Getting Started with Cold-Water Swimming
Multidisciplinary artist Jessica Lynn Wiebe shares her love of hydrotherapy and offers advice to those who crave the mental and physical benefits of a very chilly swim.
Text & photos—Jessica Lynn Wiebe
In 2020 I found myself swimming later and later into the fall. The colder the water became, the more I craved it. I continued to swim through winter and have not stopped since!
This practice has become a form of meditation. To do it, I have to be present. I focus on my breath as I submerge my body into the water, and as my breathing settles I experience a sense of calm that can otherwise be hard to find.
It takes me out of my head and brings me directly into my body. Stepping out of the water, I always feel strong and rejuvenated.
Cold-water therapy — or hydrotherapy — is the practice of using water below 15 °C to treat health conditions or to stimulate health benefits. This activity exists in the margins because it is difficult to endure or tolerate. However, when you accept discomfort, you can go beyond your limits and obtain many physical and mental benefits, to heal the body and calm the mind.
Ice baths have been practised for a very long time, but lately the practice has seen a resurgence, thanks in part to so many people around the world sharing photos and videos of themselves bathing in frozen lakes and frigid ocean waters. Many of those have been inspired by the Dutch motivational speaker and athlete Wim Hof, whose popular method of cold exposure involves breath work, yoga, and meditation.
Cold exposure is particularly popular with athletes because it has been shown to reduce inflammation, swelling, and soreness, and to boost recovery after exercise. But the appeal is even broader. Scientists have found evidence that cold exposure speeds up metabolism and delivers a big bump in dopamine. It’s also linked to better sleep, greater focus, and improved immune response.
I gain a profound respect and unwavering gratitude for nature every time I surrender to its cold embrace. I have become attuned to the physical and mental challenges of this practice. However, there is always a split-second moment, right before my toes touch the water, where I have to push myself through an invisible barrier; a passage between comfort and discomfort.
Yes, cold-water immersion is uncomfortable. Yes, it might seem a little extreme. Yes, there are other ways I can embrace discomfort. But this way works for me.
The lessons I learn from the water help me embrace discomfort in everyday decisions and experiences, small and big.
The most beautiful part of cold plunging regularly is the opportunity to witness up close the changes to the land through the seasons. Especially at the start of winter, I love watching the first delicate layer of ice form along the shoreline, then expand and grow, thicken and solidify, and slowly crawl to the centre of the lake. The temperature fluctuates through the winter in Nova Scotia, and when the weather warms and it rains, the water puddles over the ice. Then, when the temperatures drop, it gradually turns to slush and unhurriedly the surface hardens and a new layer of ice is formed. On the really windy and stormy days, the layers of ice get pushed and stacked into further layers along the shore.
Even though it has many healing capabilities, nature is wild and it is not going to protect you. I love to remind myself of this when I hike and swim in wild places. Like nature, we are strong and we are delicate. You have to be aware, present, and prepared.
Getting started in three simple steps
Caution: Those who are ill or who suffer from cardiovascular disease should refrain from ice bathing!
- Prioritize safety. As more and more people get into cold immersion, it is important to remind everyone to set the ego aside and be safe above all else. It is not about how long you stay in the water, it is about being present and listening to your body. Research how cold affects the body — see further resources at the bottom of this article — and make a concrete plan for protecting yourself.
- Learn some breathing techniques. Wim Hof proposes a method that entails 30 or 40 short, powerful breaths, a long hold, and then a recovery breath. He offers this technique as a way of regulating the nervous system and maintaining control in extreme conditions.
- Start to build your tolerance slowly by adding 30 seconds of cold water to the end of your regular shower. It is recommended to start lake or ocean swimming in other seasons than winter, when the water is chilly but not frozen, so you are ready when the temperatures really begin to drop.
Whether the water is chilly, cold, or covered in ice, here are some more tips and tricks that I follow and have learned along the way:
- Never go alone. Always go with a friend, even if they’re simply watching from the shore.
- Pay close attention to the weather. Some days I show up and it is absolutely not safe to dip, so I don’t!
- Have a safe entry and exit plan. Know the water you are dipping in: rips, tides, currents, etc.
- Wear a toque, gloves, and booties or wool socks. Many people wear neoprene gloves and booties. I like to wear wool socks in my booties as an added layer of protection.
- Keep it short! Beginners should stay in the water only briefly.
- Pack a towel and loose warm layers that are easy to put on after, especially because the fingers get numb and you may lose some dexterity. I have a towel robe that I throw on when I get out of the water. It dries me off and protects my skin from cold winds while I get dressed.
- Bring a thermos with a hot drink to help warm up!
- Beware of the wind chill and frostbite. Always have a plan where you can easily dry off and get dressed quickly OR have a location where you can dip and have your vehicle close by to hop into after.
- Just breathe! Focus on your breath to calm the body and mind. When you observe the breath it will automatically begin to slow down. In the cold water it usually takes 45 to 60 seconds to settle. This will vary for everyone.
- Do not compare your immersion to others. This is your practice.
Moving up to the deep freeze
Once you’ve trained yourself to tolerate chilly waters, you’re ready to start trying icy dips. As the ice forms, however, you need to focus on your entry strategy.
Cold plunging is exciting, and I always look forward to the sheer adventure of how I will physically get into the water. Before I dip, I consider the weather forecast. When the ice is thin, I use a hatchet to clear a path in from the shore. As the weather gets colder and the ice thicker, I upgrade to a sledgehammer, until the day I show up and the ice is too thick. At that point I need to call in support from my good friend to bring his chainsaw to cut a hole in the ice. From there I continue to maintain the hole and brave the changing weather conditions — with respect!
There are three essential safety rules to keep in mind when you’re dealing with ice:
- Always know how thick the ice is and cut a hole close to shore where you can easily touch the ground.
- DO NOT jump through the ice. If you go through it is hard to see where the actual hole is open from underneath.
- Do not cut a hole where there is moving water underneath.
We are very lucky here in Nova Scotia to have beautiful, accessible lakes, but the ocean is also a great option because it never freezes. But if there is a storm surge warning or I do not think it is safe, I just won’t dip that day. I can’t stress how important it is to maintain a healthy fear of the water. Let go of the ego. And as Wim Hof says, don’t force!
At the end of the day you will find your own reasons for taking the plunge into icy water. This practice offers many things for many people. Chat with experienced cold plungers. Join a local group for safety and that all-important camaraderie. There is such an amazing community out there — reach out and get connected!
Here are some more useful resources to look at when you’re getting ready to start your cold-water adventures:
Jessica Lynn Wiebe is an interdisciplinary artist whose approach investigates the mechanisms of war, drawing from her experience as a former soldier in the Canadian military. Recently, she has been developing work centred on the environment and the physical body through photography and video. She currently practices in K’jipuktuk/Halifax, NS.