Would wild swimming in cold water every day in the coldest month of the year prove to be a life-changing experience?
This never set out to be some massive heroic challenge. I never said to myself I would dip everyday in January and splash the whole thing all over Instagram or rattle people’s pockets for cash. But I did just wonder what would happen if I started wild swimming every day instead of just two or three times a week. Would it actually feel any different? Would I grow to love it more, or perhaps less? Would it go from being something I really looked forward to at the weekend, to a daily chore and just another To Do on my every expanding list? And would it be, well, just a bit miserable dipping in really cold water in the rain and the wind and the dark?
So I gave it a shot. My very loose rules were to be in the water for a minimum of two minutes, to always dunk my head, to swim in a swimsuit (i.e. no wetsuit) but I would allow myself neoprene boots and gloves. Other than that, it just had to be outside and ‘wild’, i.e. a river, lake, waterfall, a well, or the sea.
This is what happened…
I stopped being cold – sounds bizarre but apparently there is some science behind it. I used to spend the rest of the day after a swim feeling really chilly which made me into quite a miserable bitch if I’m honest. But with dipping every day I now don’t. So why is that? Apparently, when you repeatedly expose yourself to cold your body starts to convert white fat into brown fat cells which are much more effective at controlling your body temperature, both hot and cold*. I did also notice that my perimenopausal night sweats lessened too…
I slept better – I’ve never been a night owl but with daily dips I found that I was ready for bed at about 8pm. Not only that, but on the rare occasions when I was actually able to go to bed at that time I had absolutely no trouble falling asleep. My trusty sleep app on my phone also informed me that I had good quality deep sleep early in the night too. Apparently, when the body shivers after deliberate cold exposure this causes the muscles to work hard, even though you are doing it involuntarily, which makes you feel more tired in the evenings.**
I wasn’t such a moody cow during the week – I was worried when I started this experiment that by wild swimming every day I would numb the natural high that I experienced when I only dipped at the weekends. In fact, the opposite seemed to be true. Whereas before I would feel quite low on my non-swim days, my mood now felt much more stable without the deep troughs during the week and the euphoric highs at the weekend. For me (and my family!) this definitely made my life easier and helped me to deal with the day-to-day stress much better. Apparently, regular cold water exposure can increase the amount of dopamine released into your system by 250% and it can remain elevated for up to 24 hours after a swim, leading to the natural high*.
I didn’t get any coughs or colds – despite my whole family being floored by one lurgy or another I somehow manage to dodge them all. And I’m pretty sure this was not a coincidence. When I looked into the science of this, apparently cold therapy has been shown to improve immune function by increasing the production of white blood cells and boosting the activity of the immune system.***
My skin felt better – on my face anyway… - getting into cold water everyday is said to tighten the pores and reduces any inflammation or redness. Plus, I suppose you are getting an extra face wash every day! My hands on the other hand were a different matter... Dry, cracked and very sore where the skin had broken, I had to invest in some serious hand cream to sort this. Ditto my feet!
I was more hungry - my appetite definitely increased with wild swimming every day and I found myself having to actively make sure I was eating enough to avoid feeling a bit dizzy, or just plain hangry! Apparently when you deliberately expose your body to cold water, especially early in the day, it fires up your metabolism and those brown fat cells that I mentioned earlier fire into action and work hard to warm you back up and regulate your temperature for the rest of the day.
My aches and pains subsided – I’ve been suffering from various niggles in my legs, hips and backs for a while (by-product of my borderline obsession with trail running I suspect) but I found that when I dipped in cold water first, or incorporated a wild swim part way through a run, the pain lessened and sometimes disappeared for some time. This is apparently due to the reduction in inflammation of the nerves, muscles and joints that is induced by cold water**.
My dogs deserted me – turns out that dogs have some kind of internal canine thermostat which means that they refuse to get into the water when it is below double figures. Kind of fair enough I suppose! I guess that all that fur takes a while to dry off. They are very enthusiastic bankside supporters however, and have a knack for getting their wet and muddy paws all over my kit whilst I am in the water!
I got used to swimming in wet kit – turns out that neoprene takes an age to dry! Especially in an old Welsh farmhouse with dodgy heating. One of the downsides of swimming everyday was that even with multiple sets of kit, I never ever seemed to be able to get any of it dry properly. I just got used to the slightly unpleasant feeling of wearing damp gloves and socks for the few minutes before I got back in the water.
It just became a habit – I thought I would really struggle to fit in a wild swim everyday with everything else going on in my life. But when it moved from being an ‘if’ to being a ‘when’ it was then just a question of working out when to slot it in. I can do a swim in about 15-20 mins so I rationalised that I could probably make this time by just not doom scrolling on my phone every day. So it just became part of the routine, like brushing my teeth and having breakfast.
Every day was different – I thought that swimming in the same few spots over and over would become a bit monotonous. But it really wasn’t. I became much more attuned to the changes in the water and the environment around each spot and every swim was different. How I felt on each swim changed too. Some days I really struggled to stay in for the 2 mins and other days I had to drag myself out after 8 mins. Just goes to show that the minute for every degree ‘rule’ is total bollocks!
So will I carry on through February and beyond? I’ve decided not to set myself any silly goals or challenges but just to take each day as it comes. It already feels pretty engrained as a habit so it would feel odd not to go for a dip now. But let’s see how we go. I usually find that as the water warms up again in the spring and summer I lose the visceral calling to the water. Maybe this year will be different…
*See Dr Susanna Soberg: How to USe Cold & Heat Exposure to Improve Your Health- Huberman Lab, 14 May, 2023
**See BBC Sliced Bread - Ice Baths, 9 November, 2023
***See Fire & Ice Sauna & Cold Therapy For Optimal Health and Longevity, J.T Rose, 2023