I swam through ice three weeks after giving birth. I wondered, momentarily, if it was possible to freeze breast milk in your own body. I wondered, briefly, if my uterus might shrivel up and fall out. I wondered, frankly, if I still had it in me. And yet, afterwards I felt happier, more clear-headed and warmer of heart than I had for weeks.
The question – as with all things that give us a rush of adrenaline, take effort, force us outdoors and push us into severe discomfort – is: should I be doing this? Is it safe? Is it advisable? Is it good for me? With half a heart we roar for the answer to be yes, the confirmation that will fling us out into the bright, sharp edge of our ability, to surprise ourselves. Yet simultaneously, and just as strongly, we hope the answer will be no; that we will be warned back into the cosy warmth of what we know, what comes easily and what won’t require standing in the howling wind with nothing but our pubes for warmth.
Is cold water good for you? Well, it depends how it is administered, how often and under what circumstances. For those with heart conditions, asthma or compromised immune systems, cold-water swimming may well be a stress too far on your body, and certainly something worth discussing with a GP before you start. But I’ve spent many months working as a lifeguard at the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath, where I regularly watched women in their 70s, 80s, even 90s climb down the duck-cluttered ladder into the cold, velvet brown water and glide effortlessly across the surface. I am therefore inclined to believe that, when it comes to our bodies – the muscles and bones, the hormones and heartbeats that keep us going – cold water does us the opposite of harm.
A report published in the BMJ Case Reports last month seems to indicate that cold-water immersion can improve postoperative pain and mobilisation outcomes. Standing around on the muddy banks of a river, on a windswept beach or in the mottled-thigh changing room of the ponds, I have often heard like-minded swimmers swap theories about how endorphins, increased heart rate, the burning of calories, improved circulation and the sheer act of getting out and wet and cold has kept them healthy.
The real good of cold water, however, flows not just through our bones but in our hearts and minds. Purely anecdotally, swimming outdoors in all weathers seems to kick a huge range of mental health issues squarely in the nuts. Solace in grief, the silencing of anxiety, a chink in the fog of depression and a splashing off of loneliness: men and women without number have told me how they have seen a significant and lasting improvement to their emotional and psychological health after taking up cold-water swimming. Perhaps it’s the release of serotonin and dopamine, perhaps bringing your physical body into an extreme state allows your mental discontent to take a temporary back seat, perhaps it’s the therapeutic benefits of swimming beside ducks and under branches.
If you can do it regularly enough to become acclimatised, cold water is like the bite of an apple, the clear song of a bird, the shine of silver on your body and lightning through your brain. It silences tension, burns your skin with frozen euphoria and leaves you feeling like a viking, like a wet-haired warrior, like a steam-breathing dragon. Throughout the winter I swim outdoors, in the cold, at least once a week. If you have similar intentions then the best way to start is by simply letting a summer swim habit bleed on into autumn, then the ember months and simply see how long you can go.
Neoprene gloves and boots have made all the difference to me, as sluggish circulation often left me fumbling with my knickers using wax-white, useless fingers. A good towel, a thermos and a snack will all help you recover through the chattering and goosepimpled chills afterwards. Also, do it in company – the social element to cold-water swimming is as beneficial as that of your physical or mental health. Even if you can’t find a volunteer to get in with you, make sure you have someone to hold your towel if you’re going in the sea, a river or anywhere else that may prove risky.
Finally, cold water, like schnapps, sprinting or a visit to your family, is a treat best appreciated only in short bursts. I keep to a 50-stroke maximum in the winter, often far, far less. This week, as I clocked up three months since giving birth, I found myself crunching through snow on a Yorkshire hillside, beside a friend who pushed out her own baby just seven weeks earlier. There we were, in the bright, biting white of a February morning, surrounded by ice, snow and rocks, stripping down to our underwear as our partners stood on a bridge overhead, holding the babies. As we both slipped under the brown, tumbling, ice melt, pushing our mothering-soft arms and milk-heavy breasts out towards the waterfall, we hollered, sighed and turned our faces to the sky. It felt like living, like healing, like pure joy. In short, it felt pretty damn good for you.
• Nell Frizzell is a freelance journalist