What you don't read about cold swimming is how it nurtures human connection.
It’s wintertime in Britain. Swimming trunks and bikinis have long been tucked away, and responsible parents have sought out scarves, gloves and hats to wrap their children up warm. Hands rub together, mouths breathe clouds, and boot-strapped feet shuffle to seek shelter at home. The nights grow longer, days grow shorter, and everywhere is cold. Yet, contrary to the human instinct to stay warm, safe and comfortable, there are some in the UK who plunge into the chilly winter waters wearing little but goggles and swimming caps. We call them Cold Swimmers.
“Cold swimming” has many other names: outdoor swimming, wild swimming, open water swimming and ice swimming. The latter only starts at temperatures of 5°C or less, as stated by the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA).
“We love it all the same — even when you have to defrost the car at 5.00am, drive to the frozen lake, and crack the ice with an axe”.
A confession of avid cold swimmer and ex-marathon runner Pauline Barker from Plymouth. She has dedicated the last five years to championing cold swimming and expanding the community, sharing its countless benefits by founding the Polar Bear Challenge (PBC) — an intense cold swimming programme stretching between 1 November and 30 March — which has had more than 1,500 people join over the last year. Despite completing 10 Ice Miles and swimming a mile in butterfly at 3ºC in 52 minutes, Pauline maintains that her attitude to cold swimming is to “complete rather than compete.”
Cold Swimmers is a documentary book that delves deeper into the personal motivations behind this extreme undertaking, not only amongst sportspeople, but those who share the passion for its grounding, natural elements. Whilst defining cold swimming as leisure or sport comes down to individual perception, the activity is heralded for its health benefits.
"There are some who use it for pain relief, to treat chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, and many use cold water as therapy. I know of people who have been prescribed open water swimming as part of their pain package. A few swimmers are also GPs in the local area, which may be why they recommend it."
These are the experiences of Sarah Wiseman, a wild swimmer and open water swimming coach in Aviemore, Scotland. Beyond the anecdotal evidence of cold swimming’s health benefits, there are research projects that hypothesise how cold water combats our urban conditioning by physically transforming the body.
Alex Foster, a PhD researcher at Oxford University testifies: "My research follows Susanna Soberg, a biochemist at the University of Copenhagen, who studies brown fat—the thing that keeps you warm; it has your back when you’re cold. You increase the amount of brown fat through cold exposure, so your body physiologically changes. My body has literally changed."
In today’s society, as we live in indoor spaces with less temperature variation, we do not get exposed to the environmental conditions our bodies require for metabolic stimulation which is linked to the immune system. “In fact, we are immunologically weaker for not getting into the cold, and stressing the body,” he states.
To conduct his research, in 2019, Alex joined the oldest outdoor swimming group in the UK, the Serpentine Swimming Cub (SSC), taking its members as a sample group for studying the phenomenon. Seeing the drastic increase of memberships from just ninety in 2007 to two thousand in 2019, with two hundred and fifty regulars swimming all year around, understanding the personal motivations behind why people join became vital to Alex’s research. “People understand the health benefits, but it’s not the main reason why people join the SSC.”
Surrounding the physiologically transformative effects of cold swimming, are numerous extraordinary accounts of cold water’s ability to re-shape lives. The founder of the Chester Frosties, Dianne Parrish testifies to this other kind of transformational power:
"I was in my early fifties, and I was reaching a time in my life where I wanted to create a new future to help fill the voids of missing people and places. This is when I had the idea of swimming the English Channel—a crazy goal, way out of my reach, but proportional to how I was feeling. It’s been completely life-changing for me, and everything has started to fall into place; I’ve started getting more of a balance in the life wheel."
After reading countless articles about mature cold swimmers who, like Dianne, used crossing the English Channel to turn life around, cold swimming presents its power to rejuvenate. Another witness of the enhancing properties of open water swimming is motivational speaker and the first ever male Kiwi Ice Miler, David Coleman, who is now based in Northamptonshire:
"When I turned fifty, I decided I was going to do something different, so I entered into an event involving swimming between Europe and Asia. After enjoying the training, I undertook a number of marathon swims. Eight years ago, I couldn’t imagine what I am able to do now."
Cold swimming attracts those that seek to push beyond their limits; people who wish to alleviate themselves from the strains and stresses of modern life. To share his passion, David founded a cold swimming group in Northamptonshire, The Wadenhoe And Tansor Swimmers (TWATS), who are known to share eighteen Ice Miles between them.
"We’ve met many people who started cold swimming as a way of coping with mental or physical health issues. It’s amazing how these same people go on to do such incredible things by turning psychological difficulty into strength. It is also curious how two-thirds of our group are women. Certainly, our fastest distance swimmers are mostly female."
Many TWATS members report how an affiliation with cold water teaches the body new limits and re-wires the brain to “switch off self-doubt”. However, there is one more vital, but less known common denominator that’s inextricably linked with mental health recovery — community support. Pauline Procter, who has been swimming with TWATS for over five years, shares:
"You read about how cold swimming releases endorphins which help you deal with stress better and aid mental health; what you don’t read about is how the group support helps even more. If I haven’t shown up, nine times out of ten I’ll get a message checking in on me—there is no stigma here."
It is said that cold swimming is the world’s friendliest sport; as an onlooker who has swum with and interviewed five swimming groups across the UK, the sense of camaraderie is unmistakable. Within every group, each swimmer has a role to play regardless of experience, age, ability or reason for joining. Sweetly nick-named “shore watch”, Jolanta Tanianis, Whitchurch, enjoys helping the Chester Frosties after their swim, making sure they don’t get cold:
"I get a lot of enthusiasm from the group. Although I am not swimming through the winter yet, being part of this community is inspiring. As Dianne puts it, 'we are all here sharing the same values, regardless of our other lives.'"
Groups like the SSC even adopted time-friendly races, which act more as rituals of support and appreciation as opposed to competition. For example, in the yearly 'Peter Pan Christmas Day Race' and races happening every Saturday morning, faster swimmers are given “handicaps”. These are often in the form of delayed starts, providing an equal footing in the race for all swimmers.
The cold swimming network is also a unique and increasingly rare example of when social media does not substitute physical presence with virtual (dis)connection; instead, digital and physical connections align. Sarah Wiseman, who has seen the Cairngorm Wild Swimmers Facebook group grow from 5 members in 2010 to now over 1000, believes that there is “a sense of belonging and camaraderie within the group”:
"Each week you learn more about the people who come along. I have certainly made some lifelong friends within the Cairngorm Wild Swimmers, people who are completely on my wavelength. It’s all about finding your tribe, and I don’t think this is exclusive to our group; that sense of belonging is the same in cold water swimming communities across the country."
It appears that cold water is a binding agent for human connection. Alex, who has recently pivoted his research from studying brown fat to focus on community, observes:
"As soon as you are in the water, your enthusiasm shoots right up, and you’re ecstatic by the time you get out; there is a communal buzz after a swim. It seems to me that the water itself is instrumental in bonding socially."
Being a cold swimmer can be many things — leisure, sport, meditation, healing, friendship, family, rehabilitation — but above all, it’s human connection. Cold swimming liberates us from urban conditioning, teaches the body new limits, and connects people with nature and others in a way that is grounding, and in my opinion necessary for all humans to feel alive.