The Joys of Cold Water Swimming

Silhouette of WOW members standing on the sea front in Hastings

‘Own your mind, master your biology and activate your full human potential’ (Wim Hof)

Our guest blog today comes from Michelle McKenzie (BSc, ANutr). Michelle’s  journey into the world of nutrition began in 2009 when she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease. After 10 years of working in the music industry, she went back to university to learn everything she could about nutrition, metabolism and diabetes. In 2016, an abstract of her research on low carbohydrate diets and diabetes was published by Cambridge Journals  and she was invited to present her findings in the Royal Society of Medicine as part of the Nutrition Society’s Annual Winter Conference. 

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, Michelle discovered, and fell in love with, cold water swimming and we’re thrilled that she’s written this wonderful blog about the positive impact this has had on her life.

I did something this year that I never thought I would do, ever. Swimming in the sea over winter. To say that I’m not a fan of the cold is an understatement, I would rarely swim in the sea during the summer, never mind winter. For some reason, I had an irrational fear of feeling cold. In 1998 I spent two weeks in Hawaii and didn’t go in the sea because, it was a bit cold. #regrets.

I have been following the work of Wim Hof, the iceman, for a number of years. I have tried and love his breathing exercises. I have listened to him talking about the long list of benefits of cold water therapy but despite all his wonderful research into these benefits and his unwavering spirituality surrounding it, I thought he was nuts. Why would you want to inflict that on yourself? I also have a friend who took part in one of his day events in London a few years back and at the end of the day she got into an ice bath – I thought she was nuts too.

2020 was an extra-ordinary year, a time when our self-care rituals needed dialled up to the maximum. As there was no chance of a holiday abroad and the weather was fantastic here in Hastings, I took to the sea to escape. I felt very grateful to have it on my doorstep and I thankfully dived in.

WOW member and dog standing in front of sea in Hastings

Fast forward to an afternoon in October. I hadn’t been in that regularly since the weather had cooled but one Saturday afternoon, after a bout of hot flushes, I couldn’t get in quick enough. I enjoyed it so much I went down again the next morning and bumped into a couple of friends who were doing it regularly and they asked if I would like to get involved. I joined what has now become the legendary WOWs, a fantastic group of happy, kind, smiley, strong, open-hearted, brave women (and a couple of men, one of them my husband Christian). I started to go most days. I was hooked.

Facing the cold meant that I needed to let go of my own preconceived ideas of what I thought was difficult to do – to adjust my mindset, realise my inner strength, commit, breathe and surrender to it (with some high pitched noises required on the really cold days). As the weather got colder, so did the sea. One morning while breaking ice in the carpark on the beach I realised – I’m now one of the nutty ones.

It was an exciting way to start the day. The walk to the beach was filled with anticipation about how the sea would look and feel. It was an adventure during lockdown life, an accomplishment and a chance to say hello and receive big smiles from all the glorious WOWs. My body and mind felt good. The menopausal aches, pains and hot flushes eased and I got a huge endorphin hit every morning. I’d found a way to support my lockdown emotions and my body all at once while staring into the horizon and watching the sun rise on another day. If I could handle both the physical and mental stressors of getting into the sea over the winter months, anything felt possible.

Wim Hof suggests that as we have evolved to wear clothes and live inside our heated houses that ‘the natural stimulation that our bodies were used to has reduced and that these deep physiological layers are no longer triggered’. This new way of living has created a disconnection with nature and we may have lost connection with ourselves – our essence. We are part of nature and we need to be connected to it and immersed in it to truly feel grounded and at peace. Now I finally understand what he was talking about.

Studies report that cold water swimming has a wide variety of health benefits. Such as improvements to the immune system (increase of white blood cells & antioxidants, more resistant to illness and infections), nervous system, endocrine system (hormones, insulin), cardiovascular system (lipid metabolism, lowering blood pressure), improved circulation, thermoregulation, sleep, release of endorphins (I always felt very giggly when emerging from the sea) and mood (antidepressant effect). It’s reported to lower anti-inflammatory markers and activate areas of the brain associated with pain suppression, self-reflection and wellbeing. A study carried out on swimmers (50% of which experienced dis-ease in their bodies) versus controls looked at the effects of regular winter swimming on mood. The study reported that mood, tension and fatigue all significantly decreased with duration of swimming. After four months, the swimmers reported more energy compared to the controls and the swimmers who were suffering from fibromyalgia, rheumatism and asthma reported that the winter swimming had relieved their pain. Could cold water therapy be considered a magic pill?

WOW members in the sea, with sun shinning through clouds

Cold water swimming and full body immersion are physiologically stressful. When we expose ourselves to cold water, especially when the temperatures have reached single figures, it literally takes your breath away as you experience cold water shock. The body starts to close down the blood supply to less vital parts of the body such as the arms, feet, hands and legs in order to direct warm blood to your core and protect the organs such as the heart, kidneys and lungs. During the first minute, your skin starts to tingle and burn and you enter into a state of being. You lose yourself in the moment. Your mind forgets all your little niggles and you become peaceful, connected with nature and the cold. You feel alive.

I was always an ‘in and out’ kind of girl with my son timing only three minutes on the stop watch one morning. Sometimes when it was really cold, three minutes felt like a long time! Other members of the WOWs could stay in for longer and actually swim rather than just immerse themselves like I was doing. I did what felt right for me as only three minutes in the water could take me about three hours to warm up – but perhaps staying in longer is another barrier I need to break through.

After a cold water swim it’s important to warm the body up slowly and gradually. When you get out of the water, the cooling process doesn’t stop there as the cold layer of muscle and skin can continue to chill your core. This is known as the afterdrop. Try to get dressed quickly, layer up, have a warm drink and generate some body heat – walking home helped with this. It’s also recommended that you don’t have a hot shower or bath for an hour after the swim as this may affect blood pressure and cause fainting. Something sweet to eat when you get home while you wait for the shower will also help to raise body temperature. My favourite go to was my warming ‘Nut and Seed Porridge’.

I have to admit, there were some days when I walked about carrying a hot water bottle all day but it was always worth it.

Before you go and jump into your closest lake, river or sea, especially mid-winter, it may be good idea to acclimatise over summer and autumn as physiological changes are acute during the winter months and adapting to the lowering temperatures also has its benefits. It’s also a good idea to always swim with a friend, only swim when it’s safe and know your limits.

As a nutritionist who believes in the power of food as medicine, adding some cold water therapy to your day seems like an no brainer and should be taken into consideration as part of your daily wellbeing routine. For those who haven’t got access to cold water swimming – it’s time to turn your shower onto cold – just before you get out. Wim Hof has a 20 day cold shower challenge. Week 1: take a cold shower for 15 seconds (5 days), week 2: 30 seconds (5 days), week 3: 45 seconds (5 days) and week 4 (60 seconds). Give it a whirl, it’s free and you’re probably going to love it!

Michelle McKenzie (BSc, ANutr)


Photos by Daniela Exley.