I’ve been taking to the chilly Cape seawater almost daily over 2019. The aim? To prove it enjoyable; and to expose myself to its many health perks. The research tells us cold-water swimming is a natural antidepressant, immune-booster and metabolism reviver.
Lewis Pugh takes a global stand against climate change when he embraces frozen digits and near hypothermia in his lengthy polar swims. And, while we certainly appreciate his amazing endeavours, you don’t have to put yourself through anywhere near such extremes to reap the incredible health benefits of cold-water swimming. Read on for my exploits in the tidal pools of the Western Cape.
It all began early on in 2019. I was becoming tired of hearing Cape Town residents moan about the water being too cold for them to be able to enjoy it. Colleagues and friends would lament about the awesome temperature of Durban water, or PE water, or even cosy tropical island water (Mauritius, Seychelles, sigh) – wishing, wishing, wishing our oceans were warm enough for us to be able to take a nice … long … comfortable dip.
Then it struck me. We can, in fact, enjoy the water – chilly as it is – and I made a pledge to myself right then and there to swim as often as possible, every day, or at least twice a week, and, in the process, to acclimatise to the cold water. Listen in to my Cape Talk podcast at this link; and, Disclaimer: remember to visit your GP or physician for a check-up before your first cold-water swim to ensure you’re in tiptop health.
First off, I discovered that I was not alone. In Langebaan, for example, a group of aged 50+ swimmers, the Floating Ducks, head out for a cold-water swim each morning at 8am. They contacted me, recently, buoyed up by the sight of whales they’d spotted during their daily swim and the amazing opportunity this had given them to feel connected with the ocean and its inhabitants.
Other groups closer to Cape Town include the Mermaids, who swim between 6:15am and 8am each day in the Camps Bay tidal pool, and another ([Beep], it’s cold, Saunders Rock group), whose members take to the water each night, between 4 and 6pm, at Saunders Rock in Seapoint. There are, of course, other groups you can join in your own area, depending on swimming strength and overall requirements. Make enquiries by visiting their website or Facebook page.
If you’ve already experienced the daily high of cold-water swimming, you won’t be surprised by recent research that’s emerged in the British Medical Journal Case Reports. Of course, outdoor exercise and the companionship of your fellow swimmers can only improve feelings of well-being and reduce those common ones so many of us suffer from i.e. depression and anxiety. But the team behind the research was of the opinion that an extra effect on mental well being (as just one health benefit) was related to the cold water itself.
The researchers, Prof Mike Tipton and Dr Heather Massey, explain it as follows: immersion in cold water evokes a stress response in which heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate all increase and stress hormones are released – similar to the fight-or-flight response. But, each time you immerse yourself the stress response is reduced, in much the same way that the stress of exercising at altitude is also diminished once the body adapts.
Tipton and Massey refer to the phenomenon as “cross-adaptation”, adding that cold-water swimming seems able to reduce the chronic stress response (including inflammation in the body and mental health issues) of modern life.
As more research is needed, this team is on a mission to gather stories on the health benefits reported by an extensive group of cold water swimming fanatics, who thus far claim they:
- experience a strengthened immune system (reduced incidence of colds and flu);
- a raised metabolism (feeling warmer in general for the remainder of the day, easier weight loss or maintenance); and
- a surge in joyful good feelings, related to their sport, that truly make them feel as though they can conquer the day ahead.
Dr Chris van Tulleken, producer of the BBC series The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs, explains the phenomenon like this: “Jumping into the sea in winter is the most alive and present I ever feel. I get in fast … when the cold shock response provokes an uncontrollable urge to inhale. Underwater, I feel an intense mixture of burning pain and, even after doing this for years, a little panic. But it’s the only time the anxious negative chatter in my head is truly silenced. After two minutes, as my skin reaches the same temperature as the water, I start to feel comfortable and my breathing slows. After even a brief swim, I feel elated for hours and calm for days.”
So these days, almost a year after I first pledged to take full advantage of the chilly Cape ocean water, I am pleased to say that I aim to swim at every chance I get. It’s really easy to do if you always keep your costume and towel in the car.
And when I say swim, I mean plunge around – I don’t actually swim laps like you would when training for Ironman or an ocean crossing. In fact, there’s nothing that elitist about this endeavor; tidal pools are not too deep or overwhelming, so you can enjoy the water even if you can’t actually swim. In fact, it’s really a great general introduction to the water. My modus operandi is to go out there and catch waves or splash about as if I were a little kid. I often end up being immersed for up to 40 minutes, in seawater that ranges from between 11 and 18 degrees (PS: in competitive swimming, you’re permitted to wear a wet suit for warmth at temperatures under 13 degrees).
Yes, the Seychelles sea temperatures my fiancé Mike, and I, experienced on our recent Fitcation – of between 26 and 30 degrees – were ultra-inviting, but nowhere near as good for you or refreshing. That’s what this cold-water swimming vibe is all about.
6 tips for braving your first cold water swim
- Invest in a surf changing towel to wrap yourself up in [see pic of mine and a wetsuit changing mat, both of which are great investments. You can change on the latter and then drop all your wet kit into it, because it rolls up conveniently into a bag and protects your car from wet items.
- Start slowly, with about two minutes in the water, and slowly build up to a longer period (c/o the late great Theodore Yach).
- Don’t drive home shivering and shaking; rather warm up first.
- Bring a towel that’s warm from the tumble-dryer or wrap a hot-water bottle in your towel to help warm you up before you get dressed.
- Share your swims with a friend and make it fun by bringing along an inflatable
- Bring along a hot drink in a flask to enjoy afterwards, which will help raise your core body temp. Hot chocolate with marshmallows? Yes, please.
For swim lessons and advice on cold- or open-water swimming, contact Arafat Gatabazi at www.arafatg.com or follow him on Facebook and Instagram @arafatswim.
He says: “Find a group of open-water swimmers and join them through their training. Or find a group of cold-water plungers who do it for health purposes. The key to getting better is to do it more often. The more you do it, the better you will get at it. See you all in the ocean!”
Cold water swimming as race recovery
For the athletes – especially runners, cyclists, rugby and soccer players – cold-water immersion (in an ice bath or the sea) is a common practice to help aid recovery and to ease muscle soreness after intense training, racing or competing. Click here to read more about the science behind it, which includes:
- constricting blood vessels and eliminating waste products, like lactic acid, from affected tissues; and
- reducing swelling and tissue breakdown.
I have to agree that my sea swims, both before and after hectic cycle races, have been amazing for recovery and have significantly reduced downtime.
Vanessa Rogers, an experienced runner who suffered a syndesmosis injury in her left leg when taking part in the five-day Cape Odyssey trail event some years ago, says that during her downtime from running following that injury, cold-water swimming with a morning squad was the perfect way to maintain fitness while staying off her legs. “Now, in the racing season, I incorporate regular cold-water swims into my training programme – they are seriously as good as a specialist sports massage,” she enthuses.