The lessons of cold water swimming

In June of this year, I set myself a challenge. I wanted to raise some money fairly quickly for the Malighat Children’s Home and School in Bihar, India.

In 2007 I stayed here and got to know the principal Jyoti and spent time teaching English to the children and wanting to adopt them all and bring them home with me. Obviously, there were a few laws and practical matters preventing that from happening, but when I heard that they have been struggling to afford food and health care throughout the pandemic, I felt I needed to do something to help.

Me at the Children's Home in 2007

My first mid-winter swim experience

My husband and co-owner of Spa House, Andrew, had convinced me to do the Dark Mofo nude solstice swim a few years ago. I was inspired by another of my clients who also hated the cold but had signed up to do it with her friend. The closer the day drew near, the more I was dreading it. I couldn’t believe I had signed up to do something so intensely uncomfortable, and for no good logical reason! The morning of the swim, Andrew was like a kid at Christmas as he woke me up and told me it was time to drag myself out of my warm bed. He had been wanting to do the swim since its inception- don’t ask me why! I whinged, complained, and maybe even got a bit angry about it. I hate cold. This is stupid!

When we arrived at the event, there were so many people. The atmosphere was truly remarkable. So many people gathered together to do this thing. This crazy, nonsensical thing. Voluntarily. In fact there was a waiting list of people who missed out on this “opportunity”! What on earth?!

Being there felt like being at the top of a slippery slope, with only one way down. There was no way I was giving up now. Not one person on that beach failed to drop their towel and go running into the water when the signal sounded. The main thing I recall is losing my breath as I ran in. It was a bit scary, and stopped me from swimming out too far. Others around me were also gasping. But the next thing that happened was mighty unexpected. I started laughing and so did many other people! The water was filled with crazy, laughing naked people! We had conquered this crazy challenge. All of us, together in this huge group, were naked, immersed in the icy waters of Tasmania at sunrise on the shortest day of the year!

The feeling after is what I wasn’t expecting. I felt a sense of accomplishment, for doing something so far outside my comfort zone. Not only the cold factor, but the naked in public factor! There were so many bodies of so many differing shapes and sizes, that it suddenly seemed unimportant what my body looked like. Every person on that beach was there, as vulnerable as me, yet vulnerable was not how I felt. For a woman in this society where women’s bodies are so heavily judged and critiqued, this in itself was liberating. Empowering. There I was, with my “baby weight” that never left, my stretch marks, my lumps and bumps and everything that makes my body mine, and I was not one bit ashamed of it. I was too proud of my achievement to even think about these things.

The other feeling I had was this intense feeling of being alive. It was like that water had created this surge of life and energy in me. I could feel tingling and warmth and this clarity of mind. The feeling remained with me for the rest of the day. After we had showered and warmed up, we went out for a lovely breakfast and felt like we had really accomplished something special.

At the Dark Mofo Nude Swim in 2019 😯

My June Challenge

There have been a couple of times since this solstice swim that Andrew and I have gone swimming in the icy cold water. We knew how good it made us feel, and that feeling is almost like a drug. When the day is lovely and the sun is shining, or when it’s rainy and wild, or when you are feeling a bit flat and are struggling to get your mojo back, cold water swimming can be just the thing you didn’t know you needed.

One sunny Saturday at the end of May this year, Andrew and I went for a jog and then had a swim at the beach. I gasped as I entered the water and struggled to catch my breath, much like the solstice swim. It was really hard and uncomfortable to get in, but so wonderfully empowering and energising once accomplished.

It was a snap thought when I was in the water that I would do this every day in June to raise funds for the children’s home. I quickly made a fundraising page to lock myself in before I had too much time to think it through and back out!

Sunny solstice swim this year! Watching the sun rise over the sea was such a natural high!

How did I do it?

Basically, I turned up at the beach every day, and headed into the water. Ok, there was a little more to it than that. I am sure each person who does this regularly develops their own rituals and strategies, but this is what worked for me. The well known Wim Hof method incorporates special breathing techniques to help withstand the cold, often for very long periods, but my technique was very unscientific!

My first step would be going for a jog. I personally found this not only the blood pumping and pushed up the body temperature, but also got the endorphins pumping and that “strong and invincible” feeling you get by doing something outside of your comfort zone. I was fortunate that my fitness was at an all time low, so running felt like a whole lot of pain! The idea of getting into the water seemed like the least of my worries when I was running! As the month wore on, my fitness improved a lot. I could run further and faster and recover better. I am convinced my recovery was enhanced by the cold water immersion post run. I could see why athletes use the ocean or ice baths for their recovery.

Once I finished my run, I would return to my car parked at the beach, grab my towel and head in to the water clothes and all (no shoes of course). This way I didn’t cool down too much while putting on bathers. Getting the legs in would be the easy bit. Some days the cold nipped at my toes and I quickly had to walk in before I thought about it too much and wanted to back out! It doesn't take long for the numbness to set in (it sounds awful, but it's strangely welcome!).

I would always stop at the waist, and let my legs adjust a bit first. I figured they needed a bit more tlc after their running efforts too! During that time, I would splash water up my arms and onto my face. I would take some deep breaths and focus on the beauty of the surrounds. Some days would be sparkling and sunny, other days would be different hues of grey, but always it would be spectacular. I found that splashing the arms and face before ducking under helped prevent the gasping.

After a few minutes of that, I would pick a wave to dive under, and never, ever back out of it once my wave was selected. It was a daily challenge in discipline and mental strength. Like anything, when you do something over and over it becomes easier and the same went for this. I felt that I could utilise the discipline I was cultivating in other areas of my life too.

After that first wave, I would quickly choose another one and that became the measure of success- two total immersions meant my job was done. As the month wore on, I found that after that second immersion, I would stay in the water longer and longer. I would often float around on the surface of the water, do hand stands, dive along the bottom of the sea bed, and chat away to anyone who might have joined me.

After I got out, there would always be that surge of warmth and energy that meant I was never shivering and freezing to my core. My body would be pink with the blood circulating and I would remain warm until I got home for my shower. The best thing to warm up is a hot drink. Sometimes the hot shower left me feeling more chilled (there is science behind that, but I won't go into that here).

The hardest days were when I was tired. Everything seems harder when you’re tired. My least enjoyable swim was at Bellerive Beach when there was snow on kunanyi/ Mount Wellington and a crisp wind coming straight off the mountain. The water was dark grey, and we were already cold from being at the playground with Maya. That was a super hard swim. My most enjoyable swim was probably a tie between two- on the eve of my 40th birthday with my friend Michelle as the sun set, and at Baker’s Beach with my friend Sarah on a glorious sunny day.

So many great times shared with friends and family!

The benefits of cold water swimming

I had never really looked into or considered that there might be proven benefits of cold water swimming until I did this challenge. The changes in me were so remarkable that I started to look up and read about others who have done it and who have studied it and it turns out there are many known and reported benefits of it.

Some of the many reported benefits include:

  • Boosting the immune system

  • Improving circulation

  • Reducing stress, depression and anxiety

  • Reducing inflammation

There are many online articles that discuss the physiological effects, including scientific studies. I have added some links at the bottom of this article.

Sunrise swims are the best way to start the day

Did I raise much money?

I sure did! I more than doubled my initial target of $1000. I raised around $2500! I sent $2000 through to the children’s home last week, just before they accepted another orphaned child. The 19 children who live there will continue to be fed and educated for a few more months, thanks to the generosity of the people who donated to me. I will send another amount through in coming days.

I intend to do more fundraisers in the future, and I will leave the Go Fund Me link up for a while as I am still getting the odd donation filtering through.

Will I keep doing cold water swimming?

Yes! Funnily enough, the day after my challenge was complete, I got a virus- one of those annoying ones that keeps coming and going. I have still been once per week since the challenge finished and once this virus is gone for good, I imagine that frequency will increase again.

Quite simply, I love it. It’s a daily dose of so many good things, including nature immersion which is also a vital part of human wellbeing.

The benefits so far outweigh the discomfort that the discomfort becomes insignificant.

If you have never tried it, I highly recommend it, as you can probably tell by now! There can be some risks involved, especially if you have medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease. Maybe best to check with your doctor if you have underlying medical conditions. Also, I think it is much safer to swim with somebody else, especially for your first few swims as your body adjusts.

I am more than happy to go with any newbies, as there is definitely power in numbers. I am looking to establish an online group for people who are interested in swimming in a group in the near future and will post on our business page.

Sunset with friends. Everything is more fun with friends.

Links to articles for further reading:

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