The big chill

Cold-water swimming
Described as ‘a hangover in reverse’ – pain for moments followed by a prolonged, wholesome buzz – cold-water swimmers swear by the mental and physical benefits.

Do you feel like an excursion into discomfort and extremity for health kicks? Then the ‘safe jeopardy’ of cold water swimming is yours to embrace.

Although our Atlantic sea temperatures at between 10 and 150C is decidedly cold, it’s by no means polar conditions. So for those intent on getting all goose-fleshed in the name of health, we have a plethora of bays on the West Coast for this extreme pastime.

The first claims about cold water swimming’s health benefits date back to 400 BC. And more recently, the advantages are documented in several studies. Benefits are said to include changes in haematological and endocrine function; fewer upper respiratory tract infections; amelioration of mood disorders; and general well-being.

But there are potential risks. People with obvious or as yet unrecognised cardiovascular pathologies may be prone to adverse effects because cold water immersion may cause arrhythmias and acute cardiovascular events. Which is why the experts recommend a step-by-step starting strategy before expanding the activity.

Group or solo?

Many enthusiasts join a group, such as the one at Small Bay in Bloubergstrand. It offers swimmers company, which enhances safety. Members merrily descend on the beach with flapping ponchos and soon the bay looks like quite the party.

Other swimmers like to go it alone, preferring swimming’s solitary, meditative quality. Little focuses the mind so well as being in water so cold that your breath is almost taken away.

Scientists who study cold water immersion – typically defined as below 150C – note different stages in the physiological response. During the first three minutes, the skin cools, giving the swimmer the sensation of burning or prickling. This can induce anxiety, but the greater risk comes after a while when the cold begins to feel almost tolerable. Superficial neuromuscular cooling begins, which can cause ‘cold incapacitation’. This is when your limbs – particularly your arms, which have a high surface-to-mass ratio – feel too weak to move and your hands are numb.

Take heed

To avoid the gasp reflex, don’t suddenly jump or dive into frigid water. Rather enter it gradually while keeping your head above the surface. The rule of thumb is to spend only as many minutes in the water as the number of degrees in Celsius. You’ll be less in danger of slowly languishing blue-lipped than of experiencing ‘cold shock’, which is a rapid onset of hyperventilation.

The Outdoor Swimmer website tells us that it’s a good idea to train in progressively chillier waters. They recommend that when you first begin to practice cold water swimming, do so in short increments repeatedly.

Other valuable tips are: keep moving and swimming to help generate heat; wear the right gear to help preserve body heat (a swimming hat, neoprene gloves, booties, balaclava or a wetsuit); remove wet clothes as soon as possible; dress in dry, warm clothes such as a hat, gloves and thick socks; drink something warm; and wait an hour before taking a hot shower.

So, if you want your brain to get that Control-Alt-Delete feeling, cold water swimming is just what the doctor ordered.