Introduction to Cool Swimming

Breaking the ice for a cold dip at Tooting Bec Lido sometime in the 1920s. SLSC photograph.

Breaking the ice for a cold dip at Tooting Bec Lido sometime in the 1920s. SLSC photograph.

Cool Swimming looks at the relationship between cold water swimming and general well-being. It presents the results of research with over 300 participants in the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships 2013. There is also an overview of current academic research, a history of cold water therapy and tips on swimming safely.

Members of South London Swimming Club have been swimming year round since soon after Tooting Bec Lido opened in 1906. Because there used to be so many older swimmers, the belief grew that cold water was the key to a longer and healthier life. Then someone pointed out that only survivors live to tell the story and if you swim during winter you probably have a pretty strong constitution.

But even in Roman times, they were talking about the health benefits of a cold dip. We reprint the article Cold Cures and Warm Hearts (page 31) from the March 2002 edition of Positive Health Magazine. It sketches out the history of cold water therapy and highlights some of the reported benefits for conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis through to arthritis and the common cold.

A quick dash across the pool on an autumn morning.

A quick dash across the pool on an autumn morning.

In recent times, a number of formal academic research reports have also identified positive outcomes from cold water swimming (Academic Studies page 22).  A study in Finland found that winter swimming in moderation seems to improve general well-being. Another in Germany suggests it can help create more ‘brown fat’ which makes it easier for the body to burn off ‘body fat deposits’ and reduce risk of heart disease.

But until recently no-one had really asked the swimmers. As founders and organisers of the biennial UK Cold Water Swimming Championships, South London Swimming Club (SLSC) decided to dive in and poll competitors on the whys and wherefores. Some 300 participants at the 2013 championships took part. Their views provide an interesting addition to the limited body of writing on this subject.

One of those surveyed, described the practice of cold water swimming as an ‘oddball’ pursuit. It certainly used to be but gradually it seems to be entering the mainstream. An increased interest in swimming, triathlon and the elemental pleasure of ‘wild swimming’, allied to the capability to share this enthusiasm with others via social media, is driving steady growth in cold water swimming.

This is a big change from when I first started swimming at Tooting Bec in the middle of the 1980s. Lidos were being closed and only a few hardy souls swam through the winter. Not surprising given that there seemed no sense in, or demand for, keeping an unheated pool open during the winter. Even in summer, people were wary of the cold water.

Then the Club had maybe 60 members and had to fight a hard campaign to keep the Lido open year round. The great worry was that if it closed during the winter it might never open again. The pool was built by the unemployed of Wandsworth and the goal of the campaign was to maintain the tradition of winter swimming at the Lido and in doing so to preserve the legacy of these working men for future generations.

The campaign succeeded and out of it evolved a community partnership with the local council and pool operators that has enabled Tooting Bec Lido and the South London Swimming Club to go from strength to strength. And underpinning the long term sustainability is the fact that from the start, the campaign was not just about one Lido but all Lidos and the promotion of outdoor swimming.

One of the hats at the 2013 UK Cold Water Swimming Championships which now attracts over 600 swimmers

One of the hats at the 2013 UK Cold Water Swimming Championships which now attracts over 600 swimmers

Now some 30 years on, over 600 swimmers take part in the over-subscribed biennial UK Cold Water Swimming Championships. And Club membership is well over 1,300 members and growing. Not all of them swim through winter but the love of winter and the practice of cold water swimming has indeed spread throughout the land with more outdoor pools staying open during the winter.

And long may this trend continue! It’s cool swimming outdoors in autumn, winter and spring. Mind, body and spirit seem to benefit from being in touch with elements in a pure and uncompromising way. Zen Master Unmon could have been speaking for winter swimmers when he said, ‘every day is a good day!’

You can buy the book on Amazon. Read what the practitioners themselves have to say about cold water swimming and well-being  and if you like what you learn, go for a swim in the great outdoors. Its cool!

Blue cover of Cool Swimming book

Cool Swimming cover


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