The Joy and Science of Cold Water Swimming

I’have lived the most of my life looking younger than my age. I love the shock on people’s faces when I tell them how old I am (“No! You can’t be!”), and I’m proud of the many times I’ve caught the guy guessing your age. booth at the Canadian National Exhibition. I attribute this, in part, to a secret formula. It’s not quite the fountain of youth, but it’s the greatest anti-aging potion ever discovered: swimming in cold water.

I am asked almost daily, “What could cause a person to voluntarily enter freezing water?”

Or, more simply: “Are you crazy? »

My love affair with swimming in cold water didn’t really begin until I was almost fifty years old. I’ve always had a high cold tolerance, which I think is partly genetic. In the heart of winter, my father would go out without a hat, the front of his coat unbuttoned. People were like, “Mac, how can you stand it? Now they tell me pretty much the same thing.

When my body entered the inexorable process known as menopause, “the change” came with the standard panoply of negative effects: mood swings, insomnia, depression, the works. As for the hot flashes, what I had were not intermittent bursts of body heat. No, I was hot all the time. Inside, outside, whatever the weather. Furious, incessant heat, except when I was in the water. Even with normal summer water temperatures of twenty degrees or more, swimming helped keep me cool, although the hot weather itself was also something of a curse.

I struggled with depressed moods for years before I learned that “Reverse SAD,” or Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder, was a real diagnosis. This, combined with my menopausal troubles, was what got me exploring the cold water “treatment” before I even knew such a thing existed. Fall, when lake temperatures started to drop, was my season of relief. Over time, even when the onset of winter came, I kept going, long after everyone had left the beach. Most of the time it was just me and the occasional dog.

As the waters cooled, I found myself experiencing true freedom, not only from my inner hell, but also from my bleak outlook and terrible mood swings. The cold water brought back my interest in life. It made me happy.

Bbelieve it or not, humans have voluntarily immersed themselves in cold water for a long time. A survey of cold water immersion practices through the centuries simultaneously yields a kind of capsule history of the science itself. Many animals, such as walruses, polar bears, and most fish, thrive in cold water, but we humans are naturally wary of its extreme danger and discomfort.

It’s hard to think of an activity that screams “Buyer beware!” more than diving in ice water, but the health benefits of cold water date back to ancient times. Hippocrates, the great Greek physician, was a proponent of hydrotherapy in general and cold water in particular.

For centuries, claims that swimming in cold water improved human health and well-being were based largely on popular wisdom and anecdotal accounts. This began to change in the late 18th century with the work of Scottish physician James Currie, who used cold water to successfully treat a contagious fever in Liverpool. In 1797 he published an influential pamphlet, Medical reports on the effects of water, cold and hot, as a remedy for fevers and other illnesseswhich contains the first English record of clinical observations using a thermometer.

The practice of sea bathing became popular around the same time and coastal countries saw resorts develop to capitalize on the perceived health benefits of salt water. In 1846, Victorian physician James Gully published The water cure in chronic diseases, describing pioneering hydrotherapy treatments at his clinic in Malvern, England, where famous patients included Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and Florence Nightingale. The hydrotherapy movement crossed the Atlantic in 1866 with the establishment of John Harvey Kellogg’s Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. The popularity of hydrotherapy has waned with the rise of modern medicine, and cold water has been relegated to the category of things to be avoided at all costs.

Because humans are land creatures, not water creatures, most of our science on human adaptation to cold has focused on cold climate rather than cold water. It’s a bit of a mystery that humans have any ability to tolerate cold, since the scientific consensus is that Homo sapiens migrated out of the tropical environment of Africa thousands of years ago. Some researchers believe that our ability to adapt to cold stems from genetic material passed down to us by our Neanderthal ancestors.

In recent years, groundbreaking work on cold water immersion has been carried out at the University of Portsmouth in the UK. Michael Tipton is a professor of human and applied physiology there. His colleague Heather Massey studies human physiological responses to cold and other extreme conditions. As well as being researchers, Tipton and Massey are athletes: Tipton is an Ironman triathlete; Massey is a seasoned cold-water swimmer who made a solo crossing of the English Channel in 2019. The fact that they are both scientists and active participants in their subject of study gives their work real applicability, acknowledging both the risks of cold-water immersion and the fact that people want to do it anyway. (Combining his passions, Massey sometimes swallows wireless thermometer capsules so he can monitor his body temperature during swims.)

In early 2021, Tipton set out to debunk some of what he called the “erroneous beliefs” circulating among cold water enthusiasts, particularly the idea that swimmers can prolong their cold habituation for longer periods. longer. In fact, says Tipton, repeated exposure to cold water can produce what he called a “hypothermic” adaptation, in which acclimatized individuals shiver little or not at all and paradoxically feel comfortable even when their deep body temperature drops. In other words, some open water swimmers, especially those who are well acclimatized to the cold, may lose the ability to judge their true body temperature.

Tipton gives the chilling (no pun intended) example of Jason Zirganos, a legendary marathon swimmer who completed four increasingly fast Channel crossings in the early 1950s. He was the first person to complete the triple crown of open water swimming, which besides the English Channel includes crossing the Catalina Channel in California and circumnavigating Manhattan Island. There is controversy over his bathing in Manhattan Island, with reports that near the end he had to be pulled, almost completely unconscious, out of the water. Like so many elite swimmers, he was always determined to outdo himself, and in 1959 he embarked on a thirty-five-kilometre swim across the Northern Channel from Northern Ireland to Scotland. , in water at about thirteen degrees. At no time during the swim did he pretend to be cold, but Zirganos had to be pulled out of the water again. He was plagued by hypothermia, and despite efforts to revive him, he later died.

In Tipton’s words, Zirganos “swam unconscious” because over time his body had lost the physical signal that it was getting too cold. Over the years I have noticed a version of this in myself. You can almost get used to cold water too much. From the first time your body tries to tell you – very sensibly – that it doesn’t want to be there, and through regular immersion, you unlearn this series of reactions.

Many people say they start swimming in cold water to stretch, to push their limits. Tipton’s message is a continuous reminder that the human body has very real limits in its ability to handle cold water. They can vary from person to person, and they can change with time and circumstances. But we ignore them at our peril.

On the afternoon of September 2, 2017, I entered Lake Ontario. Nothing remarkable about that. Over the past three decades, I’ve probably swam over a thousand times off Ward’s Island. It was just another day at the beach, and yet it was something more than that. I was embarking on a challenge.

I made the resolution to swim seventy kilometers between September 2 and October 24, 2017, the day of my seventieth birthday. It wasn’t going to be a particularly daunting task. I had fifty-two days to reach my goal, which amounted to less than a kilometer and a half (almost a mile) per day. I swim regularly in the summer months, but it was early fall and I figured I would need a head start before Lake Ontario starts to cool. At the end of October, the temperature would have dropped to ten to twelve degrees. I would continue to swim, of course, but I would have to reduce my time in the water.

As the miles piled up and I got closer and closer to the end point, I found an ambivalence, even a kind of melancholy, creeping into my mood. Forty may be the new thirty, sixty the new fifty. But seventy? Seventy is not the “new” anything. It’s just old. Even the day I swam the last mile, I didn’t feel as triumphant as when I had completed my 365 days of swimming the previous year. I wasn’t at all sure that turning seventy was something to celebrate. But it amazes me that as I move forward into old age, I’ve finally found something I can do that few other people can. I’m not really brave or tough, although I appreciate people thinking I am. Swimming in cold water is the only physical activity that I am miraculously naturally good at. It has made my life infinitely better.

There are people who are indifferent to water. There are people who hate getting wet. And there are people like me who can’t see a body of water without thinking about jumping into it. I love being in the water. I can’t live without it. In more ways than I can count, swimming has come to define my life. As I realize that my time on this planet – which is mostly water – is shrinking, this is truer than ever.

Excerpted with permission from Getting old, getting cold: notes on swimming, aging and finishing last. Copyright © 2022 Kathleen McDonnell. Published by Second Story Press.

Kathleen McDonnell is the author of nine books. His last, Getting old, getting cold: notes on swimming, aging and finishing lastwas released in May 2022.

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