Swimming is one of the most practiced endurance sports in the world and swimming in open water is becoming increasingly popular, so we want to explain the benefits of swimming in cold water. Swimming in the natural environment “openwater swimming” or swimming in open water, is more than practicing an outdoor sport, it is a complex multisensory experience with lifeguard class.
What is swimming in cold waters?
Being able to obtain benefits in water at a higher temperature, to take advantage of the benefits of cold water, a reference temperature is established below 15º. Given individual sensitivity and the loss of body heat (hypothermia) that can already be experienced with water below 35º, the concept of cold water can have multiple interpretations. But swimming in cold water should not be confused with swimming in icy water. Swimming in ice water as a sports discipline establishes that the water must be below 5º, but we are not talking about this extreme modality in this post.
When you swim in open and cold waters, with all the protection measures: safety buoy, near the shore or/and under the supervision of another person…, you experience sensations of immersion in nature. If channeled well, they offer a great amount of physical, psychic and emotional benefits*.
Benefits of swimming in cold water
Swimming in cold water is a very stressful stimulus for the body, this causes a series of physiological responses that can be beneficial in a controlled way. This requires that it be practiced by people in good health, progressively, regularly and adjusted to the climatological characteristics of the environment and to individual sensitivity.
It is necessary to differentiate the physiological changes that are caused acutely by body immersion for a specific time in cold water, from the adaptations that repeated swimming in cold water causes in the health of the swimmer.
- Cardiovascular system
Strengthens the heart and improves vascular tone and elasticity. Decreased triglycerides and homocysteine , high levels are related to cardiovascular diseases.
- Immune system:
Greater resistance to diseases and infections, especially lower incidence (40% lower) , in the case of upper respiratory tract infections. Several studies confirm the significant increase in leukocytes (neutrophilic granulocytes, lymphocytes and monocytes) and immunoglobulins in the blood after exposure to cold water. This argues for the greater protection against respiratory infections and an improvement in the anti-inflammatory response .
- Endocrine system
Several hormones react to cold as a stressful stimulus: norepinephrine, catecholamines, insulin, thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and cortisol. Norepinephrine and beta endorphins reduce the perception of pain, the concentration of catecholamines and cortisol are reduced as the body adapts to cold.
Swimming in cold water has a positive effect on insulin metabolism by improving insulin sensitivity . In addition, energy expenditure shoots up in proportion to the drop in water temperature. This happens due to heat loss by conduction and the appearance of chilling thermogenesis.
- At the cognitive and psychic level:
It increases the secretion of neurotransmitters such as endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, which improve mood, allowing an increase in memory, cognitive abilities and coordination. It combats depression by activating the sympathetic nervous system by increasing catecholamines, norepinephrine, and β-endorphins. The release of β – endorphins creates a state of well-being.The hydrostatic pressure exerted by the water on the submerged body produces a considerable increase in blood circulation in the brain, specifically 14% more. This is achieved in a vertical position, for example the one adopted when swimming breaststroke, with the water to the neck, without putting the head in the water. This greater blood flow, in addition to favoring neuronal connections, helps our brain to be healthier.
The increase in blood flow to the brain, in addition to helping to improve mood, increases clarity and creativity, contributes to better cognition and facilitates learning.
- In this sense, swimming in cold water in a controlled way, with the security measures and the adaptation and progression to the exposure that is required, would allow us to take advantage of its many effects for our benefit.
- Follow a progressive protocol regarding exposure time and exposure to lower temperatures.
- Do not dive abruptly, avoid thermal differential shock by wetting your extremities, face, body and submerging yourself progressively.
- If you feel bad or you do not feel strong enough, do not practice it.
- The benefits can be obtained with temperatures above 15º and below it it will be the individual tolerance that determines when swimming ceases to be “pleasant” or is worth practicing. Perhaps it is time to stop swimming in such cold waters and wait for them to come back next spring.
- In waters below 16º-17º I advise you to swim with a wetsuit and in any case, when you finish, try swimming for a few minutes without it.