Is Cold Water Swimming Good for You?

Andrew Balcombe
Mar 13 · 9 min read
Cold water swimmers taking to the waves in a Dutch winter. Image credit: Andrew Balcombe

It’s -5 degrees Celsius on the Dutch North Sea coast near The Hague. A Scandinavian north wind is blowing and bringing the temperature down to -10. Astonishingly, a small group of 30-something woman are taking off their clothes on the frozen sand. Even more astonishingly, they start making their way towards the sea and then with screams of excitement, walk out and fully immerse themselves under the waves.

One of the woman is Sabine, a 38 year-old physical therapist and mother of two. After going under for 5 minutes she walks back to the beach to dry off, her skin flushed red and tingling.

Sabine

Controlling her breathing, Sabine submerges. image credit: Andrew Balcombe

What motivates her to do this?

Sabine. I have a history of not always having the guts to do everything I want to do. I have a tendency to do what is expected of me. Over the last few years I’ve been through a lot, but I want to start listening to myself more. I want to start being more loving for me, try new things, push my limits. Search for boundaries and just feel more in life. Everything is energy. And sea swimming makes me feel more energetic.

Nature calms me. Especially the sea. It gives me an inner peace. Every time I go, I feel a bit scared. But I also feel so proud and so alive when I’m in the water and afterwards when I come out. The combination of energy, peace of mind, feeling alive and getting a rush, that is my motivation.

I went with my friend Annette the first time. We went to Kijkduin and it was cold (4 degrees Celsius) but sunny. The weather was so amazing, the sun so pleasant and it felt just right. I was a bit scared but mostly excited.

Sabine (left) with her friend Annette (right) Image credit: Andrew Balcombe

Annette told me the most important thing is to keep breathing. Deeply in and out. So I did. I didn’t think, I just went in blank but could not stay in longer than a minute. My feet were numb, it was almost painful. When I came out of the water, I felt on top of the world. My whole body started to tingle. When I was dry and I had my clothes on again, I felt so warmed up from the inside. That made me smile for hours. I was hooked!

I don’t really have a standard routine for when I go. Sometimes I go by myself, sometimes I meet up with friends. I do love to listen to “Daniel’s Joik” from Jon Henrik Fjällgren, on the drive over to the beach. That song gets to me every time I hear it. It helps me to tune in to myself. Then I just change and go into the sea. I’m trying to get myself to stay in longer, I’d love to be able to push myself to stay in for 5 minutes. I need to get better at controlling my mindset and my breathing. Afterwards, I put on a poncho and I stand on a towel. That helps against cold feet. Then when I get dressed, I always realize how many people have been watching me and I feel proud. I don’t care about their judgement anymore. Going home, I drink a lot. I always feel extremely thirsty afterwards. Mostly I drink Ringana Chi, a natural and vegan energy drink.

How has it improved my life? I feel stronger mentally. I’m less concerned about other people’s opinion. It gives me a purpose, a goal. It teaches me that I can do more than I thought possible. If you had told me a year ago that I would be describing how I swim in the sea during winter, I would not have believed you……

Image credit: Andrew Balcombe

I feel more relaxed, and also more alive. I love the ability to get some time for me when I go to the sea. And my feet don’t feel so cold anymore!

It’s surely helped me during the COVID-19 pandemic. I get overstimulated more easily since it started. I work 3 days a week as a physical therapist and for the other 2 days, I teach my own kids (they are home from school during the lockdown). I find it hard to take time for myself. This gives me motivation to have that ‘me time’. I‘m a happier mum and a happier partner this way. Because it helps me tune in to myself, clear my mind and lose some tension.

What would I tell others? The only thing I can say is stop being afraid and go experience it for yourself. It is better than going to a sauna. Your body heats up from within and stays warmer for a long time. It’s all in your mind, it all adds up to the right mindset. If I can do it, others can to. Just breathe. (Breathing is a thing for me). I panic quite easily. But for a year now I’ve tried to control it by changing my mindset and my breathing. I even got a tattoo to remind me to just breathe. It is the first thing we do when we are born. It is the last thing we will do before we die. All else in between requires no worries. Just keep breathing).

Lenno and Nick

Lenno (55) and Nick (55) are neighbours in the beautiful beachside suburb of Kijkduin. They started swimming after work during the summers to cool down. This broadened to swimming all year round.

Nick (left) and Lenno (right) Image credit: Andrew Balcombe

Lenno. The water temperature is between 14 and 20 degrees in the summer, but in winter it can get down to 4.5 degrees Celsius. That makes it difficult to breath normally and your skin tingles.

Lenno and Nick with their friends after a dip in the winter sea. Image credit: Andrew Balcombe

How has it improved my life?

Lenno. In the winter, it’s a kick starter. I feel super fit after dunking in the water and it gives me a restart and a sense of calm. I think it helps my immune system too. Since I’ve been doing it, I don’t get colds anymore. I also tested positive for COVID-19, but didn’t have any symptoms, was this because I do cold water immersion? Who knows?”

Nick. It helps me grow my personal contact with people. Our group is made up of people from our neighbourhood. Through swimming together, we see each other more often. During our walks to the beach and jumping into the water, it’s like we can solve all of the world’s problems together.

Max

Max heading towards the frigid waves with a smile. Image credit Max Zwart

A newcomer to cold water dipping, Max (34) only got started last summer.

Max. Actually, I really don’t like the cold at all. I always have cold hands and feet, which is quite an unpleasant feeling. When we moved temporarily to the lovely coastal village of Kijkduin last summer, I thought that it might be nice to have a little swim every morning in order to have a fresh start for the day. Additionally, the temperatures of last summer broke all of the heat records causing the sea to feel like a warm bath, which was nice. As the summer went away, the temperatures dropped but I challenged myself to run into the sea every morning.

Now it’s already February and the sea temperature is about 6 °C, but I’m still going strong. As the meteorologists are predicting the polar vortex to arrive above the Dutch territory in the next couple of days, I am really not sure if I still will be going strong by then….time will tell!

Cold weather descends on the Netherlands. Image credit: Andrew Balcombe

Since I came to live in Kijkduin with my girlfriend, we’ve seen the coastguard (KNRM) going out to sea multiple times to save lives. When they do so, they put their own lives at risk for others. This is something that cold water swimmers should always consider before entering the water.

I truly believe in the fact that swimming in cold water, for a reasonable period of time, has a positive impact on the human body. However, when I look at the color of my fingers and toes after being in the water, I sometimes doubt that! On top of that, many studies have proven the positive results of this habit. Personally, I really enjoy the tingling in my body when coming out of the water and I‘m sure it’s improving my health on different levels.

If people hesitate to try, I would quote: no pain no gain! But obviously, always consider the risks.

What are the benefits?

Cold water immersion has been attributed to several kinds of physical wellbeing. One example is the 2018 case report by University College London and the University of Portsmouth entitled Open water swimming as a treatment for major depressive disorder. The case report documented how a person suffering from a major depressive disorder seemed to be improved by cold water swimming. It highlighted how a 24 year-old woman suffering severe depression went for weekly cold-water swims and was able to improve her mood and symptoms so much that she no longer needed medication. Other benefits such as improved immunity and the reduction of inflammation have also been linked to cold water immersion.

Hazards

Extreme reactions can take place in the human body when it makes contact with cold water. Heart attack, stroke and asthma attacks can be brought on by cold shock and for those who stay in longer (10 min +), physical incapacitation and hypothermia. For those who are unprepared, hyperventilation and panic attacks on initial immersion can also cause them to breath in water, lose mobility and drown.

Does cold water immersion work?

An expert’s view

Mike Tipton (MBE) is a Professor of Human & Applied Physiology at the Extreme Environments Laboratory School of Sport, Health & Exercise Science, University of Portsmouth. He has authored and co-authored research studies on cold water immersion including the 2017 study Cold Water Immersion: kill or Cure.

Mike Tipton. There is currently no straightforward answer to the question whether cold water immersion works or not. Anecdotally, people report three main improvements

  • Feeling “alive” and/or “alert”

Anecdotal evidence is evidence, but it is the weakest form of evidence.

We do not know what the “active ingredient” is in open cold-water swimming (it could be: exercise, blue therapy, socializing, immersion, and or cold). The benefit may also be a placebo effect, so many people are being told that it is good for you that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In some respects it doesn’t matter how it works, if it works. But as scientists we would like to know the mechanisms and whether the benefits can be achieved with less risk.

Cold water immersion tips

  • Don’t swim alone

Dos

  • Do get examined by a doctor before starting

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Andrew Balcombe

Written by

I'm an Australian writer living in the Netherlands. I tell stories that make life interesting, strange and unique.

Wholistique

Our goal is to increase health and wellness awareness , to promote healthy lifestyle behavior through well-researched content. We aim to educate and inform, as well as to raise debate and reflection. Check us out: http://wholistique.com

Andrew Balcombe

Written by

I'm an Australian writer living in the Netherlands. I tell stories that make life interesting, strange and unique.

Wholistique

Our goal is to increase health and wellness awareness , to promote healthy lifestyle behavior through well-researched content. We aim to educate and inform, as well as to raise debate and reflection. Check us out: http://wholistique.com

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