Are you doing it this winter?

Are you taking the plunge this winter? Readying yourself to tap into a euphoric eruption of endorphins? Already wondering what I’m on about. I’m talking about cold-water swimming, of course. What? Did you think this might be a spicy little post about something else? Bad luck: you need to go elsewhere for your X-rated intake. 

We’re heading into winter in the Southern Hemisphere, so it’s time to consider the exercise regime of choice over the cold months. In the Northern Hemisphere, people are throwing in their cold-water towels and planning beach breaks and warm stuff. I just read a review of her second year at it by Caitlin Moran. She seems to like this what? Hobby … sport … therapy … self-inflicted act of sadomasochism? “Who needs drugs when I can get off my face cold water swimming?” Whatever you choose to call it, cold water swimming is riding a wave, as it were—I know at least two people in NZ who swear by it. Maybe in NZ, it’s worth a go. Where I live, we rarely even get frost, so it could add a bit of frisson to one’s day as winter sinks its fangs into the underbelly of autumn. But in colder climates like the UK, when you likely have to get a coast guard to chainsaw a swimming hole for you through the ice, it has to be nuts, right? 

But growing it is, and growing both in popularity and controversy. It seems to have triggered some resentments which have bubbled to the surface in its seasonal wake.  

Cold-water swimming seems like a relatively new thing. It’s not. It’s been a thing in many northern countries since … forever. In Russia, pre-Christians frolicked in ice water, and it became part of court protocol and was a custom among the ‘plebs’ throughout the Moscovian era from the late Middle Ages. Muscovy was a Grand Duchy or Principality founded in 1283, which morphed into the Russian Empire in the early eighteenth century under the first tsar. 

What’s changed is that ice-swimming competitions have sprung up like icicles after a deep chill. The establishment of the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009 formalised ice swimming as a ‘sport’. Swimmers compete in the Ice Mile (1608 metres). The water must be colder than 5 degrees Celsius, and competitors are only allowed the basics of swimming goggles, caps, and togs. There’s now also a metric 1500m version. Are they mad? To borrow from Gordon Ramsey, “Expletive me!” 

So why do people take the plunge? Caitlin says it involves “ten minutes of gasping, often agonised breaststroke through frost, sleet, hail and snow, but the endorphins make it all worthwhile”. Put like that, does it sound like something everyone should try at least once? Adherents say benefits positively affect the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems. There’s also the psychological and metabolical lift (remember all those endorphins). 

However, I would never inadvertently put my readers at risk by encouraging something that could negatively affect your health and well-being. For all the apparent benefits, detractors claim it’s pretty risky, particularly for inexperienced and untrained swimmers. So, if you’re considering it as your next wellness springboard, it’s recommended to go for a gradual acclimatisation. Dip your toe in the water, so to speak. Break yourself in one shivering inch at a time over time rather than jumping in at the deep end. While cold water swimming might be verging on a religious rite to some, this extreme version of total immersion can kill you. Heart failure brought on by extreme cold is one of the risks, as is the only slightly lesser possibility of hypothermia. 

I have tried it, though, so never let it be said that my opinions are based on prejudice and hearsay alone. One night, many (many) years ago, as an undergraduate at Saint Andrews, a few of us were having dinner at a friend’s house. Said house was a stone’s throw from the town’s celebrated outdoor swimming pool, located on a wind-blasted shore and filled by the incoming tide. Such pools used to be common in coastal resorts, but they’ve fallen out of favour. From the late sixties, we Brits deserted the bracing outdoor experience, lured by the advent of the cheap ‘bucket shop’ holiday. Cheap all-in packages allowed us to escape our dismal summer and flock in droves to Mediterranean nirvana, where we pursued the honourable pastime of frying ourselves to a crisp on a beach, falling into the bath-warm sea to break the monotony of hours prone on a sun lounger mitigated by copious quantities of lager and cocktails.

Back in historic St. Andrews, imagine the scene, if you will. About six of us are in the post-dinner alcohol-infused bravado stage that tends to herald trouble when you’re a student. At some point, someone (history doesn’t relate who) said, “Let’s go for a swim”. It’s February, in the middle of the Scottish winter, but we’re pretty drunk, and it seems like a great wheeze. Our host somehow rustles up towels for everyone. We lurch over to the pool, which is as wind-swept as ever, black as Hades, and we could just make out the white tops on the not-inconsiderable waves. Some brave soul sheds most of their clothes and jumps in, provoking the rest of us to follow quickly—no one wants to appear a wimp. 

John McMillan / St Andrews sea swimming pool

Gordon Ramsay’s ripe vocabulary applies here, too. It was beyond cold. Eskimo Pie cold. The sort of cold that makes your lungs want to collapse to avoid it. I doubt we stayed in for more than a nano-second as the freeze factor sobered us up, and we grasped how insane it was. I don’t imagine the current practitioners get in a wild sea pool at 2am at least five sheets to the wind. You’d have to hope not. How we survived without succumbing to hypothermia, I’ll never know. They’re right about one thing, though. The endorphins are incredible – once you’ve convinced your lungs to start functioning again and the blood starts flowing back to those important muscles, like your brain. As the chill receded along with the blue flesh and chattering teeth, the big-noting began, and a saga was born. 

A very long-winded way of saying that cold-water swimming isn’t new. But it’s spawned a new, highly divisive fashion accessory—the dryrobe. Ever ready to get on a new bandwagon, the fashion industry has seen this predominantly middle-class pursuit as a potential gold mine. Ergo, we now have the dryrobe as the accessory of choice for the dedicated cold-water swimmer. In case, like me, you’d missed the arrival of this seminal new garment, they’re huge coats with towelling lining. They break all the prevailing fashion rules, which require a garment to render the wearer less, rather than more, bulky. Dryrobes also apparently achieve the sleight of drape that makes wearers look triangular.

Nonetheless, swimmers love them so much that they’ve started popping up in the most improbable places— supermarkets, football stadiums, and even workplaces. It won’t be long before someone decides to discard their ball dress for one. Their popularity now goes way beyond the original purpose of post-dip warmth and modesty.

But in parallel, dryrobes have become a weapon in the class wars. Google and ye shall find headlines like Too Cool for the Pool: How the Dryrobe Became the Most Divisive Thing You Can Wear. (The Guardian) and Don’t Humiliate Anyone You Spot in a Dryrobe, Especially When It’s Me. (The Times). There even is (or was) a Facebook Page, The Dryrobe Wankers, with more than 80,000 followers. Let the games begin!

I live a hop, skip and a jump (or a slide, skate or slush trudge in winter parlance) to a waterfront. Once I’ve saved enough money for the eye-wateringly expensive, must-have dryrobe accessory, perhaps I’ll give it a go. Perhaps. If the tides are right. If there’s a full moon and I can see hair growing on the palms of my hands. If Hell starts freezing over. Wait, it seems to me that cold water swimming actually is Hell on Earth, so why opt to get there early, even equipped with a dryrobe? I like my swimming holes to be like the velvet warmth of the Mediterranean mid-summer or the waters inside the reefs in the Fijian Islands, where you can bask like a lurking shark for hours on end without getting cold. Without the sharks. Or the rip currents. Or even any waves when I think about it. I’m sorry, Caitlin, but you can keep the big chill, endorphins notwithstanding. I’ll take a long soak in a hot bath every winter.