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Home | Things to do | Cold water swimming

Cold water swimming

North Devon is a cold-water swimmers’ paradise, with its rugged landscape fringed with secluded coves and meandering rivers merging to create deep plunge pools, there really is something every level of cold-water swimmer can enjoy.

So what is all the fuss about? We are here to explain the raft of benefits including the safety measures needed for embracing this bracing new hobby that is sweeping our nation!

Cold water swimming

The benefits of immersing yourself in nature

Cold water swimming has seen an undeniable rise in prominence, since Covid-19 hit and restricted the use of many indoor exercise facilities it seems many of us decided to get out in the open air in search of a dose of adrenaline and a shift of perspective amidst the uncontrollable.

So what is all the fuss about? Did you know recent studies show that spending at least two hours a week in nature is associated with good health and well-being unbiased of the demographic or chosen activity, benefits that mental health charities such as MIND have been evidencing for a long time.

So what’s so good about wild swimming? Well for a start there are no clocks to check on, no sterile facilities chemicals or cleaning products to irritate your skin and lungs. Your views are not of concrete walls but natural surroundings, woodlands, cliffs, and moorlands, all things that will become heightened and connected when you submerge within the cold waters and realise you too are a part of this beautiful ecosystem surrounding you.

Many wild swimmers report a feeling of being at one with the water, with nature and themselves when they swim, the cold water refreshing mind, body and soul.

So what are the tangible health benefits of all of this?

Mental health

As your body responds to the cold water as an external threat it goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode which while making you feel initially anxious, also increases activity in your Sympathetic Nervous System. This speeds up your metabolic rate (great for healthy weight control) and allows you to practise self-soothing your stress response gently.

This practice of gently soothing your mind, accepting your experience and continuing to regulate yourself with your controlled breath within the water (we recommend looking at the Wim Hoff method) and noticing the sensations on your body are just some of the ways in which wild swimming teaches you to calm and regulate your nervous system.

As you learn about your body and practise regulating yourself within cold water you also teach your mind and body how to cope with the challenges of life and stress on land – natural stress nourishment!

Many swimmers turn to cold water as a form of managing mood disorders and the research into the benefits are amazingly positive, whether you join a local outdoor swimming group or bump into a fellow lone swimmer you will be sure to hear about the positive benefits each person has discovered on their cold-water journey.

The Physical Benefits of Cold Water Swimming

Other than the huge hit of endorphins that you will receive as reward for enduring the first 10 minutes of pain, resulting in a most enjoyable sensation of euphoria leaving you feeling fresh for several days thereafter, there are indeed other huge health benefits of regular cold-water swimming include boosted circulation, immune system and libido.  

So how does this happen? When your body first submerges the cold water sends your body into a form of shock, this races around and makes your body check everything is OK and, in the process, your creates more white blood cells. These white blood cells increase your immune system, the more white blood cells you have the less susceptible you are to infections and the healthier you will be!

Similarly, your circulatory system responds to the shock of the cold water by pumping more blood around your body which increases your heart’s muscle strength, provides your organs with more oxygen and speeds up the removal of any waste from body tissues.

Swimming also allows great flexibility and is impact-less on the joints, so if you have any injury or are a regular sportsperson then this is a great option to improve your cardio! And as your body has to work twice as hard to help you keep warm this also increases the calories you burn.

Many expensive spas offer cold therapies such as ice baths, plunge pools and cypro-freezing body therapies but none offer natural remedial effects of nature coinhabiting your therapeutic space (and non are free!)

Aesthetically cold-water swimming is also linked to healthier skin and a slower ageing process, what’s to lose?

Cold water safety

Although wild swimming can be a lot of fun it’s not all whoops and warm drinks and like any water-based activity particularly when its cold there are risks involved that need to be carefully considered and respected for your safety and those around you.

Here are our tips for staying safe and enjoying your dip!

  • Tell a friend – Whether you are new to wild swimming or a wild swimming pro it is so important to make sure you don’t head out to open waters alone, be it if they watch from the shoreline or join you in the water. Cold water shock, cramps or any number of unexpected situations can affect anyone and if you are alone it will be too late. Joining a swimming club is a great way to get out regularly and meet other wild (or mad) swimmers!
  • Check the water quality – Is the water clean and free of sewage or other harmful bacteria? If not, do not risk the chance of getting ill! Skip the swim for another day.

Sewage runoff is most likely to occur after heavy rainfall, check your local area on this useful interactive map provided by Surfers Against Sewage.

  • Check on your exit points – Always ensure you can exit the water easily; it is far easier to enter than to exit as your limbs are often tired and sometimes numb after a cold swim so clambering over rocks can be extremely difficult.
  • Know your limit – this includes how deep you are comfortable swimming within, there is no shame in bobbing around close to the shore to ensure you can touch your feet to the floor if you need to. Consider any currents and your swimming strength, there are plenty of open water swimming classes if open water swimming progression is something that interests you!
  • Your kit – if you are swimming in open water consider a brightly coloured swimming hat and tow float, this will ensure any small vessels including boats, SUPs, surf boards can see you clearly and also make you easily visible should you find yourself getting into any trouble.

If you struggle with the cold, consider neoprene boots and gloves to aid warmth to extremities and if you are planning to swim year-round then a wetsuit in any thickness. Just being in the water is enough you will still reap the benefit of the cold!

  • Take warm clothes – after your swim, you will need to change quickly, a robe towel is useful to change underneath and stave off any chilly winds, but speed is key! Warm dry clothes to change into are important as is a hot drink and a healthy snack to refuel with afterwards. We also recommend a hat and a wind-resistant coat!

Finding a Cold Water Swimming Community

There is nothing like stripping off to your bathing suit on a cold winters day and running into a wild sea together, when onlookers will think you are bonkers those who join you will forge lifelong friendships built with mutual respect.

Maybe its due to whatever it is that brings you to that water’s edge be it something in the past, the present or whatever life has thrown in your path but between you and the water there is nothing but the next step and with the people around you there is a silent understanding that is shared each time you swim which goes beyond the day to day small talk and allows you to empty yourself of whatever if needed whilst finding connection.

There are plenty of local swimming groups around if this tickles your swimming toes, if you are in the North Devon area then here are a few to look out for!

Hele Bay Merbabes

North Devon Open Water Swimmers

You can also check out swim clubs in your local area on here Outdoor Swimming Society

Other activities to get your cold-water kick

If you want to dip your toe into cold water but don’t fancy swimming, then there are plenty of other activities to try.

Surfing – get wild in the white water or hit the green waves out back. It doesn’t matter who you are this is a sport that can be enjoyed by all! Check out this fantastic ‘Silver Surfers’ article for inspiration for the older generation who are grabbing their boards and heading into the water.

There are a plethora of surf equipment hire shops in and around Woolacombe and with our large open beach we have unquestionably some of the best surf on the South West having just been selected as the first place in the UK to be nominated a World Surfing Reserve.

Coasteering – for those of you who are really committed to taking the adrenaline up a notch why not try throwing yourself off a rock edge into the freezing depths below or experiencing what it would be like to fall into a freezing cold natural ‘washing machine’ all in the name of fun, and health of course.  Coasteering can be catered to for all levels, even young children are welcome if they can swim confidently so this can be a really fun family activity or an adrenaline-filled challenge depending on what you are looking for!

Check out our list of favourite Woolacombe providers here!

Beginners’ Tips for Starting Cold Water Swimming

If we have got you biting at the bit to get into the open water then great, our job is done and be warned this is a highly addictive hobby!

There are a few words of advice to give.

  • Be considerate of your environment – this means leave no trace or even better leave it better then you found it! Take a piece of litter home with you, care for your natural place of solitude and it will care for you.
  • Be considerate of the habitats – that means neighbours of the land, do not park where you may block other people’s gates/drives paths most wild swimming spots are in rural areas and this kind of respect matters. This also means respecting the habitats of the water, bird life, fish, seals and so on, keep your distance and they will keep theirs it’s a respect thing.
  • Be considerate to other swimmers, if you spot a hazard let them know and keep an eye out for each other.
  • Lastly be considerate of your own abilities do not compare yourself to anyone else, this is your cold-water journey and you can take it at your own pace! Enjoy it.

If you are looking for accommodation for your next North Devon beach-side holiday, make sure you check in to Byron’s luxury self-catering apartments!

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