Things to remember
Most of us will only start swimming when the water temperature warms up. But for a whole lot of people around the world, that's missing the point. More and more, people are embracing cold water swimming. But why?
It's surprisingly good for you
People who regularly engage in cold water swimming don't do it because they are masochists; they do it because they experience significant benefits. It is well established that the shock of immersing yourself in cold water causes your body to release endorphins - meaning a brief, chilly morning dip can boost your mood for hours afterwards.
There is also growing support for the idea that regular cold water swimming can help alleviate depression. Although more scientific research needs to be done in this area, it's nonetheless a theory popular among members of the cold water swimming community, who have experienced the mental health benefits themselves.
Besides the boost it can give to your brain, if you swim through the cold months it stands to reason that you're getting year-round benefits from the low impact exercise. You're building muscle tone (especially the deep stabilising muscles which are not activated in many other forms of exercise) and helping to soothe stiff muscles and sore joints.
So how do you swim safely in cold weather?
First up we should note that a very small number of people have died as a result of falling into (or jumping into) icy cold water. While swimming pools and lakes in most parts of Australia generally don't get that cold, we don't recommend you jump right in (just to be on the safe side).
Basically when you leap into just-above freezing water, your body experiences intense cold shock, this automatically causes you to gasp for air and unfortunately, some people take in water instead.
So, to do it extra safely, get in slowly: splash cold water on your face and upper body (including your arms and hands). Take calm breaths and slowly submerge yourself. Once you're in, the trick is to stay in until you have adjusted to the cold. If you're new to cold water swimming you'll find this the most challenging part. As a general guide if you can last about two minutes you'll find you adjust and can stay in longer.
Won't I get sick?
Some cold water swimmers swear that the activity actually boosts their immune system. While robust scientific research does not currently exist to support this claim, it's still apparent that the activity doesn't make its regular adherents sick (or they'd certainly stop doing it!)
However if you're feeling sick already, maybe take a pass that day.
To reduce your chances of getting sick overall, make sure you have plenty of warm clothes on hand to wrap yourself in post-swim. You could also try adding some extra warmth to your swimming outfit. If you're just starting out with cold water swimming, wetsuits significantly reduce your experience of cold. Try wearing two swimming caps (given you lose a lot of heat from your head) and opt for neoprene over latex; the material is much warmer. Similarly, you lose a lot of heat from your feet, so get yourself some neoprene socks.
Remember the only way you'll find out if cold water swimming is for you, is to give it a go!