Cold Water Swimming: when pain & joy collide

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February 20, 2021

by Tanya Christensen

The first time I tried it, I wondered if I was in the midst of some sort of breakdown. It wasn’t unusual to cry multiple times a week and I was experiencing a fatigue that went deep—an “in my bones” tiredness that seemed to spread exponentially each week. I knew the whole spiel: that the power to change things resided within me, that I had control over my thoughts and my well-being, that positive thinking could do a world of wonders for us all in the midst of such hardship. My friend Jill had done it a few times and she invited me to come along one brisk morning in early November. Why the hell not, I thought. Let’s give this whole “cold-water swimming” a go.

I stood on the edge of the metal dock, my toes curling over the top rung of the stark ladder; knuckles white gripping, grasping, begging to flee and retreat back to the comfort of my wool socks tucked inside my boots behind me. The water was restless that day, the currents more violent signaling a storm coming or remembering the one that had passed the night before. 

Jill entered steadily and silently, lowering herself into the lake’s depths. The level of water reached her neck, and she began swim out effortlessly. She made it look so easy. She turned around, treading water and began to speak to me, the strong tides bobbing her head up and down matching the buoys just behind. Just step in slow and steady. You’ll feel a sensation of needles at first. You may feel like your breath is leaving your body. It’s not. Just focus on your breath. Focus on your breathing. You’ll start to feel a warmth from within. Once you start feeling that warmth, home in on it. Focus on it. It will fill you. It will sustain you.

The very idea of being sustained made me think of an article I had read by Kari Leibowitz, a health psychologist who spent a year living 200 miles north of the Artic Circle. She has made an entire career out of the idea that mindsets affect health and has written numerous publications specifically about people who live in colder climates and their ability to thrive in such extreme conditions. In the article, she presents a term or phrase called “active coping”, which is basically reframing a stressful event in a constructive way.  Many of us know that the mind is powerful—but I’d been living in a state of apathy for so long, that the muscle felt atrophied.

The pain was real. Like a thousand needles pricking my body simultaneously. My body went into survival mode, my heart rate spiking, my breath knocked out of my chest upon entry. Fight or flight had never felt more tangible, more real, than in that moment—my body was confused. My toes and fingers were the worst—a numb burning sensation that only grew by the second and that would last well after my exit. I breathed through it. I did what Jill told me to do and focused on the warmth that was beginning to grow from my core. Was that a warmth, or was I dying? I wasn’t sure.

She asked me questions about Christmas, about our weekend plans. I struggled to answer, trying to find my breath but I knew she was doing this to help steady it. The waves of the fidgety waters slapped the side of my face and I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Eventually, my heart rate slowed, the needles felt manageable, I forgot about the cold and noticed the mountains for the first time.

We talked for 15 minutes until my timer went off and made our way back to the dock where our dry clothes and thermoses of tea awaited us. We did a quick deck change and talked through chattered teeth between sips of warm chamomile tea. I drove home feeling like I had just run a marathon. That evening around 8pm my body began to have a strange sensation—my core temperature was warmer than usual, and I felt relaxed and tired—almost as if I had been drugged.

I slept better that night than any night I can remember. And my first thought when I awoke: I need to get back in the lake again.

There are many reasons people engage in cold water swimming. The health benefits alone (boosting your immune system, releasing a huge load of endorphins, improved circulation, reducing stress etc.) can be enough for some. But I have to admit—while definitely perks, those reasons are secondary for me.

When trying to explain to friends why I continue to do it, the first word that comes to my mind is it’s an “awakening.” It’s a literal awakening of my body—an instantaneous shock when my flesh touches the icy waters. And it’s an awakening of my mind—my brain has to rework and reframe the stressful event that is occurring in that moment. And you know what? It does. It actually works. The first few seconds are hard. My brain is deciding whether we fight it or we escape it. And once it knows we’re in it for the long haul, it adjusts. It engages in active coping. And then we settle in and start to feel the life moving in every inch of our bodies.

Each time I stand on the edge looking in, there are moments of hesitation; moments of knowing that there will, with all certainty, be pain before relief. But I step in anyway, knowing that if there was ever a year to come face to face with my own humanity, to understand the strength of a singular body, and to become friends again with my own mind, it is this one. And we step in as one and open ourselves up to feel it all.

Want to give cold water swimming a try? Here are a few tips and resources before you do!

  • Never go alone. You should always have a partner that is either watching you or joining you. I know it’s scary to think about, but extreme temperatures can have unexpected effects on your body, and if you get a cramp or some other adverse reaction, it’s nice to have a buddy there to help you.

  • Have warm and LOOSE clothing for after. Getting out of the water is the worst part in my opinion and you want to get dressed and warm as fast as possible. There is nothing worse than trying to get tight leggings or jeans onto a wet body. Even though you should dry yourself off properly after getting out, it’s so much easier to slip on baggy sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Make sure you also have warm socks (two pairs even), gloves, a hat, and easy to slip on boots to make getting dressed fast.

  • Bring a thermos of tea. Every cold-water swimmer has his or her “hacks”—some will say to go for a jog or do something active right after, others will say get inside ASAP and take a hot shower. I say you can do whatever your body feels like it needs to do (sometimes I do jumping jacks and sometimes I run back to my car and put the seat warmers on HIGH and wait until the shivering stops before I drive home). But the one non-negotiable is hot tea. It’s a great way to slowly rewarm your core (because your body temperature will continue to decrease for about 30’ after GETTING OUT of the water) and it gives you an excuse to hang out a bit longer with your swimming buddy.

  • Set your duration goal before going in. My rule of thumb (or what Jill suggested the first time and I’ve adopted it as my own rule too) is one minute per degree of water. So if the water is 8 degrees Celsius, I stay in 8 minutes. Now this is all relative and you can adjust based on how you feel or what the outdoor temperature is. The best thing you can do is listen to your body and if there are warning signs (excessive shivering inside the water, cramps or spasms, or irregular heartrate (arrhythmias)) get out! This also applies to when you’re feeling really good inside the water and think you could stay in for much longer, try to still respect your duration goal as your body temperature only needs to lower to 35 degrees (from 36.5 to 37.5 is the normal temperature) to be considered clinical hypothermia.

  • If you have poor circulation in your hands or feet, try neoprene gloves/socks. I personally don’t use them but have friends that swear by them. Of course, they don’t take the “shock” of the cold away from your extremities but they will prevent the dull ache/numbness that often occurs.

  • Don’t dunk your head in. AND NEVER DIVE IN HEADFIRST. This is all about immersion therapy, not actually swimming for sport in the winter. Protect your head and try to avoid getting it wet while you are in the water. Some wear woolly hats while in the water, but it’s all personal preference.

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