Cold Water Swimming: Benefits, Risks, and Beauty

I remember the first time I stood on the banks of Loch Ness with the intention of going in for a dip. As I looked out across towards the snow-capped mountains in the distance I wondered if I had lost my mind.  The freezing water nipped at my toes as I stood willing myself to move forward. And eventually I did.  Like many I was instantly hooked on cold water swimming, and I haven’t looked back since!

Loch Ness Urquhart Castle
A chilly Loch Ness

I have never been the strongest swimmer in the world. I use other activities such as hiking or running to maintain my fitness. Cold water swimming is about entirely something else for me.  It is a place to switch off from the stress of daily life and reconnect to something deeper. A place to completely detach.  I feel so at peace as soon as I get in the water.  The colder is usually the better for me.

I am definitely not alone in my love for wild swimming.  The activity has seen a recent surge in popularity. Especially during lockdown, as people turned to the outdoors to escape the banality and difficulties of life.  I think it was about more than just finding something to do.  We were all searching for something to ground us.  To provide meaning during a time which had so little.

It wont surprise you to know that there are some amazing mental and physical benefits to cold water swimming.  That glow you feel when you get out… it really does mean something!

Here are just some of the benefits of cold water swimming…

It Strengthens the Immune System and Improves Health

The effects of cold water on the immune system have been well studied and documented. Cold water helps to boost the white blood cell count in your body due to your body reacting to the extreme change in temperature and conditions. Over time this will strengthen and improve your overall immune system- making you healthier and more resistant to illness! There is rising evidence that winter swimmers are more resistant to certain illnesses and infections, experiencing them less frequently and more mildly.

woman in white hijab covering her face with white textile
Fed up getting ill?

It Improves Mood

Cold water swimming releases loads of feel-good endorphins. Whenever you push your body to the limit your brain is flooded with these chemicals to help you through the pain.  This buzz will remain present even after you have finished your swim!  A cold-water swim really sets me up for the day and puts me in a positive, productive mood.  Regular cold-water swimming has been proven to help in the battle against depression which is needed now more than ever before.

It improves your circulation

Cold water swimming helps flush out your veins, arteries, and capillaries. It forces blood to the surface and helps to warm our extremities. Repeated exposure helps us to adapt to the cold better.

It Burns Calories

When you are cold water swimming your body needs to work hard to maintain your core body temperature and therefore swimming in cold water is a fantastic calorie burner!

It is Relaxing

Cold water swimming has been proven to have a calming and relaxing effect on the swimmer.  Perhaps it’s the need to regulate your breathing and just be there in the moment.  Maybe it’s the beautiful surrounding we often have.  Or maybe it’s just the sheer joy of the act. On an anecdotal level I can attest to the complete feeling of calm that floods me every time I immerse myself in a cold body of water. You just can’t beat the feeling.

It reduces Inflammation

Many moons ago when I played football in America we would regularly submerge ourselves in ice baths after training and matches to aid post-performance recovery. Your body automatically directs blood away from your extremities to protect your vital organs, which in turn reduces inflammation and allows muscles to recover quicker. A bracing dip can give you all the benefits of an ice bath.  I certainly feel like I have a pair of fresh legs after completing a cold-water swim or dip.

It Improves Social Connections

Cold water swimming can be a great activity to do with friends and like-minded people.  It has been proven to bring people together and you can create a genuine bond with the people you undertake the challenge with.

Loch Ness Dip at Dores

These are just some of a wide range of benefits that have been documented and experienced by thousands of cold water swimmers across the country and the world.  They are undoubtedly partly responsible for the surge in population we are currently seeing across the county. 

I found this study really helpful when researching the benefits of cold water swimming. Click here.

The Dangers of Cold Water Swimming

As with any type of physical activity there is an element of risk involved when cold water swimming. By following some guidelines, it is possible to mitigate this risk, however nothing is ever 100% safe.  Around 400 people drown every year in the UK, but only a relatively small % of these drown while outdoor swimming.  12% of drowning victims died while actually swimming and a third of those were in swimming pools. Alcohol, and jumping or diving into cold water was responsible for a high percentage of of deaths.  Surprisingly, walkers and runners account for the second largest proportion of UK drownings.  This usually happens when they slip and fall in after running close to the water.  Walkers and runners may be at risk due to the route they take and the sometimes-solitary nature of the activity.

You can research more drowning related statistics here. I found it a very good source of information.

Here are some of the main risks associated with cold water swimming and steps you can take to mitigate them.

Cold Water Shock

Cold water shock is an instinctive short-term response to being immersed in cold water.  During cold water shock your blood vessels close, your heart begins to beat faster, you become breathless and might find yourself gasping for air. This can be particularly dangerous if you jump into a body of cold water and the shock hits you while you are under the water.  It is always recommended to slowly acclimatise yourself to the temperature of the water before swimming. The reality is however, that many people enjoy the thrill and fun of jumping into water. 

If you really want to do it, it’s advised to wear a wetsuit and to acclimatise your body to the water temperature first before you get out and jump in. If you do ever find yourself in difficulty after entering or jumping into water, try to fight the instinct to thrash your arms and swim harder and focus on just trying to float until your breathing returns to normal.  Most episodes of cold-water shock last around 90 seconds. You can also wear a lifejacket if jumping in from a small height although for anything over 2 metres this is not recommended as the lifejacket can then become a hazard when you impact the water.

Swim Failure

While cold-water shock presents itself immediately on entrance to water, swim failure comes on more slowly and can be particularly dangerous if it comes on in the middle of a longer swim.  As mentioned before the body restricts blood flow to the limbs to protect vital organs while swimming.  In extreme cases this can lead to your arms and legs no longer being able to function properly.  If you feel yourself struggling to swim, a loss of coordination or slowing down then it’s time to get out of the water. 

Accidents and Injuries

Another danger of jumping into water is the possibility of injury or even death during or after impact.  Quite often there may be hazards hidden under the water, or the water may not be as deep as you initially thought.  It’s also important to remember that water depth can change with the tides.  Jumping and especially diving into unknown water is responsible for a number of injuries (and occasionally deaths) each year so if thrill seeking is your thing, it is very important to have a clear and accurate understanding of what you’re jumping into before you do it.

Hypothermia

Hypothermia occurs when the core temperature of your body drops.  It can lead to a loss of consciousness and heart failure.  Build up the time you spend in the water slowly, and acclimatise yourself to the lower temperatures over time. Start with short swims to discover your limits.  As with swim failure if you’re finding your stroke rate slowing or starting to shiver then get out of the water and warm up.

After Drop

After drop actually occurs after you finish swimming and happens when the cool blood from your extremities begins to circulate around your body again. This lowers your core temperature and is why you start shivering after you exit the water. I remember the first time I experienced after-drop.  I was busy congratulation myself on staying in 7.5c water for half an hour, when I suddenly started shivering uncontrollably.  A hot shower and several cups of tea later and I still felt chilled to the bone.

I have now realised that jumping in the car to make my 5-minute drive home still wearing my swimsuit with a towelling robe over it was a massive mistake. To minimise the risk, you should get changed into dry clothes immediately, and sip on a warm drink to heat your body slowly from the core. A hat and gloves can also be used to elevate your core temperature quicker.

Rip Currents

Rip Currents and Rip Tides can be extremely dangerous for open water swimmers. Rips are strong currents running out to sea that can quickly drag people away from the shallows of the shore line. Rips can be difficult to spot. If you find yourself caught in a rip we have a few tips to get back to shore safely.

  • Don’t try and swim against it. Swim across it (parallel to shore) until you are out of the rip. If you try and swim against it you will only get exhausted.
  • If you can stand up, do that. Rips can start in shallow water and it is easier to wade through them than to swim.
  • Always raise your hands and shout for help.

You can watch a video about Rip Safety here

Swimming Induced Pulmonary Oedema (SIPE)

This is a last minute addition to the blog as I only read about it today from someone who had kindly shared it on a group I am part of. It certainly caught my attention, and while fairly rare, it seems vital to share.

SIPE is a condition that causes sudden breathlessness and is due to fluid collecting in the lungs. It may be accompanied by a crackling sound in the chest and women are more at risk. Wearing a wetsuits, being overhydrated and failing to warm up before a longer swim are all additional risk factors. Unlike cold water shock this does not happen immediately upon entry to the water, and usually improves upon exiting the water. If you feel yourself getting unusually out of breath during a swim, or feel your chest tightening, get yourself out of the water and to safety as soon as possible.

There is a lot of information available online regarding this. Click here to access the main paper I used.

Lone Swimming

I am always torn on this one as I personally absolutely love the solitude of being in a highland loch completely alone, surrounded by nothing but silence and water. I find it so utterly peaceful and it does wonders for my state of mind. However, when I am swimming alone, I never go for a long swim across deep water and tend to stick near to the edge of the loch. I wear a flotation device for peace of mind.

I suppose the difference is when I go in the water alone it is purely for my wellbeing and not “fitness” so I don’t feel the need to go out of my depth or swim for long distances. Like anything, there are dangers with swimming alone and it is often recommended to swim with friends who can help you in an emergency. However, if you do swim alone then it’s best to wear bright colours and use a tow float for visibility and safety.

The Outdoor Swimming Society has many good blogs and resources around the dangers to be aware of and how to be safer. You can go to their page here.

8 SAFETY TIPS FOR COLD WATER SWIMMING

  • Know your entry and exit points and have a plan A, B and C for getting in and out of the water.
  • Don’t get drunk and swim.  A high proportion of drownings cite alcohol as an influential factor.
  • It’s always safer not to jump into the water- especially before you have acclimatised to its temperature.  If you are jumping in be aware of the water depth and make sure there are no underwater hazards.
  • Let people know where you are going and how long you think it will take.
  • Be visible in the water and use a tow float when appropriate.
  • Take small steps: Don’t bite off more than you can chew and build up your time in the water and the distance you swim as you become more confident and experienced.
  • Know the signs:  By knowing the early signs of cold-water failure and other life-threatening conditions, you can get yourself out of the water and warmed up before you are in danger.
  • Remember to FLOAT.  If you find yourself in difficulty, especially with cold water shock try to get on your back and float so that you can call for help. Fight the urge to struggle.

To Share or not to Share?

One thing that open water swimmers seem perpetually torn about is to tell or not to tell?  Should you share that amazing spot with other open water swimmers or should you keep the knowledge to yourself so that you can continue to enjoy it in peace and quiet without the inconvenience of crowds, and the negative consequences that can bring.

Personally, I don’t mind sharing my swimming spots, and I actually enjoy others getting benefits from them.  I think especially for inexperienced open water swimmers, it can be comforting to know that a spot is tried and tested and relatively safe to swim in.  That sense of community can be a real confidence builder.  From writing a blog we have received so many positive messages from people who have had an amazing experience due to something we have shared.  We also get regular messages from individuals with some physical limitations or additional support needs, who perhaps need a little more guidance when finding places to see and things to do. 

Do the positives Outweigh the Negatives?

On the flip side of the positive impact of sharing beautiful and inspirational spots there are obviously some negative consequences like increased litter, inconsiderate behaviour such as parking in inappropriate places, or perhaps not being aware of the outdoor access code and how it applies.  We continue to try and mitigate this by providing information and advice, and we also enjoy partaking in litter picks whenever we go somewhere new.

If you would like to see how the Scottish Outdoor Access Code relates to swimming please click here.

Be the Change…

I genuinely believe there are more responsible open water swimmers than irresponsible ones. If we all do our bit and continue to try and educate others then hopefully we can tackle the issues together that can arise when places become more popular. One of my favourite nearby swimming spots is a 15-minute drive from Inverness. I go there most days after work, however it has also recently become a popular camping spot as well. Recently I have noticed a lot of cans under the surface of the water. It’s extremely annoying and potentially dangerous, but if these individuals weren’t littering in this particular spot then they would do it somewhere else. The problem may have just reached my little slice of sanctuary, but unfortunately it has been around for a long time!

I have started trying to clear the bottom of the loch of the cans and hope that positive action inspires more positive action!  All we can do is our own wee bit. Despite the frustrations and actions of a few I still don’t think any of us can have ownership of a particular swimming spot or beauty spot in general. Scotland is absolutely stunning and its beauty can actually help to inspire positive change in others. This is especially true in terms of improving people’s mental health and wellbeing.  I think that’s worth sharing- don’t you?

On that note, here are my four favourite swimming spots.

A Famous Loch

The first one is definitely no secret and its popularity with open water swimmers continues to increase. Despite its fame there is still something magical about swimming in Loch Ness. Perhaps it is its legend, or maybe its spectacular Highland backdrop.  Whatever it is, I always feel really at home when in the loch.  Something to note is that Loch Ness is cold ALL THE TIME.  It never freezes over, and it never heats up.  It stays at a cool 5c all year round, so unless you are acclimatised to the cold I would recommend wearing a wetsuit.

Urquhart Castle Snow Loch Ness

A Breathtaking Beach

Probably one of the most beautiful beaches in the Highlands, Achmelvich bay is a truly stunning spot for a swim. The beautiful turquoise water contrasts with the pristine white sand, creating a picture perfect location for a swim.  The only issue with Achmlevich is that it can get very busy in the summer. If you prefer a more peaceful swim then I would suggest going out of season. If you manage to get it on a quiet day, it is a very special experience.

Off the Beaten Track

It was inevitable that Skye was going to feature in this list and to be honest it could have been one of a number of places. The Camasunary area is remote, peaceful and breathtakingly beautiful.  All the components of a great swimming spot.  Camasunary is around 6 miles from Elgol and is reached by walking along a cliff-edged path.  While there I swam in the waterfall pools at the foot of Blaven, had a paddle in the bay and also swam around the “bad step” on the way to Loch Coruisk as I am a little scared of heights and didn’t fancy scaling it. 

Read more about the “Bad Step” here in Michelle’s Skye Trail Blog.

The only downside to this area is all the plastic and debris that gets washed up on the shores with the tides. The local bothy encourages those who stay to do their part in cleaning up.  We plan to go back soon for a larger scale clean up! It really again highlights the issue that plastic and litter is actually a widescale problem that must be addressed.

Wonderful Waterfalls

Pattack Falls and the Falls of Pattack are two separate waterfalls on the same river in Cairngorm National Park. Pattack Falls have a fairly large carpark and are right beside the road, where as Falls of Pattack are more difficult to find and require a bit of a hike. Both have good pools for swimming and together they make up one of my favourite areas for a quick cold water dip!

Final Thoughts…

Open water swimming is an activity that comes with a host of physical and mental health benefits, while also carrying risks that you would expect to find with an outdoor sporting activity. By swimming in a safe and responsible way I think the benefits outweigh the risks. I personally have felt a massive improvement both physically and mentally since braving the cold waters of Scotland. I would highly recommend anyone to give it a try.

We would welcome any feedback on our blog and would absolutely love to hear where and why you open water swim!

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6 thoughts on “Cold Water Swimming: Benefits, Risks, and Beauty

  1. What a brilliant blog and fabulous advice. I love swimming in rivers and would love to challenge myself to more of these beautiful spots you go to.

  2. Thank you for a very informative article. I am grateful that you are so generous with the detail you provide in your blogs. I love the zing on my skin after a swim in the Lochs around the Central Belt. Trying Pittenweem tidal pool soon, not to sure I like the salt/sand combo..

    1. Thank you Gillian! I really appreciate your kind words. I love swimming in the sea and find the salt really clears my skin as well. But like you, I am not a fan of the sand afterwards!

  3. Love my swimming but always in a pool (Matt Busby) for me, anyway I am quite comfortable with a swim of 1k or a mile on occasion however since lockdown it’s not been possible so was wondering if you have any recommendations for north Lanarkshire or surrounding area…..
    Thanks….

    1. Hi Alex. I’ve seen people swim in hillend reservoir before. That’s quite close to you. There is also a group on fb called Wild West Swimmers (you could join that on Facebook), they sometimes meet at difference locations to go for a swim and post about different locations in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and surrounding areas. Hope you get an outdoor swim soon. It’s addictive. Michelle

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