19 June 2024

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A Thank You Letter to Cold Water Swimming

Photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans from Unquiet by Linn Ullmann

Words by Laura Bradley

Cold water swimming changed my life. In the winter of 2016, I was experiencing burnout, and signed off from work. I ended up spending a lot of time by the sea—I found the vastness of the ocean and the long, end of day baths comforting. On New Year’s Eve, I read an article about the benefits of cold water swimming and decided to join the local annual charity swim the next morning. I was unprepared, wearing a borrowed swimsuit and dressing gown and unaware of the start time (I ended up going in with the pro-swimmers an hour before). But it didn’t matter—the water still did its magic. It’s hard to put into words what happened that morning. I often throw in the Stars in Their Eyes smokey door transformation because that’s honestly how it felt. At the time, I was unaware of the symbolic connection between water and emotions. I now understand that cold water (whether it’s a shower, plunge or swim) is a powerful medicine for the mind, body and soul.

There are many heartwarming stories of it’s impact and increasing scientific findings behind the positive benefits to metabolism, circulation, immune system, stress response, endorphin release, and more recently, evidence it could protect the brain from degenerative diseases like dementia.

I know it activated something in me, washed away the unnecessary layers and inspired a new way of being. During that short dip, I cried in a way I’ve never cried before. I love that my first child was conceived seven days later.

The exhilaration is addictive—I haven’t been able to start a New Year without making the 80-mile trip for the annual community dip at the bay. We nearly bought a house overlooking it until 2020 took a different turn. That encouraged the start of a new relationship with the water in London—regular peaceful swims at Hampstead Ponds (an entirely different experience to the moving salty ocean waters). This winter, I found myself with the year-rounders, consciously deciding not to purchase a wetsuit and researching acclimatisation. I recently discovered our family’s great uncle Percy was also a regular at the Men’s pond, cycling every day from east London during his lunch break (he passed aged 96).

Here are 4 ways the practice has improved my life:

1. Reframing Fear

Whenever I’m scared or avoiding something, I think of cold water swimming: that it’s never as bad as I think (even if it seems scary and uninviting); how satisfied I feel afterwards; and how I never regret doing it.

2. Being Fully Present

Entering and enduring the cold water is often so intense that the mind is forced to focus completely on the task. A rare and refreshing experience.

3. Practising Calm

Whilst I encourage emotional release, I find a meditative state for swimming makes the whole experience more pleasurable. Referring back to “swim state” in other life situations can also be helpful.

4. Clearing Space for the Good Stuff

I’ve had my best moments of clarity/release/perspective/inspiration during or after a freezing slow heads-up breaststroke.

Beginner’s Tips
— Start with short dips (this is a good cold water temperature guide).
— Enter slowly (no jumping or diving), focus on your breath.
— Aim for a gentle swim (this isn’t about distance, speed or style).
— Listen to your body, don’t stay in too long.
— Warm up slowly with plenty of layers.

Items to Consider for Your Cold Water Kit

Image courtesy of Laura Bradley, December 2020

Laura Simone Bradley is a healing practitioner, writer and end of life doula. @laurasimonebradley