: improving both our physical and mental resilience through cold exposure – making us braver, stronger and more prepared for whatever life throws our way.

Spending time in and connecting with nature: by immersing ourselves in the ocean and our natural surroundings, we become more connected and more environmentally conscious individuals.

Finding community: by utilising the water as a place we can build upon new and existing friendships, we form healthy social connections with those around us.

Amongst the other reported benefits of cold water swimming are improved immunity, reduced inflammation, a stronger cardiovascular system, improved metabolism, better sleep and recovery. If you’re interested in the links between cold water and breathwork, Wim Hof has a fascinating approach to cold water therapy. If you’d prefer to learn more about it from a sport science approach, Ross Edgley has achieved some incredible feats.

Beginner tips for cold water swimming

For anyone with the ability to swim, accessing the benefits of cold water immersion are relatively easy. It’s as simple as overcoming any mental resistance you have and getting into the water. That being said, there are some things that can be done to make it more comfortable and safer, so that you have a more enjoyable experience overall.

1. Know your limits (acclimatisation)

One of the most important things to consider when starting up cold water swimming, is to know your body’s limits and build up your cold water resistance gradually – otherwise known as acclimatisation. Start with a short swim (as little as thirty seconds) and see how you feel, before spending longer in the water or trying colder temperatures. You can also build up acclimatisation at home with cold showers. Start with thirty seconds, then increase it to longer time periods.

2. Go with someone or join a swimming group

Whenever we are doing something challenging, having someone to encourage us or tackling it as a group activity always makes it easier – and more fun! When it comes to cold water swimming, this also makes it much safer. If you’re looking to experience the benefits of cold water swimming long term, you’re more likely to stay committed if you feel accountable to a group or swim buddy. There are plenty of swimming groups around the UK, many of which you can find online.

3. Understanding recovery

The body continues to cool for around ten minutes after leaving the water, so don’t leave it until you start shivering to get out. Whilst it can be easy to warm up after leaving the water on a sunny summer’s day, in the winter high winds and colder oceans can paint a very different picture. Be sure to start the warming process as soon as you exit the water with thick layers of clothing, warm drinks, socks and hats. Moving your body by walking or jumping around can help a lot too.

Rebecca Rees

Three of the best beginner swimming spots in Cornwall

I have been fortunate to grow up in Cornwall, Britain’s beautiful and most southerly county – and one of its most popular tourist destinations. There are plenty of magical spots to swim from here and I’ve included three of my favourites below.

1. Gyllyngvase Beach, Falmouth

Top of my list has to be my regular swim spot – Gyllyngvase Beach in Falmouth. Sheltered most of the time, other than with strong south westerly swells, this wide stretch of sand is popular with swimmers year-round. The gradually shelving sand makes it easy to enter and exit the water, whilst the width of the beach means you can swim lengths without going out of your depth. For snorkelers, there are reefs and rock pools which line either side of the beach, where you can discover plenty of interesting oceanic wildlife.

2. Perranporth Beach, Perranporth

One of Cornwall’s most-visited beaches, Perranporth is also a great swimming location. Here, vast expanses of sand are met with beautiful cool blue waters. Better for dipping than open water swimming because of the waves, it’s also a popular surf spot. There’s a tidal pool here, perfect for using on stormy days between low and mid-tide when you’re protected from the elements. This means you can dip here year-round as long as you time it right.

3. Bude Sea Pool

A beautiful part natural, part man-made swimming pool in the rocks at Summerleaze Beach, Bude Sea Pool is one of Cornwall’s largest tidal pools. Like all tidal pools it’s best to visit at mid to low tide, where you will be rewarded with an extensive area to swim away from most of the weather and waves. The beach itself is sandy and can be an enjoyable swimming location in its own right – but only on calmer days, as it’s prone to large surf.

Max Campbell

How to access the benefits of cold water if you live in the city

If you think you live somewhere that you can’t access a safe, outdoor body of cold water, you may be surprised. Many cities have spaces – some better known than others – tucked away, where you can access your little pocket of nature. Do some research online and you’re likely to find a cold water swimming group or forum close to you, which can advise you on how or where to go.

If you’re really at a loose end, then cold showers provide you with most of the physiological benefits that cold water swimming has to offer. Pairing this with spending increased time in nature, such as a local park, woodland or preferably somewhere with an open body of water, will bring with it the calming effects of spending time outdoors. The main thing to remember with these spaces is that they must be healthy and thriving, somewhere that makes you feel good. Spending time in an outdoor environment that is polluted or decaying will only serve to have the opposite effect.

A reminder of why

Accessing cold water and making the effort to spend time outdoors – mindfully and with intention – can be a powerful tool in improving both our mental and physical health. For many, even more so when done at the start of the day. Next time you’re feeling lonely, burnt out, low or simply under the weather give it a go and see how these simple acts can be transformative in the way they make you feel. Or even better, give it a go for no reason other than you deserve it, and to invest in yourself at all times.

To learn more about cold water swimming and its benefits, visit wildswimmingcornwall.co.uk. To learn more about the best places to swim in Britain’s most southerly county, check out A Guide to Wild Swimming in Cornwall.

Cover by Matt Mario

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