Winter Swims, or Cryo ?

Christmas Eve dip
Christmas Eve dip with the Wirral Coast Adventurers. (photo: Chris Shaw)

Before you start reading….
Open water winter swims and dips can be dangerous if you are not following strict safety rules. Only attempt it with a group of experienced cold water swimmers. Thank you for listening.

‘So, what is it like?’, people ask.

A few days before Christmas, and we’d already had some frosty mornings, some cold winds and lashing rain, the kind that feels like pinpricks, and by now the water had dropped to 6°C.

Strangely, this question has replaced ‘You nutter!’, which was more common in October and November. But it’s only now, wading at 6.35am in a pitch black water whilst a nasty Easterly made the dry part of my body and face tingle, that I’m thinking that perhaps those who called us nutters might have a point.

'We did it' selfie
‘We did it’ selfie, thank you Lesley!

Wading in and immersing myself is fine. I don’t think or hesitate. I just go in. On occasions, with a recent drop in water temperature, I’ve had to catch my breath, but still it’s fine. I actually like it. Perhaps a minute in, I experience pain in my forearms, when I don’t wear neoprene gloves. Later, the tingle starts. It’s strange, in the water I’m never able to judge how much time has passed… It tingles all over the body, and it’s not unpleasant, but it certainly grabs my attention. As the months go by, the tingle lessens though, and comes in later. I’m now able to stay in 5 degrees water for around 8 to 10 minutes, with gloves and socks.

Dawn swim in the Mersey, October 2019 (photo: Chris Shaw)
Dawn swim in the Mersey, October 2019 (photo: Chris Shaw)

After the tingle, I feel elated. Endorphins…. It’s the same with cryostimulation. I stay in the water, enjoy myself, look at the sky, the stars, or feel the chop splash on my face. I feel alive, joyful. When it tingles deep in my belly, or now it’s colder, sensation in my arms lessens, I know it’s time to get out…

Coming out of the water, the wind means nothing for a moment. Can’t feel the cold. Time to get dry and dressed. I have one of those fancy waterproof, fake sheep’s wool-lined coats, it’s been a real bonus.

I don’t stay in long enough to shiver, but it still takes me up to an hour and a half to warm up completely. A cycle or fast walk home helps, as does a hot cup of tea or two, and washing up breakfast dishes…

***

Group of pre-dawn swimmers in early January
Group of pre-dawn swimmers braving early January cold (photo: Chris Shaw)

It’s now nearly February, and I still go most mornings. The winter has been clement, it’s been relatively mild. But the getting up in the dark isn’t any easier!

So why do it?

I just love being in natural water. Floating around, the sky above, the smells and sounds, the light (or darkness and harbour and city lights)…
It’s just wonderful.

I get such a sense of achievement after each dip. Having overcome complacency and procrastination each morning to get out of bed, and having put in the necessary commitment to be able to swim in winter temperatures, brings me pride and joy.

The Saturday morning "shift" at the New Brighton marine lake.
The Saturday morning “shift” at the New Brighton marine lake. No facilities, just cold water and camaraderie (photo: Chris Shaw)

I really appreciate the camaraderie and new friends: it’s a cheery crowd that meets every week, and a good crew that comes weekdays. We look out for each other. The cold levels out any useless mind stuff, we’re in it together.

I’m very impressed by the health benefits too. Since having overcome the first chilly dips late September, I have not had any (autoimmune or leaky gut) flares but once, when I completely overexerted myself after eating unsuitable foods. My fitness level is improving, my aches and pains less, my moods are much higher, and I don’t feel cold like I used to. Note some of these benefits could be due to salt water earthing the body and rid it of static electricity, and to nutrients absorbed through the skin, as well as to thermal shock.

Localised Cryostimulation on the spine
Localised Cryostimulation on the spine, a holistic treatment with huge health benefits

And cryo in all that?
Despite providing cryo therapy, and because I do, I would thoroughly recommend to all my clients to join an experienced group and learn to acclimatise to cold water. The benefits are huge. Each in our group of swimmers has a story, whether newbie dipper like me or long distance sea swimmers of many years. Depression, ill health, mindset problems or sport performance… all improve dramatically within a few weeks.

However, there are major differences between outdoor swimming and localised cryostimulation treatments. Cold water swimming cannot be a complete substitute for cryo. In fact, they are excellent complementaries:

Massage after cryo: a turbocharged treatment, boosting the effect of both
Massage after cryo: a turbocharged treatment, boosting the effect of both
  • cryo works on the principle of thermal shock. The cooling is extremely fast, and the shock on the nervous system all the greater for it.
  • to get a thermal shock, water has to be cold enough, and no more than single figure temperatures. This is not the case all year round.
  • dipping is a whole body experience, and can be uncomfortable and cause considerable stress on the heart. Localised cryostimulation only cools a small area of the body, making it a safe and for most people, relatively pleasant experience.
  • swimming can be dangerous. Cryo is safe all year round.
  • both cryo and swimming require commitment, of a different kind: swimming or dipping requires discipline and much perseverance, as well as a love of open water. Aside the benefits, it is a pursuit in itself. It requires a willingness to learn about the dangers, particularly high on Merseyside, and to take a calculated risk each time you dip. It takes willingness to put the hours in to gradually acclimitise to having your entire body immersed in the cold.
    Whereas cryo, rather than a pursuit, is a means to an end – getting well and staying well, relaxing mind and body, tackling chronic health issues. It necessitates a plan for improving health and fitness, time and money, and the willingness to make the first appointment.
  • it takes a long time to warm up after a dip in winter (it takes me around an hour), whereas it takes the body a maximum of 15 to 20 minutes to get quite hot after a cryo. It’s the power of cryostimulation extreme temperature shock that also triggers the fast re-heating of the body.
  • there is no cosy room and friendly therapist on the beach carpark to give you a warm oil massage after the dip….
    Warm oil massage takes thermal shock therapy to another level, making it an all-powerful treatment. The cryo does the deep work in mechanically difficult to reach places like joints, and prepares the body to receive a firmer massage.

As the seasons go by, the early morning dips take place just as dawn becomes visible. Folks are starting to train seriously now to do long open water swims round the Wirral coast. Pool sessions, running… Things I would never have considered fun. But, as I feel my body getting stronger, I think I might join in.
In the mean time, being out in the water, directly under the sky, often at an unholy hour, still works its magic every day.

Saturday morning New Brighton
Saturday morning New Brighton (photo: Siân Evans?)

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