The Benefits Of Cold Water Swimming
The Benefits Of Cold Water Swimming
Our bodies can have a strong visceral reaction to the initial shock of taking a cold plunge that causes us to stay away once the temperature drops past a certain point. Your skin tightens, your heart rate increases, and a pit forms in your stomach. It becomes harder to breathe as your body works to compensate for a drastic change in body temperature. Everything is telling you to turn around, put dry clothes on, and retreat into the warmth waiting for you inside.
But, what if there were health benefits that made taking a chilly plunge worth a few minutes of discomfort? There are!
Researchers have studied the effects and benefits of cold water swimming and found plenty of physical and psychological benefits of braving the cold. I didn’t believe it until trying it for myself a few years ago and haven’t looked back since.
Cold Water Swimming Benefits
In 2017 I signed up for my first Iron Man that would take place at the end of April, just as the weather begins to warm up. In Georgia, the weather is nice this time of year and would be perfect for a long bike and run, though the swim in cold water worried me – the projected water temperature for our open water swim was a crisp 57°, much colder than any other water I had been in before. The idea of swimming in water this cold almost kept me away from the race entirely, but this race allowed wetsuits for the swim and I decided a cold water swim was a small hurdle in achieving my goal of competing in an Iron Man.
As soon as I signed up I knew there was a lot of work ahead, both in increasing my endurance and getting acclimated to swimming in cold water. When I set out on my training journey, I tried to learn everything I could about what could go wrong with swimming in cold water. I was afraid my body would go into shock or my muscles would cramp and I would sink to the bottom of the lake. Researching what could go wrong led me down the unexpected path of cold water swimming benefits, of which there are many.
At first, I thought it sounded like something only a group of high-school or college students would do to prove how tough they were but quickly realized there is more to cold water swimming than a test of machoism. I was surprised by the amount of research that’s been done, how many people around the world choose to jump into ice-cold water, and the benefits of taking the plunge. A quick Google search reveals “Polar Bear” swims that are put on all over the place where large groups of people go for a cold water swim, then celebrate the accomplishment together.
Physical Benefits – calorie burning, circulation increasing
Swimming is a great full-body exercise that is known to burn a ton of calories. Countless people try swimming because of the low impact on joints and the anaerobic workout from working while holding your breath. Swimming in cold water ups the ante by lowering your body temperature and forcing your body to work internally to keep your body temperature at an acceptable level.
An internal body temperature that’s either too low or too high isn’t good, so the body has some great mechanisms that help regulate and keep our body temp within the range it needs to be in. Two of the main ways are by using the circulatory system to redirect blood flow to the areas that need it the most and by generating heat through movement.
Our circulatory system constricts and dilates our blood vessels to send more blood to the right place at the right time. When it’s hot our bodies send more blood to the skin, allowing heat to escape. When it’s cold our bodies send more blood to our organs to help keep us warm. Getting into cold water makes the blood vessels around the organs dilate and the vessels close to the skin constrict, focusing all of its energy on keeping the most important parts warm. At the same time, we begin shivering to try to create warmth through motion.
Psychological Benefits – a natural high and reduced stress
In a world that never slows down, we’re all looking for ways to reduce stress. Turns out a benefit of cold water swimming is easing some of your stress. When you are in cold water your fight-or-flight response activates and releases adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream. When you stay in cold water (fight) instead of getting out (flight) you are teaching your body how to use the rush of adrenaline and cortisol in a way that makes you better.
You can use this newly learned response to a rush of adrenaline as a way to manage other stress-inducing areas of your life. Endorphins release into the bloodstream, creating a feeling of joy that some people call a natural high. This feeling often lasts for several hours after the initial release of endorphins.
The Bottom Line
The initial plunge into cold water might send shivers up your spine, but the physical and psychological benefits far outweigh the short term discomfort you might experience. A way to help with the discomfort is to wear a wetsuit that will form a layer of insulation around your body by trapping water between your skin and the wetsuit.