Theory Thursday

Cold water adaptation as therapy

We’ve been thinking about open water swimming this week and last week, in terms of rare (very rare!) wetsuit perils and a few top tips.  But, there is more to it than that.  It’s actually good for you!

Cold water adaptation

Getting into cold water (20 degrees or less) is pretty shocking.  It causes physiological stress.  But if you keep doing it, your body gets the hang of it and tones down the stress response.  You adapt.  More and more evidence is accruing that this adaptation crosses over to down-regulate other types of stressful triggers.

You need to go in 3-4 times for this to happen.  You need to leave the wetsuit at home.  Officially, the swimming bit is unnecessary, it’s just the cold water immersion that does the trick – but where’s the fun in standing still!

Anticipatory thermogenesis

Believe it or not, you can upregulate your own core body temperature, without shivering.  Identified in many of the cold dwelling peoples of the world, including the Kaweskar of Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of Patagonia who didn’t wear clothes despite freezing temperatures.  They apparently had core body temperatures of 38 degrees C or higher (ours is usually 37).

Tierra del Fuego

There are some daft feeling visualisations you can do before getting into the water, (think of fire, think of heat) but they do seem to work.  Lewis Pugh – an antarctic swimmer was able to raise his body temperature this way, but just looking at his website makes me feel cold!

Advantages of adaptation

How does this translate into something meaningful for you?  Well, it might simply mean that regular cold water swimming gives you a “high” at the time.  (I certainly think the euphoria stopped me thinking clearly when my wetsuit was trying to kill me!)  Research is ongoing into whether it reduces coughs and colds but there is evidence for a reduction in the inflammatory response.

That would be nirvana.  “Inflammation” is implicated in the development of cancer, heart disease and more obvious conditions “inflammatory” bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis.  Diabetes and mental health conditions are also on the list.  Various sufferers have anecdotally improved their conditions with cold water swimming.  Since there won’t be big pharma funding for it any time soon (imagine a world without all those diseases & the drugs needed to treat them, just by a dip in the sea now and then!!!) if you’ve got any of the above you’ve nothing to lose by trying a bit of cold water habituation.


An extra word about depression.  if you watched “the doctor who gave up drugs” you’ll have seen the patient who did, indeed, get off her antidepressants by cold water swimming.  It’s the cold that does it.  Swimming and any exercise help depression, but it’s the cold water adaptation down-regulating the stress response and the inflammatory response that work.  Interestingly, there is even some evidence that patients with depression have marginally increased core body temperatures – neat theory? 

So, although you may perish with cold at the thought of it, there are lots of sound reasons to go for a dip in the sea in winter – just don’t do it alone!  find out more: 

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A tiny hobbit dedicated to saving the world with a decent second breakfast. Also, available to make you feel good in triathlon when you overtake her.......

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