Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Surviving winter, flu free, and how (I think) swimming in cold water may have had a helping hand...

It’s official; I’ve survived the whole of the winter without so much as a snivel. I can say this with confidence because the vernal equinox that marks the beginning of spring, after what feels like a really long and cold winter, has finally happened.

Most years I catch something or other, despite the fact that every year I take the same multiple precautions to reduce my odds. Precautions like: a daily dose of Berocca, 2 family members (both asthmatic) frog marched to the doctors for flu jabs, no going outside with wet hair, hand sanitizerers placed strategically around the house, including daily lectures for my poor, long suffering teens on regularly using them (no need to be sparing, I’ve literally bought a million bottles) and vetting anyone entering the house for any evidence of cold/flu symptoms and turning them away if necessary (I say vetting – it’s pretty much a lengthy questionnaire, and by the time they’ve filled it in, whilst still on the doorstep, I’m hoping they just don’t think we’re worth the visit, and come back some other time – like spring).

So what’s different about this year? It could be that my many precautions have finally paid dividends, however, there is one other thing that I did differently this winter, and that was to do some cold water swimming. Now I may well be clutching at straws here, as it may well just be coincidence, but hear me out...

At the end of the summer swimming season last year (usually October sometime depending on the water temperature), I decided to continue open water swimming through the winter. I have no idea why I wanted to carry on this year. I’m usually up for trying something different (although wild horses or the promise of a shed load of cash as an incentive would not get me sky diving). Before now once the water temperature has dropped to below a chilly 15oc my swim bud and I call it a day and head, back to the warmth of the overly hot pool and wait the winter out there, which is why, before I continued to swim open water, I armed myself with all that could go wrong, after all swimming in cold water can be dangerous. I did the research into the potential dangers. I read about cold shock. I read about hypothermia. I read about after drop and I completed a course, where I regularly swim, about the dangers of cold water and how your body responds and, armed with this sobering information, could be forgiven for changing my mind back again, hanging up my wetsuit and leaving well along until spring, however did not, and decided that I’d like to try it.

And I did. The thing that surprised me the most about swimming in cold water was how I felt, how energising it was. Yes my fingers and toes went numb, yes I felt my skin (the bits I could feel) was burning and yes once I got out I was shivering so hard my fillings were in danger of being dislodged and, one of my toes rather randomly went a delicate shade of puce (?), however I was also feeling quite euphoric, and I was not alone. At first I thought this might just a reaction, as I was so delighted to survive my first cold swim and actually enjoy it, but many of the folks sitting with me warming through, covered in various swim coats and all sporting layer upon layer of clothing and draped in hot water bottles, trying to drink hot drinks wearing gloves, without spilling it, were seasoned winter swimmers, also appeared to be enjoying it. Something must keep them coming back, after all, there are few folks that would get into bitterly cold water to risk cold shock and/or hypothermia and then to go through a lengthy and sometimes painful recovery afterwards, week after week, with no gain other than the guilt free slice of cake afterwards and a catch up with friends, when there are hundreds of cafes everywhere for that! And so this got me asking around, why do these people swim in cold water?

The answers were varying, but the common denominator was because they felt there were various health benefits, from it helping with pain relief to enhancing circulation, one fellow swimmer, who shall remain nameless (but you know who you are), was very keen to share their happy news of an increased libido, I suspect they were teasing me, but not willing to risk it I made up a feeblish excuse to leave whilst saying “how lovely” (First thing that came out. Why oh why did I say that?); one lady, Jaz, spoke with me quietly (and with her permission I’m sharing her story) and told me that she started swimming under the advisement of her doctor. A lengthy battle with depression had led to her overeating and subsequently becoming severely overweight. After a particularly difficult period of time, and along with the support of doctors and a therapist, Jaz decided she wanted to commit to trying again at life, she was ready to take back control, and break the cycle. She decided to do this through fitness, and at 23 stone she knew that swimming was the one exercise that would put her body under the least strain. Jaz began open water swimming a couple of years ago, and during that time she met and became firm friends with a lady who wanted to try cold water swimming, and so to support her friend, Jaz decided to give it a go rather than getting back in the pool for the winter. She told me that she noticed immediately how her mood had lifted when she was in the cold water, and afterwards. Surprised, she went on to do some research to see if there were any links between cold water swimming and depression. She added that cold water swimming had been, and still was an essential part of her recovery. Since that initial dip she has continued to swim throughout the year, and has even ditched her wetsuit to skins swim. She has since swum two Ice Miles (water under 5oc in skins). When I asked her why two? After all, one is an amazing achievement already, Jaz agreed, but pointed out that her first one was a year ago, when she was at her heaviest, and although she was successful, felt that she had cheated in some way as she was so heavy when she did it. She had wanted to prove that she could do it and, so in the interest of fairness, she swam another one this January, after an incredible 11 stone weight loss! (I’d also like to add to that, his amazing lady has also swum Windermere one-way, that’s a massive 10.5 miles, and competed in two IM’s!) She finished by saying “Cold swimming is a huge part of my toolkit and if I didn’t have it, I have no doubt I wouldn’t have made the progress I have.”

Once I got home I decided to search the Internet for some more facts. I found that there were tons of stories of an amazing variety of health benefits, both physical and mental, many more than I heard about earlier, that are well documented amongst swimmers, however when it came to any research or scientific evidence (due to lack of research rather than anything else) I found it to be rather thin on the ground. Despite this, I did find a glimmer of hope, which was a story, recently covered in several newspapers. They reported on a recent case study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) that tells of a man in chronic pain 10 weeks after surgery. After conventional drugs, physiotherapy and exercise failed to help, the man decided to go for an open water swim (he had been a triathlete prior to his surgery) to help take his mind off the pain, and after swimming in water at 10.5oc for just a minute his pain disappeared. Doctors were baffled and could come up with no other explanation. Although the BMJ were clear to point out that this was just one case, and that without further evidence they could not say whether it could be connected, but add that without any other explanation it could have helped.

What is amazing is that on the back of this case study experts at Cambridge University and the University of East Anglia are now calling for some research to investigate cold water therapy. Imagine if the findings are favourable? Not only for those that suffer chronic pain and many other health problems, but also for our struggling NHS. Other experts are also calling for a study into the effects of cold water on the human body, and some are already developing trials, and if it can be scientifically proven, what an amazing, and free, alternative to traditional medicine, with no side effects (with perhaps the exception of puce coloured toes) cold water immersion could be?

Something I read that really interested me was that one of the health benefits claimed by swimming in cold water is that it can improve your immune system, resulting in fewer illnesses. This winter’s figures from Public Health England show that the 2017-18 flu outbreak was the worst since 2010-11, despite 1.5 million more people having the flu jab since last year. This makes it makes it even more amazing that I have managed to avoid catching anything. You could argue of course that this was a happy coincidence, that it was just luck, or even good management (like buying the supermarket's whole supply of hand sanitisers) on my part, however you also couldn’t rule out the possibility that it could have been that I swam in cold water this winter... Here's hoping - and research pending!

Finally, I’d just like to add a safety sentence or two, or a warning if you prefer.
Cold water can be very dangerous. Please don’t just plunge in. Getting into cold water without the right advice and support, without putting too finer point on it, can lead to death (sorry to be blunt). Please, please seek medical guidance first, especially if you have an underlying health condition. Read all you can on the dangers first, and never swim alone, and please consider doing a course that tells you in very fine detail all that I’ve just said, and swim with people that know their stuff. I have added here the links to the blogs I wrote about cold shock and hypothermia to give you an idea.  



BMJ study

And finally still, if you enjoy reading my blogs you may also enjoy reading my first e-book, which was published earlier this year. It’s about my 2017 journey from surgery to swimming Windermere one way – and all the shenanigans in the middle- of which there were many – mostly involving a vivid imagination and/or cake… Here’s the link.


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