The Benefits of Cold Water: Wild Swimming in Cornwall – Why Bother with the Wetsuit?
Wild swimming in Cornwall has recently become big news. The juxtaposition of the enjoyment with the pain is a contradiction that baffles most. Even in the British surfing world, during winter, scenes of busy carparks next to surf breaks become sparse. Cold water deters a lot of people from jumping in head first (literally). You’ll often see Hawaiians and Australians throw their head back in laughter, poking fun at us donning 5 or 6 millimetres of neoprene, just to get our fix. But there are a multitude of benefits in submerging yourself in cold water and wild water swimming (especially without a wetsuit on).
A prominent bodily benefit of cold water and wild swimming is the release of different chemicals in your body: endorphins are the feel good hormones (that make you feel good when you eat chocolate, or after partaking in some other, enjoyable physical activity- I think you know what I mean…). Cold water also increases the creation of oestrogen in women, and testosterone in men. It’s a win-win situation, combining increased libido and endorphins at the same time…
Glutathione is also an important antioxidant that is released when spending extended amounts of time in cold water. Studies have shown that the more time you spend open water swimming, the more likely you are to see a reduction in the symptoms of Parkinson, the inhibition of cancer growth, and the repairing of liver cells (also important when you consider the next paragraph…).
Teaching in the summer, there is always the occasional morning after the night before a couple of pints of the golden nectar, whilst enjoy Mawgan Porth’s famous sunsets. Going for an early morning surf or wild swimming in Cornwall is a fantastic way to freshen yourself up. Trust us – we can tell you from experience… *Disclaimer* – this is NOT a good idea if you are still drunk.
The sudden shock of immersing yourself in freezing seas, lake or rivers forces you to keep your breathing the centre of attention. You have to try and not scream, getting out immediately and running for your warm towel or heated car. This complete focus on the ‘here and now’ forces any other thoughts out your mind: stresses from earlier in the day; things you’ve got to remember to do later on; that argument you had with your mum the day before. Away from modern-day distractions and the constant buzz of your mobile, surrounded by nature, our mind-over-matter determination to stay just few seconds longer in there, makes all the niggling annoyances of everyday life seem insignificant.
No wonder there has been a rise in prescribing outdoor activities and wild water swimming to ex-army veterans with PTSD, amputees, and people suffering from depression, OCD or general anxiety.
The perfect example is Wim Hof. He is most well-known for his epic feats, under the pseudonym of the “Iceman”. He has hiked to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in just a pair of board-shorts. And you may have seen clips of him breaking through the ice of the canal outside his Amsterdam home for a leisurely swim in January. He even kept his core temperature constant whilst submerged in ice for a whole 113 minutes. With the help of the breathing techniques he was developed to brave such extreme temperature, when E.coli bacteria (a potentially lethal version of food poisoning) was put directly into his bloodstream, he self-regulated adrenaline. The quantity of adrenaline he created surpassed that which is automatically administered within a healthy human, enabling him to get rid of the infection, without medical intervention.
What a lot of people don’t know about Wim is that his wife suffered from schizophrenia. She committed suicide, leaving behind four, motherless, young children. Wim himself states that the cold, along with the necessity to focus on his breathing, brought him peace. He feels he is reclaiming power – power that he did not have when he lost his wife – by proving to science that his theories work. Cold water has a lot to answer for, when it comes to overwhelming emotional trauma, stress, depression, and mental or psychological (even physical) barriers.
If you can brave the water without a wetsuit, the extreme conditions force you to utilise every little bit of oxygen in your body. Homeostasis kicks in, which your body’s way of keeping the internal factors all constant and regulated, for example stopping you from overheating, your heart beating too fast, or not overdosing on sugar. Naturally, you will then produce more white blood cells, whose job it is to fight infection and disease. Therefore, it is going to increased the strength of your immune system.
If you are able to get into cold water regularly, gradually you will be training up the body’s efficiency in making the most of the oxygen in your blood. Taking this into your surfing game, your body is going to let you paddle for longer, needing efficient use of your oxygen for the long paddle out-back again, as well as for those paddle sprints to catch a wave.
Not many people get to see the Cornish coastline as you would, if you were walking the coastal path. Wild swimming in Cornwall gives you a totally unique perspective: experiencing some of the most special encounters with Cornish wildlife, secret caves, beaches only accessible via the water, and intriguing rock formations, completely missed by someone on foot on the cliffs above. Try joining a wild water swimming club – there are loads here in Cornwall – and also get that sense of community and camaraderie as you all go through it together.
Now, imagine you’ve sprained your ankle. You put an ice pack on it to reduce the swelling and bruising. Or you are an Olympic athlete, who has just finished a big race, or important match. You might jump in an ice bath to stop the build up of toxins in your muscles, and ease the pain of tired limbs. Regular cold water swimming works in the same way. Blood flow will increase overall circulation, even when out the water, also aiding the healing process of injuries.
We’re not telling you to jump into the Cornish sea, mid-February in nothing but your budgie-smugglers – you’re going to get hypothermia. Build up your tolerance slowly, and increase the length of your sessions slowly. Or start wild swimming in Cornwall in the summer months, and put a thin wetsuit on as the water temperature decreases. It’s all about moderation, but you’ll see short-term effects, as well as long-term, if you can keep up the good work.
Please talk to a medical professional if you have an ailment or illness that may be effected by temperature changes in the body. Here’s a great article from the RNLI about how to spot and treat hypothermia:
We highly recommend talking to someone about the best locations to swim, to avoid rip currents, and know about locations where conditions will vary depending on tide. If you want to get in regularly, and need a crew where you can egg each other on, the lovely Benny and Jon from Cornish Swim Tours up in Port Gaverne have a great set-up, and alternative inland locations if the sea is looking a bit wild. Or pop a message to Jo, a local physio and big-wave charger who runs Sea Swim Cornwall, to join like-minded people exploring Cornwall in a totally unique way. Our good friend Salim, at SwimLab, is the perfect person to talk to if you’re already into swimming: he runs courses to integrate wild swimming in Cornwall with improving your technique, just round the corner from the surf school, and around the world.