Most people look forward to their first swim of the season sometime in July, when the sun is blazing down, and the ice and snow are long gone. For cold-water swim enthusiast Tom Swales, any time of year is good for a dip.
The 43-year-old physiotherapist discovered the pleasures and health benefits of the cold-water plunge when he began researching ways to increase his mood, energy levels, and overall performance after his kids were born. He soon came across the legendary Dutch athlete Wim Hof, also known as “The Iceman.”
Hof has set world records for feats like swimming under ice and running barefoot in the snow. Swales doesn’t go to those extremes, but has developed his own cold-water routine, which includes daily cold showers, twice-weekly lake swims, and dips in an outdoor cold water immersion bath at his home. He dips for about three to five minutes per session.
His first cold water swim was at his cottage on Three Mile Lake in Muskoka, and it remains his favourite spot for sinking into waters that at their iciest can hover just above zero degrees. He also enjoys early spring plunges in Kempenfelt Bay on Lake Simcoe once the ice breaks up.
“In addition to reducing inflammation and strengthening the mind, it changes the threshold of how you respond to certain stressors,” says Swales.
Does every cold-water enthusiast find it easy to overcome the natural human resistance to discomfort? “It sucks going in every single time, no matter how much you do it,” he laughs. “But you get addicted to the feeling you have after, the calmness and the increased energy. That’s what you start to look forward to. It’s about enduring that temporary suffering for the long-term gains.”
While the claims about health benefits are widespread, Swales advises caution when first taking up the practice. Just as you would when starting a new exercise regimen, pacing and conditioning are crucial.
Easing into it helps newbies to avoid dangerous shocks to the cardiac system, along with the hypothermia that can result from staying submerged for too long. He recommends taking cold showers to begin as an easy way to acclimatize the body, followed by short submersions of hands and feet.
“You want to progress slowly. You don’t just want to jump into a cold lake; you can actually cause a big shock to the body and cause other problems.”
Novices can also connect with cold water swimming clubs, such as the Muskoka Cold Water Dips group.
Christine Ellard is a member of Muskoka Cold Water Dips. The semi-retired bookkeeper grew up in Muskoka, and had done some Polar Bear dips and swam in cold water in Patagonia “because you don’t have a choice there,” she laughs. About two years ago, she got her first taste of icy water bliss in the Muskoka River and was hooked.
She used to dive right into any body of water, but at 57 the Bracebridge resident now finds deep pleasure in wading in, fully feeling the burn of icy river water and the transcendent calm she says comes on soon after. Like Swales, she does not aspire to the extremes suggested by Wim Hof, although she does enjoy longer swims of up to twenty minutes in more temperate seasons. In winter, an ice hole at a local boat launch facilitates dipping sessions of three to five minutes.
In addition to using cold water submersion as a deeply meditative practice that allows her to feel “A calm connection to nature that is just pure bliss,” Ellard says there have been health benefits as well. When she caught Covid-19 and had a fever of 102, time spent in the icy river brought her fever down and offered relief from the uncomfortable symptoms caused by the virus.
Cold water therapy also alleviates the pain caused by a recent motorcycle accident that left Ellard with various injuries including whiplash. “I dipped 150 days in a row last year. Now I actually go every single day. If I don’t go it’s because for some reason it really isn’t possible. I feel like it’s become part of my daily routine. Without it, I just don’t feel the same.”
In super cold seasonal conditions, she says that focus shifts to the self-care required to warm up after a dip, which connects her deeply with her own body. “When I come out of the water, I feel like I have conquered the world. I feel strong, like I can do anything.”
Another excellent reason for cold water training that Ellard points to is safety. While many fear cold water, she feels that if people could build more tolerance for it, events such as falling through ice might prove less catastrophic. Being able to calm oneself in extreme temperatures could reduce the panic that often worsens the situation for the person who has fallen through.
More than anything, though, both Swales and Ellard say their passion for cold water dipping is all about how good it makes them feel – both during the plunge and after.
ARTICLE BY MARNIE WOODROW