Wild swimming in Queenford Lake – braving the cold for the sake of mental health research!
Updated: Jan 29, 2022
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was planning on going wild swimming to experience the reported benefits of cold hydrotherapy on mental well-being.
Yesterday evening I finally fulfilled my promise, and I went to Queensford Lakes nearby in South Oxfordshire to swim with my sister.
I have to confess that I’ve been a bit of a wimp up until now because I’ve bailed on going until the weather warmed up a bit!
I was still expecting it to be freezing but was pleasantly surprised to find that the water temperature was really quite warm at 18 degrees, and it wasn’t difficult to get into at all. This did slightly defeat the object of the ‘cold hydrotherapy’ exercise, but it was still an interesting experience learn from.
I decided to just swim the 500 metre loop and my sister did that plus the 1000 metre loop afterwards. I really enjoyed the experience and will definitely be going again in the future.
The health benefits of cold water swimming
The health benefits of cold water swimming have long been suspected, from Victorians gathering in their bathing machines to the lido boom of the early twentieth century.
Studies to back up the anecdotal evidence are still in their nascent stages and scientists are only just beginning to understand the impact of cold water immersion on the human body and mind but here are a few of the suggestions and theories:
An increased tolerance to stress
Submerging yourself in cold water creates a stress reaction in the body, similar to when we are put in a tense or scary situation. The body releases the stress hormone cortisol as a response to stress and breathing frequency and heart rate increases.
When you take the plunge in cold water the stress reaction recedes as your body acclimatises to the temperature. Evidence now suggests that repeatedly exposing your body to cold water reduces the severity of the initial stress reaction.
This reduction in the stress response seems to apply to other stressful situations, not just on exposure to cold water which means that the reaction to other stressful events can also be reduced.
A boost to self esteem
Challenging yourself to try something new and going out of your comfort zone can boost confidence and increase mental strength.
The courage required to face a cold dip can increase resilience and the process of becoming familiar with the unfamiliar can be projected into other life events and scenarios.
Swimming is a mindfulness exercise
Taking the plunge in cold water sends the nervous system into overdrive. The brain receives messages from nerve endings signalling the effect of the cold on other parts of the body.
The brain can only take in so much information at once and the intensity of the cold obliterates any other worries or thoughts you may have been having during the day. This affords a temporary release and break for the mind and a chance to be in the moment rather than ruminating on past and future.
Ice baths are used by elite athletes all over the world to aid post-performance recovery. The cold temperatures direct blood away from your extremities to protect the organs in your core.
The low blood flow to your limbs decreases inflammation and allows muscles to recover much quicker. I read somewhere that there is also a theory that depression could be associated with inflammation of the brain so this could also account for the positive effect of cold water swimming on depression too.
Although the science behind this one isn’t conclusive, many swimmers report fewer coughs and colds than their non-swimming friends and acquaintances.
The theory is that the stress reaction to cold water immersion can trigger an increase in production of white blood cells – a natural boost to the immune system!
When the physical and mental benefits of swimming are combined together then it is certainly plausible that there is a positive impact on the immune system.
Swimming in open water may have beneficial effects on your skin. This is especially true for salt water which is laced with magnesium, calcium and potassium which are all great for skin cells. Sea water is also a mild antiseptic and can encourage damaged skin to heal.
Although I’ve never personally experienced this, the ‘runner’s’ or post swimmers ‘high’ is a real phenomenon. The mixture of exercise and cold water exposure can trigger a release of dopamine, which is the body's feel good hormone; sharing the experience with a friend or a group can intensify this feeling even further.
My own experience
I don’t think the water was cold enough to experience either the stress response or the decrease in inflammation, but I did enjoy the experience and think that there were other positives to be gained from it too.
I liked the escapism that wild swimming offered me because when you are in the water you are away from your phone and from the hustle and bustle of life which allowed for a period of rest and relaxation.
“A change is as good as a rest.”
I also enjoyed the novelty of trying something new which I think is always good for the mind and soul - The old sayings are still the best.
There was also the aspect of being close to nature and taking the time to appreciate the simplicity of swimming in a natural environment. I certainly appreciated the ‘mindful’ aspect of the exercise.
All in all it was a great first experience of wild swimming in the UK and I will definitely be going back for another dip in the near future!
If you would like to know more about wild swimming at Queenford Lakes then you can find more information here.
I have also added an interesting and informative video on cold water swimming with personal trainer Max Lowery which you can find on the homepage.
Registration to swim costs £10 and then it costs £6 per time. The water is monitored by trained on-the-water lifeguards, and it is a great set up that’s really well organised.
I will not be writing for a few days now as I’m heading up to Shropshire to support my sister in her half Iron Man, but I will be back on Tuesday with more insights and #mentalhealtheducation from #dyingtostayalive!
Thanks for reading,
Speak to you soon,