Updated: Mar 15
The cryo bio of three swimmers reflecting on cold water exposure, what it has meant in their lives and why they keep doing it.
Why do I swim in cold water?
This morning, as myself and three friends stripped down to our swimming costumes, there were the familiar cries of “Why are we doing this?” and “Are we mad?”, which made me ponder on what draws me to cold-water swimming.
Over the past 18 months, since I started open water swimming throughout the year, I don’t think I have ever laughed so much. The conversations post-swim have ranged from the bizarre to the ridiculous. I have found a place of vulnerability in me that means I can share thoughts, say silly jokes, play around with an ease that I haven’t been able to access for nearly 30 years. I love that I can place my trust in those that I swim with and, hopefully, them in me. You never know when your body is going to respond in ways you don’t expect.
I have come from a place of physically challenging my body in sport, like running marathons and doing triathlons. Challenging my body in the cold water, especially as the temperature drops, is completely different. The cold water has enabled me to take a different kind of responsibility for myself; an appreciation that more, longer or quicker doesn’t mean better. I have become more aware of the nuances within my body, become more connected to what it is telling me. I have developed an appreciation for my body that was not previously present. In the past, I often looked quite scathingly on my body and its achievements. Now my mind and body are ‘in it together’.
I find the cold water is able to ‘reset’ my mind. Any issues, problems or thoughts that have been rolling around in my mind are released as I enter the cold water.
I cannot think about anything else other than my surroundings, calming my body down and enjoying my swim. I noticed in the summer, when the water was warmer and swimming for long periods of time was possible, my mind could wander. I did sometimes long for the colder water and release from the intrusion of external thoughts. I had to find other factors in my environment to anchor myself to the present, or accept that it was OK where my mind was at on that given day.
I have tended to swim regularly in the same two places: the river or the lake. Wherever I swim, it is always different. The water, sky, trees, wind, leaves, grass, mud, clouds, are never the same. I have developed a deeper appreciation for the creation around me and the privilege I have in witnessing it and, in a tiny way, being part of.
Part of the swim is the anticipation of what the environment is going to look and feel like. Swimming in the dark, especially under a full moon, heightens your senses. I love the sense of swimming in black silk.
Discovering the power of the breath has been hugely powerful in how I have felt physically and mentally over the past 18 months. For me, how I breathe before, during and after my cold-water swim has been something I have also learnt to tune into, as part of my body awareness. I have had Raynaud’s syndrome since I was a teenager. For me, I have noticed that my ability to cope with the cold has improved and the Raynaud’s has become much less noticeable.
So, if asked why I swim in cold water, I can’t give a one-word answer. All of the above form an undercurrent that gets me to organise a swim, turn up to meet others, and get in the water.
How I learned to tolerate the shock for the sake of the lift-off
I was introduced to cold-water swimming years ago by my mother, at a time when river swimming in particular was quite unheard of. Mum would pull on a wetsuit and assail waterfalls, surf boards, rivers, lakes and oceans, all without a moment of deliberation. Any chance of a swim, there she went, regardless of the weather, the time of day or whether she even had a towel for after! It was a habit she preserved until she was in her early eighties. It is from her that I get my love of water.
But getting totally immersed in water in just swimmers, rather than the insulated separation provided by a wetsuit, I owe to my daughter, Deya. Deya has done such alarming things as competing in Ice Swimming Championships in Slovenia, and swimming in sub-zero temperatures and in hail through in winter. When I went to support her in Slovenia, and when she would tell me she was off to swim on Boxing Day with a group of people she had not yet met, I remember thinking she was bonkers. I promised her I would join her for one swim after she finished racing in the stunning icy Lake Bohinj in Solevia and it was in that single swim I began to appreciate why she did it. Thanks to Deya, I came to understand how the word “tonic” hardly even begins to describe the sense of rejuvenation that comes as a result of swimming outdoors - especially as the water drops in temperature. With your line of vision in water being as close to the ground as you can get, the change of perspective is not just physical, but deeply spiritual too.
The friends I have made through this hobby, and the uplifting feeling I receive from giving myself over to flowing water are factors of this love for cold water I cherish deeply. There is something very special about the people you meet through this activity. Before you have had the chance to meet each other you are stripping down to your swimmers, hands numb from the cold. In those raw moments of excitement and exhilaration friendships grow fast and connect deeply.
Swimming outdoors in rivers and lakes and the ocean goes even further, the benefits I have felt in my body have been profound. All my life I have suffered from chronic migraine. The severity of which has landed me in hospital several times. I have to work my way through a sequence of medications every day, with all their undesirable side effects. Taking up outdoor swimming two-and-a-half years ago has been the single driving force in allowing me to reduce that migraine medication by half.
The familiar foggy feeling in my head that I often have when I wake up accompanies me as far as my local river, but as soon as I immerse myself completely in the water, especially my head and the back of my neck (along the Vagus nerve) the fogginess is gone and the migraine which it usually precedes never arrives. It really does feel like a miracle cure. Of course, there is a price to pay - I have become very familiar with the “Brain Freeze” feeling, as if I have suddenly eaten a giant portion of cold ice cream, but to say that it is worth it would be an understatement.
I am not too familiar with the science behind this relief of my chronic migraines, I do know however that a lot of people have recorded to feel similar things and that by the time I get out of the river, I feel completely transformed.
This feeling of calm and a sense of being reset remains with me for the entire day. I’m so very grateful to have discovered this, to have opened up a new way of embracing the outdoors, even if it did take me nearly fifty years to get here!
September 2020 – the swim club that I am a member of was struggling financially due to the impact of COVID 19. We were fundraising in any way we could. By that point, I’d been open-water swimming for about three years, but not swum in the winter months. I’d always been in awe of those who could swim year-round, but never thought I’d be able to stand the cold.
So, when I initially thought of doing a cold-water challenge to raise much needed club funds, I ignored it. But the idea kept popping back in my brain. A couple of weeks later, I went with it and set myself a winter swim challenge – to wild swim at least once every week from the start of November to the end of March. If I’m honest, at that point I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do it, but I knew I’d try my best. Five months later, with over £1000 raised, I’d done it! Not only that, but I’d enjoyed it and found that I came home buzzing from each swim.
This year, I’m doing it again. Not to raise funds (thankfully, the swim club is now financially safe), but simply because I love it! What is there to love about swimming in a freezing river in the middle of winter? I hear you ask, well it’s like this…
First, you have the anticipation on the walk down. How cold will it be? How strong is the current today? Did I remember my woolly hat for after? Then you meet your friends, ask each other, “Remind me, why are we doing this again?”, giggle and laugh a lot, and marvel at the beauty of nature.
We tend to swim early. I love the cold, crisp mornings best. It’s so quiet and the sunrises over the water are simply stunning. We huddle on the bank, stripping off multiple layers, stretching on hats, clipping on tow-floats, and starting tracking devices. Over to the ladder we head, asking again why we’re doing this, and start lowering ourselves into the icy depths. For me, it’s usually a musical entry – the colder the water, the higher the pitch! The resident ducks have a good laugh (their quacking literally sounds like laughing), and then I’m in.
Every single inch of my skin tingles, I feel so alive, and anything that’s been going on in my head disappears as the only thing I can focus on is swimming and breathing. Maybe this is why I love it so much. I’ve struggled with anxiety for a number of years. Having nothing nagging in my brain is simply wonderful!
In the very cold months, we don’t stay in long, but long enough to take in the beauty of the surroundings from water level. I often think how lucky I am to see the river from this vantage point – it’s amazing to watch it change through the seasons. A few minutes later, I’m back up the ladder and stepping back into my crocs (the best for insulation). The buzz is electric – we’re all chattering ten to the dozen as we quickly dry off and layer back up. Next comes the warm drink and, if you’re lucky, someone will have baked. I swear my mocha tastes richer and sweeter post-river than when I drink exactly the same at home. Funny that!
At this point, we’re usually doing the warm-up dance, bouncing up and down on the spot like kangaroos trying to warm our feet back up, whilst cuddling hot water bottles and laughing at the sight of each other. We laugh so much! I can’t recall a swim where we’ve not been in fits of laughter about one thing or another. Then back to our cars we traipse, over the toll bridge, past the commuters watching the crazy swimmers, with great big smiles on our faces.
Photographs by Darrin Roles