Braving the cold water

Braving the cold water
Restrictions are lifting and spring is upon us, so there’s no better time to take to the sea for a swim writes Jason Osborne

Availing of the improved weather in recent weeks, I made my way to the nearby coastline for a plunge into the icy waters. Rarely does an activity result in such a sense of vitality and adventure, and it reminded me that I ought to take every opportunity I can to swim in the open sea while the seasons allow.

There is an unrivalled beauty to floating beneath the sky, with the shore at your back and a vast expanse of water stretching out before you. It comes with both benefits and dangers, but if done safely, it’s an utterly worthwhile way to spend your preciously earned leisure time. The sense of freedom is a potent antidote to the claustrophobia of the past year.

The suggestion of willingly embracing such cold water often elicits disbelieving responses, but there are many good reasons to do so as I just mentioned. In this article, I’ll convey some of the benefits of the activity, while also communicating how to do so safely. Venturing forth into the wilds of the sea, even if it’s just footsteps away from the shore, requires wariness and caution, so don’t take it lightly.

The benefits

If you’re to do something as crazy as immersing yourself in frigid water, it better be worth it, right? Fortunately it is, for a number of reasons. The aforementioned beauty and freedom are enough for me, but swimming and brief interaction with cold water carry enormous benefits for your health. Some of these include:

  • It results in a rush of dopamine: Enormous quantities of dopamine are thought to be released as a result of immersion in cold water. A recent study showed that immersion in water of 14 degrees Celsius resulted in a 250% increase in dopamine levels. Why is this of interest? Dopamine is commonly understood as the “happy hormone”, as it often creates feelings of excitement or euphoria.
  • It burns calories: The cold results in a greater burn of calories, but cold water does it as little else can. Entering cold water sees your heart rate and blood pressure increase, as well as inducing hyperventilation. While these things are all potentially dangerous (and must be monitored if you’re to get into the water), it results in an increased metabolic rate which burns through calories.
  • Improves mental health: Scientists are increasingly coming to see the positive effect exercise has on our mental state, and sea-swimming is no different. One particular case study saw a 24-year-old women with symptoms of major depressive disorder and anxiety trialled on a programme of weekly open (and cold) water swimming, which led to an immediate improvement in mood and reduction in depressive symptoms. It resulted in a decrease in, and then cessation of, medication, which was reaffirmed after a year-on follow up. While it is no cure-all, cold water swimming may be a help.
  • It’s thought to boost your immune system: Research conducted by Czech scientists found that immersing yourself in cold water for an hour, three times a week, increases your white blood cell count, which boosts your immune system. This means that dipping yourself in cold water may result in less colds than otherwise, which is something few people expect.
  • A social activity: Unlike certain solo sports and outdoor pursuits, tackling the sea with friends or family results in a real sense of camaraderie. The harshness of the environment, coupled with the shared sense of euphoria, results in an enjoyable, memorable experience together. As well as that, wrapping up after and grabbing a hot drink or food is a nice way to round off an intense swim-session together.

With some of the pluses in mind, what about the potential negatives of swimming in the sea, and how do we protect against them?”

As can be seen, there are a number of benefits to throwing yourself into the sea and lapping up the cold. Research is still being conducted into the precise effects these activities have on you, but there’s already a solid body of evidence to suggest it’s a good way to spend your time. What’s more – exercise is rarely bad for you, with swimming one of the better, less damaging activities you can put your body through. It tones muscles, burns fat and increases your stamina.

With some of the pluses in mind, what about the potential negatives of swimming in the sea, and how do we protect against them?

The risks and how to mitigate them

As Swim Ireland says, and as experience and common sense dictate, “open water must be respected as an uncontrollable and unpredictable swimming environment”. It’s a cliché at this stage, but we’re at the mercy of the forces of nature we engage with. As a result, it’s of the utmost importance that we keep our wits about us.

  • Understand the weather and the tides: Weather and tides have a huge impact on whether it’s safe to swim in a certain location. Before hopping into the water, it’s best to find out from a reliable source what the best time to swim is, and where. If there are weather warnings in place, these must always be heeded – whether they come from the local council, lifeguards, the Coastguard or the RNLI.
  • Learn about rip currents: Rip currents are strong currents that flow from the shoreline back out to sea. They’re not always easy to spot, but are generally present as a calmer and deeper channel going out to sea. If you end up in this current, you’re advised to swim parallel to the shore until you exit the current or raise your hand directly upward to attract the attention of the lifeguards. All lifeguarded Irish beaches with rip currents will have information on them, so avail of that.
  • Bring someone with you: A good rule of thumb whenever you’re engaging in any sort of outdoor activity is to bring a partner along. They don’t need to be in the water with you necessarily but should be there to keep an eye on you, and ready to offer a hand should you need it.

Enter the water slowly, walking in to your waist, splashing your face and upper body with the cold water, before moving the rest of the way in”

  • Make yourself visible: Wearing something brightly coloured is advisable, in case misfortune does strike. Brightly coloured swimming hats are best as they’re easily spotted, but brightly coloured floats are useful too, with the added benefit of their buoyancy.
  • Acclimatise yourself to the cold to avoid shock: It’s understood that all Irish waters are cold enough to cause cold water shock on every day of the year. Regular cold-water swimmers know their limits and how to adjust, but there are some steps to take if you’re not used to it. Enter the water slowly, walking in to your waist, splashing your face and upper body with the cold water, before moving the rest of the way in. Your breath will quickly come in gasps, so it’s important to keep your head out of the water and focus on controlling your breathing. Do a nice, easy stoke, and stay close to the shore. After a few minutes, get out to warm up. You’ll be better prepared for longer next time.

The sea is not to be underestimated, but those who prepare can expect to reap the rewards.