Whether it’s Sarah Thomas’ incredible four channel swims, or a short woolly-hatted dip with friends, cold water sea swimming seems more popular than ever. My Instagram feed is peppered with grinning sea swimmers, their brightly-coloured swim-caps as distinctive as their stripy-costumed Victorian forerunners. So what is it that draws us all into the water?
This will be my third autumn/winter season as a sea swimmer on the Cornish coast, and it’s a daily ritual that has changed my life for the better. It’s made me physically and mentally stronger, calmer and happier – it even inspired me to build a whole new business around my love for the sea, searching for ways to protect all that it gives us.
If you’re curious about trying cold water sea swimming, September is the perfect time to transition from summer to autumn swims: while it may feel cooler on land, the water itself is only a few degrees below our British summer sea temperatures (which aren’t very warm in the first place…), so there’s still time to acclimatize.
While research studies of cold water sea swimming are still in their infancy, there’s already some scientific evidence – and a huge amount of anecdotal evidence – of its health-boosting benefits.
Here are 5 ways that exponents of cold water sea swimming believe it benefits your physical health:
1. It Boosts Your Metabolism
Getting into cold water increases the activity of your sympathetic nervous system – that’s your ‘fight or flight’ response to an external threat (the shock of the cold), speeding up your metabolic rate.
2. It Can Relieve Pain
I suffer from arthritis. This summer, I also broke my foot and ankle (which meant a whole summer without sea swimming!). Getting into cold water has soothed the pain of both, and helped me to reduce inflammation – imagine wrapping yourself in a giant ice pack every morning. I occasionally swim past members of the Cornish Pirates rugby team cooling their muscles in the sea – because cold water therapy is regularly used by athletes to aid their recovery.
3. It Can Strengthen Your Immune System
I can’t remember the last time I had a cold. It’s a common claim amongst sea swimmers – even if we get an infection, we recover fast. While much of the evidence is anecdotal, there’s a popular theory that the stress of the reaction to cold water immersion triggers an increase in white blood cell production – and that provides a natural boost to your immune system.
4. It’s A Very Effective Workout
Swimming in warm water uses every muscle in your body and works your cardiovascular system – without putting any extra strain on your bones and joints: the perfect exercise regime.
When you swim in cold water, you do all this and more. Your body has to work even harder to keep your temperature up, burning extra calories. Even your shivering as you warm up on shore requires extra energy.
5. It Makes Your Skin Glow
Mineral-packed sea water offers you a free ‘sea facial’ any time you want one. Packed with cleansing sea salt, magnesium and all manner of seaweeds, sea water can have a rejuvenating effect on your skin. I find it also soothes my eczema. When you combine these benefits with the daily to boost to your circulation, you can expect regular compliments on your fresh and healthy skin.
But cold water sea swimming is so much more than just a brilliant fitness regime.
In the sea, I’ve learnt to practice self compassion, to find resilience and courage, and to focus on what really matters. Cold water sea swimming is also an incredibly powerful tool to improve your emotional health. Here are 8 ways that it does just that:
1. It Helps You To Manage Stress
Each time you step into a cool sea, you get to practice overriding your ‘fight or flight’ panic response. Calming your breath and body as you enter the water, and go on to swim, teaches you how to breathe through the challenges that life throws your way on land.
2. It Can Help To Combat Depression
A 2018 report in the British Medical Journal charted one swimmer’s successful journey to overcome depression through sea swimming. While wider scientific research is yet to be undertaken, I’ve heard many personal stories of cold water swimmers overcoming mental health challenges.
For example, Katie Maggs at Tonic of the Sea used sea swimming to recover from a nervous breakdown, as detailed in this inspiring short film. And Cal Major, currently touring her film, Vitamin Sea, used sea swimming to overcome her post-expedition depression after completing her incredible SUP expedition from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
3. Spending Time In Nature Boosts Your Mental Health
In his bestselling book, Blue Mind, Wallace J Nicholls extolls the many mental and physical health benefits of spending time in ‘blue spaces’ like the sea. Blue mind time can lower stress and anxiety, increase wellbeing and creativity, and induce a sense of calm.
Wallace J Nicholls also explains how all of these benefits increase when we combine our time in nature with physical exercise – like sea swimming. And even more so, when we take action in support of the environment we love. So, to get the greatest health benefit from your sea swim, combine it with a beach clean.
4. It Increases Your Ability To Be Mindful And Present
When you’re in cold water, it’s very hard to think about anything other than the intense sensations in your body and the movement of the sea around you. Alert and energized, adjusting to the changing conditions, you’re brought firmly into the present moment.
5. It Can Increase Your Self Esteem And Resilience
Not many of us have Sarah Thomas’ incredible capacity to swim four channel crossings in a row having recently undergone cancer treatment. Nonetheless, there’s huge value in doing something a little bit scary every day. Getting into cold water as the temperature drops offers a daily reminder of your courage and capacity to face the harder things in life, building both your physical and emotional resilience.
6. It Can Help To Combat Loneliness
My fellow sea swimmers bring me joy, laughter and connection every day – it’s a community that reaches across potential barriers, and our morning swim is always an encouraging judgment-free zone.
But the feeling of belonging goes much deeper than that – swimming in the sea can provide you with an incredible feeling of oneness: a powerful reminder that we are all part of nature itself.
7. It’s A Gift
I’m lucky enough to have access to a stunning local art deco lido, Jubilee Pool, and I love swimming there. But right next door, the sea is always open and available to all for free. Where else can you get such an amazing workout without paying a penny?
8. It Releases Feel-Good Endorphins
There’s a reason those Instagram sea swimmers are grinning so widely and hugging each other. You’ve probably heard of the ‘runner’s high’, and sea swimming offers something very similar. Each cold water swim releases endorphins, dopamine and serotonin – leaving you with a pain-busting post-swim buzz.
As you can see, cold water sea swimming packs an enormous amount of positive physical and emotional impact into a single daily experience – which accounts for its growing popularity. The sea has so much to offer us all, making it vital that we protect and preserve what we love.
But before you dive straight in and get started, here’s a little health warning: of course, cold water swimming can also be dangerous.
Be sure to swim with other experienced sea swimmers, and follow the advice of organizations like the Outdoor Swimming Society on acclimatisation and safe cold water swimming. If you haven’t yet spotted a friendly group of swimmers on your own morning walk, they can also connect you to local groups in your area – join us all in the water.
Pippa Best is the founder of Sea Soul Blessings. By creating simple transformative tools that combine mindfulness, self compassion and nature – and investing directly in environmental projects – Sea Soul Blessings supports sea-lovers to change our own lives, and the world around us, for the better.