I stripped down to my bikini and gingerly stepped into the 48-degree water. The wool hat, puff jacket, running jacket, long sleeve shirt, stretch pants and running shoes with thick socks that I had been wearing just a minute before were resting on frozen drift wood atop a pebble beach. Fog hovered over the water. A lone duck paddled through the crystal-clear icy waters and disappeared into the fog. This was the Puget Sound in December, Washington State’s coldest month.
My first cold water swim had been almost exactly 2 months earlier, on October 8th, 2017, in the San Francisco Bay with water temperatures somewhere between 58-60 degrees. Every week or two, throughout my house-sitting travels up and down the west coast, I’d join my brother, his girlfriend, and sometimes others, in a 10-minute swim, followed by a good amount of time in a sauna. I finally drummed up enough courage for a 30-minute swim the week of Thanksgiving, when the water temp was 55. In water this cold, it’s not the distance you swim, but the conditions (water temp, tides, wind, sea life), and the time you spend in it, that’s most important. There’s no comparing a 30-minute mile long swim in a pool to an open water swim in frigid conditions. It would be the equivalent of comparing a walk on a paved road in 70-degree weather to an all-out sprint through ice and mud, uphill, in freezing temperatures. Your body chemistry reacts differently (due to its fight or flight reflexes being triggered), you burn exponentially more calories, but more importantly: you feel changed (for the better) afterwards. I listed the health benefits in an earlier blog post: Cold Water Swimming May Be the New Cure-All, and I mentioned how happy the people who swim every day in cold water are, but I hadn’t experienced the zest for life that these people had yet. And now I have.
Let’s be clear, I don’t typically like to be cold. My apartment in New York was usually set around 70 degrees or higher if I had anything to do with it. And I bundled up at even the slightest indication of a chill in the air. I also used to get sick all the time.
The odd thing is, the more you expose yourself to colder conditions, the easier it is to handle the cold (this is actually due to the blood vessels in the skin being trained to react faster). It even becomes somewhat enjoyable.
Scott Carney mentions in his book, a study of ‘Iceman’ Wim Hof’s techniques, What Doesn’t Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength, that auto immune diseases are likely a result of the human body living in consistent favorable conditions. We no longer have to run for our lives from predators or live nearly naked in the bare elements during an ice age like our ancestors- which is what our body is designed to handle. Instead, we live at a constant 70-75 degrees for the most part, no matter what time of year it is. From the house to the car to the office, from the mall to the restaurant to the movies. Without the stress from external elements attacking us, internal elements appear to be breaking us down.
My brother has Raynaud’s Disease, which is brought on by cold and causes the veins in toes and fingers to vasospasm, or restrict blood flow. Fingers will turn white prematurely in cold weather, or simply from clutching an ice-cold drink. Warming them up can be the painful part, when the extremities turn blue, then red, before returning to normal. As contradictory as it may sound, his symptoms have disappeared since he started cold water immersion. Others, with rheumatoid arthritis, skin problems like eczema and acne, cellulite, high blood pressure, depression, and even pre-diabetic symptoms, claim they’ve found their cure through cold water immersion as well. In Carney’s book, he interviews a man, Hans Spaans, who claims to have reversed Parkinson’s disease by using Wim Hof’s breathing techniques and cold immersion. It’s allowed him to have nearly twice as many ‘good’ hours in a day with a reduction in medicine. He appears to have reverted to a stage in the disease he was at years prior, unheard of for this illness.
I spent last week swimming every day off the beach in Santa Barbara’s 61-degree water (bath water, right?). Surrounded by bottlenose dolphin one day and watched by 2 sea lions just 10ft away on another, I’d swim about 30 minutes along the shoreline, under waves and around seaweed, mainly freestyle. I’d come out with frozen stiff hands and feet. Tugging my running stretch-pants back on, tying my shoe laces, and zipping up my running jacket was arduous due to my ‘claw’ hands as they call it (which is what happens when they get so cold they become stiff), but after running 2 miles back to my house and sitting in a hot bath, I would walk away feeling the best I could ever remember feeling. Mentally sharp and filled with elation and purpose, I would sit down to a large breakfast and hot cup of coffee. The buzz would last most of the day and I’d look forward to my next day’s icicle experience.
So here I am, just a week later, returning from a short 6-minute 48-degree swim in the Puget Sound. I’m living in a beautiful setting on Bainbridge Island and exposing myself to extreme cold immersion just to continue this routine while I still have cold water access. The air temps outside range from 35-45, but I’m now rarely cold. I keep the house thermostat down to 59 and feel comfortable. Just 2 months before, I may have gone into a full-blown panic with the thought of living in these conditions. Now, it’s a badge of honor and commitment- and oddly, I can’t imagine feeling better.