The Thrill of the Chill

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If you think winter swimming is only for the very brave (or the very foolish), Jonathan Buckley tells us why we shouldn’t let some nippy weather get in the way of stripping and dipping…


Last Saturday Tooting Bec Lido hosted the 6th UK Cold Water Swimming Championships. Hardy swimmers embraced this cold water swimming festival – all in water less than 1C.

I started swimming outdoors when I moved to Streatham Hill in the 1980s and found Tooting Bec Lido on my doorstep. It was the perfect escape. Swimming there became the perfect counter-balance to the stresses and excesses of living in London.

As we moved into autumn, George Aldhouse, former gymnast, meat packer at Smithfield Market and South London Swimming Club’s (SLSC) Rt Hon Handicapper told me that the pool stayed open during winter … and asked if I would be swimming on? Members of the Club have been swimming throughout the year there since it opened in 1906. I gave it a go and never looked back.

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Tooting Bec Lido in the 1920s

If you choose to swim outdoors during winter you must have a pretty strong constitution. But even in Roman times, the health benefits of a cold dip were widely recognised. As part of an article I wrote for Positive Health Magazine called Cold Cures and Warm Hearts, I looked at the history of cold water therapy and highlighted some of the reported benefits for conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis through to arthritis and the common cold.

There have been few scientific studies too. A study in Finland found that winter swimming in moderation seems to improve general well-being. Another in Germany suggests it can help create more ‘brown fat’ which helps the body burn off ‘body fat deposits’ and reduce the risk of heart disease. But until recently no-one had really asked the swimmers. As founders and organisers of the biennial UK Cold Water Swimming Championships, SLSC decided to dive in and poll competitors.

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Of those that participated, three quarters believed that cold water swimming is addictive and that it improves circulation and the immune system. Half believed that it improves metabolism and complexion. And one in four believed that it burns up fat and improves libido. Most agreed that cold water swimming helps alleviate depression.

The consensus was that braving the cold connects them with the natural world and people from all walks of life. It boosts self-confidence and resilience, provides great camaraderie and encourages an alternative view of life. Mind, body and spirit seem to benefit from being in touch with the elements in a pure and uncompromising way.

Greater interest in swimming, triathlon and the elemental pleasure of ‘wild swimming’ coupled with the capability to share this via social media is pushing it into the mainstream. When I started swimming at Tooting Bec, only a few hardy souls swam through the winter.  Now some 30 years on, over 600 swimmers take part in the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships and Club membership is well over 1,300 members.

If you decide that it is for you then take it slowly. Start when it’s warm and acclimatize. Don’t stay in too long and build up over time. If you want some tips then check out the health section and safe swimming guide in Cool Swimming.

Cool Swimming, by Jonathan PD Buckley, looks at cold water swimming and general well-being. It presents the results of research with over 300 participants in the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships 2013, plus an overview of scientific research, a history of cold water therapy and tips on swimming safely.

You might also like to dip into award-winning author and photographer Daniel Start’s revised and expanded version of the best-selling guide to Britain’s swimming holes, Wild Swimming

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