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Blog - The benefits of cold water swimming and how to get started

The benefits of cold water swimming and how to get started

20 minute(s) de lecture

Cold water swimming; the new, but in fact old, health improver and mood booster.

The popularity of this activity has snowballed in recent years, often linked to the need for natural outdoor spaces as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, but cold water swimming actually has a rich history that goes back centuries.

In cold climate countries such as Finland and Russia there is a history of cold water plungers who would make the most of its benefits with ice swimming traditions and the sauna culture. Across the pond, the first reported U.S. ocean dip can be dated back to 1903 by the Coney Island Polar Bear Club.

Fast forward to now, wild swimming provides a sought-after sanctuary to be at one with the wilderness, away from the hectic environment of modern-day life. An escape from swimming in enclosed and busy man-made pools in exchange for the openness of flora and fauna keeps swimmers coming back from more.

A woman and man in swim gear and dryrobe walking on the beach smiling

 While surrounded by the natural beauty of the great outdoors, cold water swimming can have an incredible impact on a swimmer’s mental and physical health for many reasons. From athletes using it to help their recovery to ordinary people embracing the boost in energy and confidence, it creates, we explore how it can improve your overall health.

If you’re feeling inspired to give it a go, we provide some expert safety advice from our water safety partners and ambassadors to help you enjoy everything cold water dipping can provide as safely as possible.

Physical benefits of cold water swimming

With more recent emphasis on wild swimming, an understanding of the physical benefits of cold water swimming by health professionals is ongoing.

Studies by scientists, such as those conducted by Prof Mike Tipton from the University of Portsmouth who has been researching the effects of cold water on the body for over three decades, conclude that proving the impact has its challenges.

However, there is research to suggest that there are positive benefits of cold water swimming providing you’re in good health, teamed with the personal accounts from swimmers.

If you’re ever in doubt about whether or not you should try cold water swimming due to health-related concerns, you should always speak to a healthcare professional.

Aids post-exercise recovery and alleviates muscle pain

Recently, Runners World released an article featuring Dan Kett, a physiotherapist and cold water expert at P3RFORM explaining the advantages of cold water swimming on the body for boosting run recovery.

According to Kett, cold water therapy constricts blood vessels, and in turn increases blood pressure, helping to decrease ‘inflammatory processes in peripheral muscles’ after exercise.

Kett further explains how cold water therapy reduces ‘the sensation in the nerve endings that detect pain’, improving delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and allowing runners to train more regularly.

Sophie Hellyer changing in dryrobe on the beach


Increases blood flow and circulation

Some reports indicate that cold water swimming has a host of physical benefits, from boosting the immune system to improving blood flow and circulation.

Cold water advocate, adventurer, and founder of Wonder Wild Women, Sarah Gerrish, expresses the impact cold water swimming has had on her body as someone with Raynaud's Syndrome:

‘Personally, for me, I have noticed a huge improvement in my circulation and immune system. Suffering from Raynaud's Syndrome I used to have a real fear of the cold, but since embracing the cold water I now recover so much quicker, and my Raynauds symptoms have reduced significantly.’

Helps reduce inflammation and joint pain

Other research suggests that cold water immersion can support the reduction in inflammation and joint pain.

During her pregnancy, dryrobe® Ambassador Sophie Hellyer chose to swim throughout. She explains the physical relief she gained from cold water for some of the symptoms and strain pregnancy had on her body:

‘Cold water swimming was also great for my inflammation. My feet and ankles massively swelled up towards the end of my pregnancy, so I was keen for anything that would help dial that issue down.’

Find out more about Sophie’s experience of swimming throughout her pregnancy as well as her tips for other pregnant swimmers here.

Mental benefits of cold water swimming

If you know someone who regularly open-water swims, you’ve no doubt heard them express the positive reasons behind why they do it. Of course, everyone is different, and the mental health effects of cold water swimming can vary from person to person.

Provides a sense of accomplishment

For many swimmers, the sense of achievement gained from successfully dipping in the cold naturally results in an addictive confidence boost that improves overall self-image and supports positive mental health.

‘One of the most instant benefits from cold water swimming is the improvement of mood and the natural high that you get post-swim. The sense of achievement and shared experience you have with fellow swimmers is really special.’ Sarah Gerrish

Enhances self-esteem and confidence

For Terri Ingram, founder of the UK-based swim group Hele Bay Merbabes , the confidence gained from cold water swimming has helped to promote a healthy perception of her body and encouraged her to strive in other aspects of her life. What began as a small meet-up with friends in August 2019, the Hele Bay Merbabes have gained a huge Facebook following, building a supportive community of swimmers around Ilfracombe, North Devon.

Terri sums up her new-found motivation sparked by open-water swimming:

‘So for me, it's given me body confidence and fitness. I've never been so fit in my life. I also now cycle all the time - I did a triathlon last year. I didn't think I'd ever do a triathlon. It's brought me fitness as well as body confidence.’

Not only can open water swimming help boost confidence through embracing a new activity, but it also opens doors to social opportunities and other like-minded people should you join local swim groups such as the Hele Bay Merbabes, which is bound to make you feel good!

Improves mood

Why do wild swimmers keep returning to the cold? At first glance, submerging in uncomfortably cold temperatures doesn't seem like the most alluring thing to do in your spare time. But one thing most swimmers agree on is that it makes them feel amazing. Some even refer to having a post-swim high after a session in the water.

In Vermont, US, The Red Hot Chilly Dippers are a group of dedicated swimmers who embrace the cold in some of the most extreme winter dipping locations. The swim group’s founder, Katharine Montstream, discusses the empowerment of cold water swimming.

‘Vermont draws a hardy bunch, and the people who want to cold water dip are interested in the community, the endorphins, and the reset that one gets when you come out of the icy lake. It's like a huge relief when you come out. If any negative story is playing in your head and weighing you down, just "leave it in the lake!" and then come out with the good energy.’

Sophie Hellyer walking on the beach in a swimming costume

Helps to reduce stress and anxiety and promotes relaxation

During her pregnancy, Sophie Hellyer chose to swim throughout. She explains the mental benefits she gained by continuing to swim:

‘I learned how to better regulate my breathing in an almost meditative way (which came in useful in labour too!), and the whole experience of being immersed in nature was wonderfully soothing to my increasingly busy and anxious mind. In my third trimester especially, I found that my swims kept me feeling mentally robust and helped to stave off the threat of prenatal depression.’

Helps build resilience to stress

Science Focus explores the mental benefits of cold water swimming in a blog featuring environmental physiologist Prof Mike Tipton from the University of Portsmouth. Mike discusses the science behind the ‘fight-or-flight’ response created when taking a dip in cold water and how regular dipping causes your body to adapt not only to cold water but also to other everyday stress inducers. He explains:

‘This adaptation makes you less reactive to the shock of cold water, but could also make you less reactive to stress.’ Read more about it here.

Not only does this help build resilience to the cold, but it can also help improve stress resilience in other aspects of life.

Inspiring amateur athlete Joanna Shimwell expresses how habitual cold water swimming has helped her to feel mentally stronger in other areas of her life:

‘Obviously, there are health benefits, but I think that there are real mental benefits by putting yourself through it. So that's what I know deep down and that's what makes me keep coming back.

I think that in doing that repeatedly, it's made me feel like I can actually handle tough situations in day-to-day life better because I'm more resilient, as I've consistently proved to myself that I can overcome the things that I find scary - but in a measured and controlled environment.’

Two women talking to a RNLI lifeguard on the beach

 

Tips for beginners - staying safe when swimming in cold water

First things first if you’re considering taking up open water swimming, you need to consider the safety aspects beforehand.

As with most water sports activities, there are potential risks when cold water swimming that you should be aware of. However, there is plenty of helpful advice available, two of our water safety partners the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and the Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS) provide some invaluable tips on their websites.

We break down their advice alongside tips from other experts to help how to prepare for your first cold water swim safely and those thereafter.

Understanding cold water shock

In our blog Top 5 tips for winter swimming with Olympic open water swimmer and dryrobe® Ambassador Keri-anne Payne, Keri-anne provides great safety advice to those who are just starting out when swimming in the coldest months of the year.

In the coldest months of the year, cold water shock can be a major risk factor for cold water swimmers who are not used to handling cold temperatures.

Keri-anne explains:
‘When immersing in cold water, our bodies have a natural shock reaction that sends our bodies into panic mode - think fight or flight.

Cortisol is surging through your body and this can lead to panic if not dealt with. The specifics of cold shock panic include shortness of breath, so the best way to overcome this is through breathing - specifically breathing out.

Run through a few rounds of breathing, breathing in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 6/8. This will help to switch the cortisol to endorphins - it is the trigger for people to feel euphoric when they get out from a cold water swim.’

Acclimatisation

Another piece of important advice is to acclimate gradually to the cold water by starting with shorter swims and increasing the time gradually over a few weeks.

Keri-anne offers some advice for this who suffer from that 'ice-cream' headache feeling.

‘There isn't a magic cure here I'm afraid, it's just a barrier we need to push through. Just like when you first get in, your legs feel on fire and after a few minutes you feel better - the same needs to happen with your head. The more you put it in the water the quicker you push past the 'acclimatisation' of your head. A neoprene hat can help here too…’

The RNLI also offer some great advice on acclimatisation here.

Two women about swim on beach

End on a high

Hypothermia and cramps are two major risk factors when it comes to cold water swimming.

To help prevent either from happening, but especially Hypothermia, Keri-anne recommends getting out of the water ‘always wanting more’.

‘This usually sets in (Hypothermia) after a certain period of time, which is different for everyone - especially if you are in a wetsuit or if you have swum through 10 winters. It also depends on if you have slept well, eaten well, and hydrated well. If any of the last 3 things are at a low then the chances of getting hypothermia dramatically increase. So, safety lesson one; don't go or limit your time in the water if you've slept badly, not eaten anything for over 6 hours, or not hydrated for over 6 hours.

My motto is 'Always get out wanting more'. When I go swimming and get to the point where I'm thinking to myself ‘This is amazing!', after the initial shock, I get out. It's always better to be safe than sorry. Also, this gives me the best chance to really understand how my body reacts to the cold and I have started to learn more about how long I can stay in for.’

Two women swimming in the sea

Stay safe in numbers

A core safety tip by all water safety experts is to always swim with a partner or a group, especially in remote or isolated locations.

The RLSS explains in their Water Safety for Open Water Swimming blog that not only is it fun to have a swimming buddy but also vital to have another person around in an emergency situation.

If you’re not able to swim with a friend, let someone know the location where you’ll be swimming and give an estimation of how long you’ll be there.

Research the area and conditions

It’s essential to do your research before you hit the water, especially if you’ve never swum at that location before.

  • Ideally, the RNLI suggests swimming between the Red and Yellow flags on a lifeguarded beach where possible if you’re swimming by the coast.
  • Check the weather conditions and water temperature before swimming, and avoid swimming if the conditions are dangerous or if the water is too cold. Remember, ‘If in doubt, don’t go out.’
  • If swimming in open water, be aware of currents and tides, and always swim parallel to the shore. The RNLI provides some great website recommendations and reports for checking the weather and tides as well as advice for getting out of rip currents.
  • Check out where to get in and out of the water safely and ensure you read the warning and guidance signs where possible. Find out more about planning your swim with the RLSS here.
Sophie Hellyer getting changed into jeans on the beach using a dryrobe change robe

Staying warm pre and post swim

Making sure you’re prepared properly for your swim with the right equipment is vital with the inevitable shivering that occurs after being in cold water.

Being able to change quickly into dry clothes is important for warming up slowly after swimming in cold water to avoid sudden changes in body temperature and shock. This is where reliable changing robes such as the dryrobe® Advance excel, as the unique inner lining wicks water away from the body helping you to dry, while the weatherproof outer shell protects you from getting wetter and colder.

Staying hydrated and nourished before and after swimming helps maintain body temperature and energy levels.

Keri-anne explains more about shivering and how to stay warm here:

‘The shivering process requires us to have some energy in our system, so a nice warm hot chocolate or sugary coffee will be the best thing to feel a bit of comfort post swim but also to fuel the shivering process.

Shivering is a good thing, it's our body’s natural way to warm up if we are cold. So, I usually want to make sure I am dressed before I start uncontrollably shivering.’

Sophie Hellyer and Keri-anne Payne on the beach wearing dryrobes and drinking from a flask of coffee

Have an emergency plan

Have a plan in place in case of an emergency, including knowing how to call for help and having appropriate first-aid supplies on hand.

Always take a device that can call for help, such as a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch. In case of an emergency, call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard, even if you don’t have a phone signal - your phone will try to connect to any other network available.

There are also apps that can track swims and alert emergency contacts if you fail to return home on time - check them out on the RNLI website here.

A man changing into a dryrobe by a natural pool of water

Wild swimming vs. sea swimming

What's the difference between open water swimming, sea swimming, wild swimming and outdoor swimming? Well not much really, it's all just swimming!

There are many ways to get your cold water fix in wonderful blue spaces, depending on how confident you feel and what you’d like to experience.

From slipping into tranquil lakes to plunging in the big blue sea, nature really opens up when you start looking for places to dip.

Here are some of the key features that differentiate two of the most popular forms of outdoor swimming.

A man swimming in the a natural pool

Wild swimming

Wild swimming is a form of open-water swimming that takes place in natural bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers, ponds, and the sea. If you live inland, taking part in wild swimming provided the unique opportunity to explore natural bodies of freshwater away from the coast. This could be anything from beautiful ponds, pools, rivers, or lakes.

However, it is vital that you never swim in canals, stagnant lakes, urban rivers, or reedy shallows. It is also important you know how to enter and exit the bodies of water.

Water quality may also vary during droughts, so keep up to date with this. On the other side of the spectrum, you should never swim in flood water.

A couple of pieces of other safety advice is to cover any concerning cuts with waterproof plasters and to avoid interaction with blue–green algae.

For more information about wild swimming, including safety tips, places to swim, and local swimming club info, take a look at the Outdoor Swim Society.

Sea swimming

Sea swimming is a form of open water or wild swimming that takes place in salt water in the ocean or sea. If you live by the coast, the sea is a convenient place to swim, providing the conditions are safe.

Things to be aware of include:

  • If you’re new to swimming or feeling unconfident, swimming on lifeguarded beaches will be the safest place to sea swim.
  • Take in your surroundings, ensuring you know where any rocks are as well as rips.
  • Before you hit the beach, check on tide times and wave conditions. Websites such as Surfline are great for this.
A woman in a swimming costume wearing a dryrobe change robe smiling by the sea

Equipment

There are a few essentials that you may want to consider taking on your cold water swims, especially for staying warm both pre and post-swim.

Keri-anne Payne provides her essential cold water swim kit list, check out her full list of winter swimming tips here:


For colder weather conditions, being able to change quickly is a must. The dryrobe® Advance has become the go-to post-dip essential. The super-warm lining of the dryrobe® Advance, combined with the weatherproof outer protects you from the cold and wet weather whilst providing a safe space for changing with ease, wherever you are.

In the summer months, when protection from the cold rain isn’t so much of a priority, you may consider something more lightweight such as the Towel dryrobe® which provides rapid changing for warmer climates.

‘I also always make sure I have my dryrobe®, not only because it's SO warm, but because it's so easy to get dressed under. If you get out too late and struggle to get dressed, you will potentially make yourself much colder and potentially catch hypothermia because you can’t open a zip.’ Keri-anne Payne

A woman wading into the sea for a swim

Taking it up a notch: winter & ice swimming

‘Winter dipping has brought me great joy, friendship, pride, and a community of indomitable humans that I cherish. I like to say "the lake brought you." And it really did. What a gift.’ Katharine Montstream, Red Hot Chilly Dipper founder

The plummeting temperatures in the coldest months aren’t a deterrent for some of the most committed swimmers - some even prefer the challenge of the brutal, icy conditions!

Devoted swimmers will literally smash through the ice on frozen lakes or blue spaces to get their swimming fix.

With more extreme conditions to consider, winter or ice swimming requires extra caution. Some of the main risks include hypothermia. Preparation is a vital part of staying safe, such as having complete knowledge of the location, checking weather conditions, and ensuring you have suitable and easy-to-use kit to keep you warm before and after your dip.

Most importantly, making sure you’re with a group or swimming buddy is also strongly recommended in colder climates.

The cold ‘greeting’ once you hit the water can be more than a shock. Keri-anne Payne explains how to handle this feeling and prepare yourself for cold shock:

‘When immersing in cold water, our bodies have a natural shock reaction that sends our bodies into panic mode - think fight or flight. The specifics of cold shock panic include shortness of breath, so the best way to overcome this is through breathing - specifically breathing out.

Run through a few rounds of breathing, breathing in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 6/8. This will help to switch the cortisol to endorphins - it is the trigger for people to feel euphoric when they get out from a cold water swim.’

Our festive dip guide provides some expert advice from the RLSS and former Olympian Keri-anne Payne about winter swimming, please check it out.

A woman coming out of the sea after a swim

Whether you’re trying to uplift your mood, reset, or soothe physical aches and pains, many swimming enthusiasts swear by the life-changing power of cold water. Always make sure to always follow the safety advice when wild swimming and always be prepared with suitable pre and post-swim kit to ensure you stay warm.

For more information on how the dryrobe® Advance change robe helps to keep your core temperature up, take a look at our About page for more information.

A swimmer putting on her dryrobe change robe after a sea swim