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Uncommon Cold and the Rare Practice of Sub Zero Swimming

How Facing the Cold Taught Me About Resilience

Coldwater Swimming in London's Hyde Park
Coldwater Swimming in London's Hyde Park


It’s dark, cold and damp and as I step into the freezing cold water, a knifelike sensation bites inside my foot and cuts up through my shin. I inhale and keep walking into the freezing black water until I am completely immersed. I start swimming. 

After a few seconds of utter shock, my breathing settles and I wait, knowing very quickly the top layer of my skin will reach the same temperature as the water. Soon I feel nothing except a warm surge inside my core as a rush of endorphins kick in. I look up at the sky and can see the clouds catching the pink light of the morning sun. 

I’m swimming in a pond in Central London at 7:30 am and it’s 40 degrees Fahrenheit. As I get out of the water, my skin pinks up like a newborn and in my dripping bathing suit, I pass morning joggers in their hats and scarves. It’s so cold I can see their breath. Welcome to the weird world of cold-water swimming. It’s the best natural high I’ve ever experienced and it is completely addictive.

HOW DID I GET HERE?

I’ve long been intrigued by the kinds of things we can do to improve our health and wellness. I started meditating a few years ago and the impact it had on my life prompted me to study the science behind mindfulness and laid the foundation for my biohacking journey — an empowering approach to health and wellness that has completely changed my life. 

In fact, embracing biohacking is what inspired me to create DESAVERY, my plant-based line of serums that enhance mood while delivering naturally effective skincare.  

As for cold-water swimming, it kind of creeped up on me. I tried it for fun on a semi-chilly day and kept going, even as the weather got really cold. Before I knew it, I was swimming in water that was only a few degrees above freezing. When I started to research the science of cold-water swimming, I started to understand why it made me feel so good and the myriad health benefits associated with this seemingly insane morning activity.

BACKING IT UP

The first thing you notice when you get out of the water (and clamour into your warm clothes) is a tremendously happy and warm sensation which is closely followed by a surge of energy that seems to last all day. Someone once suggested to me it’s like a reverse hangover; a little bit of pain followed by 10-hours of feeling great! 

The other thing I notice about cold-water swimming is how my body has an easier time adapting to the cold the more I do it. The time between the ‘cold-water shock’ and being able to breath easily is called the ‘adaptive phase’ and it shortens after you start swimming regularly. Researchers believe this may be the key to why cold-water swimming is so beneficial; the body learns to process and cope more efficiently as it’s regularly exposed to stress.

As evidence mounts connecting depression and inflammation, it’s not surprising that a recent study in the British Journal of Medicinecited examples of how cold-water swimming — with its anti-inflammation benefits — led several severely depressed patients to live symptom free and without any medication. 

In another study, Dr. Rhonda Patrick, a U.S. scientist, conducted research on how cold-water swimming releases a hormone called norepinephrine that improves our focus and attention and helps the body manage stress and anxiety. 

This is my first season of cold-water swimming but my fellow members at the 150-year-old Serpentine Swimming Club in Hyde Park swear they never get winter colds and are rarely sick. This is supported by another study that found cold-water swimmers have higher levels of white blood cells which are important for staving off infection.

BEYOND THE WATER

Of course, I can run through other physiological benefits (for instance I rarely feel cold anymore and there is science that shows cold water swimming increases circulation) but my new morning routine has brought me something much richer that really doesn’t require any science. 

When I walk into the water, I think about other people in my life who are fighting illnesses and having tough times and I think, “if they can face their challenges then I can face this water.” It’s a completely liberating feeling to face the cold and then truly overcome it. I feel I can face other things that are harsh and difficult. When I return to the steaming change room, there is a deep sense of camaraderie and welcoming (even though I am a new member) from the other daily swimmers, many of whom are into their third decade of swimming. Cups of hot tea are passed around as members aged 20-80 struggle with numb hands to slip on their warm clothes. I walk out into the morning sun bundled up with my body warming up from the inside and I know whatever the day brings me I can deal with it. 

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