Claire’s* legs ache with cold as she pushes forwards into the messy grey sea, sand stretching behind her, and the sky above. She braces herself against each incoming wave, the wind whipping at her exposed skin. Her local beach, Scheveningen, on the western coast of the Netherlands, is a vast expanse of sand running uninterrupted beside the North Sea. It’s March, and the sea temperature is about 6°C.
In the water, Claire’s skin temperature drops instantly. Her muscles start to cool after a few minutes and stiffen like chewing gum. Her swim is short, and warming up takes hours, but she’s happy to be there. “We were jumping around, shrieking like schoolgirls,” she says, remembering her first taste of cold water swimming. Claire needed the boost because three months before, she’d sunk into severe depression after suffering a personal trauma.
In the UK, where Claire is originally from, researchers are looking into the scientific benefits of cold water swimming for people who are experiencing mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. They’re dipping volunteers into troughs of frigid water in labs, and leading groups into the water beside Brighton pier. And they’re discovering that cold water immersion can prime you, mentally and physically; to better deal with any stress that might come your way.
One man who’s leading the research into cold water swimming is University of portsmouth environmental physiologist prof Mike Tipton. An open water swimmer himself, he studies how people react to sudden immersion. He says that the mood benefits of cold water can be divided into two phases: the initial ‘cold shock’ response, and then adaptation that happens over the longer term.
If you’ve ever taken a wintry dip, you’ll recognise cold shock. First, you gasp involuntarily, then hyperventilate. Adrenaline courses through your body. Your heart races. You panic. Although you can’t sense it, your blood pressure is skyrocketing, and glucose and fats are being released into your bloodstream, providing an energy source should you need to make a quick escape. This is the classic ‘fight-or-flight’ response.
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September - October 2020