Cold-Water Swimming: A Story on Breaking Habits
© Fermin Rodriguez Penelas
I was invited to a podcast. Whilst off air preparing with my host Jonathan, an exchange of pleasantries quickly turned into a conversation about the power of the mind.
Jonathan shared with me a fascinating story how cold-water swimming (freezing cold water dare I add!) helps him to overcome limitations. Read what Jonathan has to say about the power of the mind and how cold-water swimming has transformed his relationship with his mind and body. The following are his words.
My fascination with the power of the mind
A close family member has suffered from severe anxiety for years, to the extent where she is unable to leave the house. This close example of how the mind can create a limited reality, encouraged me to explore my own limitations.
On the weekend of my 47th birthday under the self-impression that we tend to take less risks as we get older, I did an experiment to “reset” my personal interpretation of risk and did a bungee jump from the Verzasca dam in Ticino, Switzerland. It’s 220m high and considered one of the highest bungee jumps in the world. The actual experience was incredibly frightening, however the toughest was walking up the steps and stepping off the podium, which overhangs the dam. Diving off the podium into thin air required an inner belief that all would be fine and an inner mental fight against the logical part of me which was screaming out that I was going to die!
I started to prepare, the week before, every day. I dived-off a stone pier into Lago Maggiore, which was 15 degrees Celsius, using a visualisation technique, imagining I was stepping off the bungee jump podium. This unexpected preparation event subconsciously planted a seed for me to do cold water swimming.
Life then took several personal twists and turns. I had forgotten about cold-water swimming. Unexpectedly the idea returned out of nowhere, when I was doing my regular podcast show with another guest. Mark Hardie and myself were exploring building habits and challenged each other to start new habits before Christmas, which is usually the toughest time to start a new habit. The nights are becoming darker, the days colder, and our instincts are to hibernate, sleep and rest. I promised I would do cold water swimming in the cold and dark Lake Zurich waters.
The sapling – the experience of a newbie!
In the spirit of habit-building which is what this is, I quickly realised the importance of preparation both practical, such as the kit readiness, and mentally, visualising driving to the lake and entering the water.
The day had arrived! I wake up early. I make my tea. I feel nervous while driving to the lake. It’s clear to me I need to relax. I breathe deeply and slowly into my lower abdomen. My heart rate lowers preventing hyperventilation upon entering the water.
I am hit with a pivotal moment as I stand at Lake Zurich shore. Should I stay or should I go? Once in my shorts, at below zero degrees, the air temperature starts to bite my skin. My body rapidly cools down.
I walk bare feet across the gravel which causes me pain. I enter the water very slowly, one step at a time. With a sharp intake of breath, I take the plunge but only up to my neck. By now my breathing is rapid but I know I must slow down my heart rate. I consciously swim and breathe slowly on my back. I take in the view and the sensation of the cold water on my body. It’s a profound moment. But within several seconds my skin burns and my toes and fingers are starting to get numb. My body feels sluggish. I feel the cold penetrating deeper into my body and yet, at the same time, all the tension in my body disappears. Finally, I am feeling relaxed and even calm and I can focus on the sensation of the water on my body. And suddenly there is another sensation. I notice the freshness of the cold air entering through my nostrils. The strangest experience takes place, a kind of apathy and almost numbness, which I now know is dangerous. I don’t want to get out of the water! I shock myself into action and deliberately immerse my head under the water.
Now it’s time to get out of the water, quickly. The biting cold air on my skin and the early morning sun warming my body give me a short but powerful 30 seconds of deep bliss. By now my skin is so red and sore that I must dry myself delicately yet speed is critical. I quickly dress. I prioritise head, feet, and hands. These are areas in our bodies which emit the most heat. Here, our bodies have many nerve endings and are very sensitive.
I am desperate to get into the car. The last few metres I run. My breathing is much more rapid and difficult to control yet, strangely it warms my body.
The heating is on full blast. I warm my hands on the cup of tea I prepared earlier, inhaling the steam, and drinking it quickly. Holding the tea, drinking the tea, feeling its warmth inside my body is a savouring moment.
My body is still shaking, and my muscles flexing. It’s a weird sensation; it’s like a spasm. This makes me conscious of every single muscle in my body from my toes, calves, back and neck. I tense and stretch to ensure the body is circulating well. After several minutes I feel focused and alert. I start my drive home.
Even though this may seem like a lonely expedition, it is the contrary. There is a community of people who have discovered the joy and benefits of cold-water swimming. We have quick chats passing each other getting in and out of the lake. No long conversations! My friend Mark Hardie from the podcast and I hold each other accountable for our new mutual habits by checking in and supporting each other. This really helps when the going gets tough.
I’m immersing myself in nature, obtaining early morning sunlight which is great for the circadian rhythm. With the cold-water swimming, I’m burning a significant number of calories every day. I’m enjoying the mental and physical challenge of creating a new habit. As a result, other new, positive habits are making inroads into my daily life. My energy levels are now more consistent. I notice I’m much more resilient to the cold during the rest of the day and can spend longer time outside without being affected. Plus, I enjoy the shock to the body and mind in the morning – it does give a dopamine boost – what a way to wake up!
Importantly the experience gives me a greater appreciation of what the body and mind are capable of doing. I’ve noticed I’m more likely to say yes to taking on new experiences and risks.
Whether we believe it or not, we are constrained by the stories we tell ourselves. What we believe is right or wrong in essence defines our value system. What we tell ourselves we can or can’t do, becomes the life we live.
Why not go and give cold-water swimming a go, dipping your toe in the water and see where your mind takes you?!
Cold-water swimming has an intense impact on the body and must be approached slowly and carefully and ideally with a “buddy” who can be with you and look after you especially in the earlier days. Please check with a doctor or physician if you have underlying illnesses or ailments which would prevent you from doing such an activity.
Jonathan’s top 10 tips for cold-water swimming:
- Check out your physical condition first.
- Start slowly with your feet and legs, for a short time, no diving.
- Bring warm clothes for after immersion – you’ll need them.
- Use an old yoga mat to change on – we lose a significant amount of heat through our feet.
- Take a buddy, especially for the first few times, until you feel comfortable.
- Over a long time, you can work up to a maximum of one minute per one degree Celsius of water temperature.
- Take herbal tea / hot drinks, not caffeine to warm up.
- Ensure you have somewhere to warm up afterwards close by – a car, house.
- Do some exercise 10-15 minutes, to warm up the core – I do rowing and / or yoga – choose whatever suits you best.
- Eat and drink plenty after the circulation has recovered, after about 30 minutes.
P.s. And here are the 2 podcasts between Jonathan and myself. In part 1, we explore how we can create a sense of safety and security within ourselves in a world full of chaos and unpredictability. We also discuss the importance of awareness and how inner-balance makes room for new thought patterns and opportunities. In part 2, we explore feelings of connectedness and how letting go of the reliance and image of our construct (our identity) leads to more peace and harmony.
Stay warm and welcome new habits,
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About Jonathan, my guest for this article:
When Jonathan is not underwater, professionally you will find him lecturing, podcasting, or consulting. He lives in Zurich, Switzerland.
I love writing about wellbeing, self love, consciousness, healing, and anything else on the journey to peace and inner harmony.