Why would you swim in cold water?

I’ve written so much about the mechanics, physiology and psychology of cold water swimming, but I haven’t addressed the underlying assumption thatare taken for granted. So why would you swim in cold water? (And let’s set aside any possible health impacts for this discussion).

In the middle of Irish summer when (or some years, if) the water reaches a glorious 16 Celsius, and hardened long distance swimmers can seemingly swim forever, it’s very easy to imagine swimming easily through the cold water of winter.

October passes with water temperatures between 10 and 12 degrees, where we still feel comfortable. An occasional day may even be warm.

November arrives with the first real days of winter from a sea-swimmer’s perspective. The water will almost certainly drop to under ten degrees, occasionally at first, clawing back above 10 C but inexorably the average always dropping. I’ve previously called the sub-10 degree decrease The Big Drop. If you are hardened though, ten degrees is still fine, you can certainly swim for an hour if you are acclimatised. But before the end of November at least one of the days that is real winter will unveil itself. Hard frost on the vegetation before you leave the house, or freezing fog. Having to consider ice on the drive to the coast.

The wind. That bitterly cold north or east wind that impales when you arrive and exit the car, instantly seeking out fingers, ears, exposed flesh. It leaves you cold and uncomfortable before you even get changed. The occasional visitor asks you in dumbfounded amazement if you are actually going to swim? I’ve had entire families stand around waiting to see me get in, assuming I’ll turn around and get out immediately, when in fact I swim off past the Comolees, out of sight, and they are long gone, back to their warm cars, before I finally emerge.

Years of cycling, running, surfing and open water swimming have left me convinced November is one of the worst months in Ireland. It is invariably one of the wettest of the year, (no mean feat in Ireland) and that couples with wind and cold, and suddenly shortened days to make it profoundly grim and grey.

The certainty of those summer days, when you’ve dismissed winter swimming as something you do with ease, evaporates. Each swimming day done becomes part of a year’s long process or project, but not easy. All the difficulties we forget, even in Ireland cool damp summers, return. We finally remember that there is a question that we don’t ask in summer: Why, given all the discomfort and even pain, would we swim in such horrible conditions, when the act of immersion carries actual physical pain, and continued swimming can (and probably will) lead to ┬áhypothermia? Why do we put ourselves through that?

In summer and autumn we often even forget that question exists. But it’s manifest when you are balancing on a car mat trying to stay off the freezing concrete as long as possible, metres from a two metre choppy swell driven by an easterly wind, struggling into a pair of Speedos, while you keep a warm cap on to keep the wind off your head as long as possible.

December in Tramore Bay

December in Tramore Bay

There are two simple answers.

We’ve discussed the shutting off of blood in the skin and extremities; a swimmer who emerges from cold water will have the warm core blood flow back into those areas. While I’ve cautioned repeatedly about the dangers of Afterdrop, the sudden post-swim drop in body temperature caused by cold blood entering the core, the fact warm blood flowing back into your extremities also carries with it a sense of euphoria every time, the first powerful answer. Your skin and muscles tingle and feel powerful and you feel completely alive. And unlike any substance that produces a euphoric effect, you don’t need to keep upping the dosage. Once the water is cold, you will always feel a post-swim euphoria.

The second is also obvious in a way. Despite all the trepidation before a cold swim, the discomfort of those first few minutes, once those are past, when you are out there in the winter, knowing almost everyone else would never consider doing what you are doing, that itself is a powerful feeling. You feel strong, confident and even dare I say, invincible. Those are not insignificant feelings, and always easy to achieve. Something that makes us feel good about ourselves must be good, there are too many things in the world that make us feel otherwise.

In December the sunlight is lower, the light levels are poor on dull days, but some days dawn with a glittering intensity and the water is calm and cold and the air is clear and you are the only person alive in the world.

Why swim in cold water? Why not.

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23 thoughts on “Why would you swim in cold water?

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  5. I really appreciate all your good advice and inspiration. It helps me and I am slowly making progress. Thank you!

  6. Pingback: Irish Results from the Russian Winter Swimming Championships | Owen O'Keefe

  7. Hi Donal. As always, great insights into what it takes to swim (and enjoy) in cold water. Although I am a cold water novice, your posts on extreme cold water serve as guidance as I venture into (non-extreme) cold water swimming. I am currently swimming in 15-18C but not lasting much yet, around 40 minutes in 18┬║C. I’m sure you’re laughing by now :-) Anyhow, looking forward to continuing reading your posts and learning from the best of the best.

    • Thanks! No, I’m afraid I’m not, though a few Sandycove swimmers are. From what I’ve heard though with lots of people not being able to get into the Endurance event and no ice mile on Friday, it turns out I’m glad I didn’t buy the plane ticket!

  8. When I first started winter swimming, I remember that the thought that went through my head every time I got into the water was “I must be $%#$ crazy”, and the thought that went through my head every time I got out was “cold water swimmers are the smartest people alive”.

    That anxiety/euphoria rollercoaster still affects me today into my third winter. I’m not sure whether to be disappointed that I have never learned that it will be fine when I get in, or thankful to never have learned to not get in…

    • Thanks David! There isn’t a week goes by in the winter where I don’t have to explain to people that “no, I don’t wear a wetsuit”, and the subsequent slightly-pitying looks!

  9. Today I had one of my best winter swims ever in nearly 20 years of all season swimming. Our bay on the Scottish West Coast is about 6C and we were in for a thrilling 30 minutes. Getting dressed and warm afterwards can be desperate: the HORROR of the dreaded Afterdrop. But as you say warm blood flowing back to the extremities is a unique feel good factor. I’d like to know why, as a swimmer with epilepsy, do the neurons in my brain feel so much calmer after a cold swim??

  10. I was relieved to read that even experienced cold water swimmers like yourself feel a little anxious before a cold water swim. Now that the temperature has dropped to 6, I have butterflies when I am suiting up in the car. They disappear as soon as I’m in, and though I haven’t built up any time/distance worth noting yet, I am already experiencing the exhilaration and joy of winter swimming. Thanks for this post – once again so informative and beautifully expressed.

    • The butterflies do disappear as you get more experienced, as do all the physical symptoms of nervousness, along with this then you ability to stay in longer will lengthen as your heart rate and stress hormones will stay low, but some days are just so cold and horrible that it’s hard not to feel some mental edginess.

  11. As well as the massive feelgood factor, there is that great feeling that nothing the day throws at you can be as difficult as what you’ve just done!

  12. Donal,

    I enjoyed this posting. I think that the endurance athlete is distinguished by their view that discomfort and pain are informative and not directive.

    We choose, with an informed view of cost.

    This post is inspiring and refreshing. Be well.

    Joe Winston, CEO

    NET Device Corp

    mobile: +1 856-220-4691

    http://www.netdevice.net

    • … I’m lying in bed contemplating my early morning swim in Manly – Australia… and I’m definitely going now after reading this article…!! its 16 – 17 degrees at the moment and you swim in below 10 degrees!! never complaining again… and love reading the health benefits and the high you get… couldn’t agree more… and so excited now for my swim in the morning !! Fiona

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