Ice swimming, cold plunging, ice baths…Whatever you call it, cold water swimming has exploded in popularity around the world. Self-improvement enthusiasts swear by the health benefits of taking a dip in bone chilling waters.

But are cold plunges actually safe? The short answer is yes, if you do it right! 

Let’s take a look at what happens to your body when you take an ice bath, the risks associated with it and how you can start your cold water swimming journey.

What Happens to Your Body When You Swim in Cold Water

As you probably know, swimming in cold water creates a host of sensations in the body. But what’s actually happening? Each time you swim in cold water, you will experience the following:

1. Cold Shock Response

Your first few seconds in cold water can be overwhelming for your brain and nervous system, resulting in a cold shock response:

Gasping for Air

When you first jump into chilly water, you might notice that it takes your breath away. You may gasp for air, or start hyperventilating. This can be dangerous because if you’re disoriented, you could inhale water. 

Related: What is Ice Swimming?

Do your best to control your breathing as you enter the water. Signal to your body that it’s safe and there’s no need to panic.

Increase in Heart Rate & Blood Pressure 

Your body – especially your heart – has to work overtime to maintain homeostasis when you submerge in cold water. If you have heart issues, talk to your doctor before doing any sort of cold plunge.

Burning Sensation

When you first submerge, the nerves in your skin will also sound alarm bells, signaling the body to pull blood in closer to your core to conserve heat and protect your vital organs. At first, you might feel a burning sensation in your limbs.

2. Adaptation

When you expose your body to cold water regularly, it will adapt and you’ll be able to handle longer durations and/or colder temperatures. You will likely also see a reduction in the severity of your cold shock response.

When you’re used to the cold, you won’t start shivering as quickly, and will be able to maintain better stroke technique as a result (for those of you wanting to do full-on ice swimming!).

This adaptation takes time, so be patient. Sometimes increasing your exposure just one minute at a time is what works best!

3. After Drop

Most people don’t realize that their body temperature will drop 30-45 minutes after they finish their cold plunge. This is called the “after drop,” and it can be dangerous if you aren’t prepared for it. 

When you get out of the water, your body temperature won’t go up right away. Instead, it may drop a few more degrees before your body is able to regulate it, resulting in extra shivers and chills well after you’re done swimming. 

Related: More Tips for Swimming in Cold Open Water

To combat this, get somewhere warm, wrap yourself up in warm clothes and sip on a hot beverage after your swims. If you’re really cold, take a hot shower. Don’t try to drive until your core body temperature has returned to normal.

4. Reheating

Once the after drop has passed, you aren’t totally out of the woods, though. It can take four to five hours for your body to fully reheat back to normal. 

If you find that you’re still cold hours after swimming, dress warm, drink warm liquids and take a hot shower or bath. 

Hypothermia: The Biggest Risk of Swimming in Cold Water

Swimming in freezing water comes with a few risks…hypothermia being the main concern. There are three phases of hypothermia:

Related: How I Fell in Love With Ice Swimming

  1. Shivering: Your body is trying to generate heat to warm up. 
  2. Weak Pulse & Slow Breathing: This is when it gets dangerous. You might feel lethargic as your body begins to shut down. 
  3. Absent Breathing & No Pulse: You are unconscious.

Oftentimes, swimmers don’t realize when hypothermia is setting in, so it’s important to swim or cold plunge with a buddy who knows the signs to look out for. 

  • Rigid Joints: You might notice a lack of coordination or motor control in your hands. You might swim with a claw hand, or not be able to move your hand out of a fist. 
  • Short Strokes: If you’re swimming, your technique will start to fall apart as you get colder and lose motor control.
  • Body Position: You will have a hard time maintaining good body position as your body shuts down. 
  • Slurred Speech: People with hypothermia have trouble speaking coherently.
  • Poor Information Recall: Hypothermia can affect memory as well. Someone with hypothermia may have trouble remembering what day it is, or other simple information.

Most swimmers aren’t the best judge of how cold they actually are. If you notice any of these signs in yourself or others while in cold water, it’s time to get out and warm up! It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Tips for Safely Swimming in Cold Water

If you’re ready to try cold water swimming, make sure you do it safely! Try these tips to make the most of your experience:

  • Swim in a Group: Never swim in cold water alone. Whether you have buddies who get in the water with you or friends who prefer to watch from the shore, make your cold water dips a group affair. 
  • Use Equipment to Stay Warm & Safe: Thermal wetsuits, booties, gloves and swim caps can keep you warm for longer swims. It’s also helpful to use an inflatable safety buoy for extra floatation and visibility in open water.  
  • Control Your Breathing: When you enter the water, focus on your breathing. Often, overcoming the cold is as much a mental game as it is physical. 
  • Get Warm as Soon as Possible: When you’re finished swimming, get out of your wetsuit and into dry clothes ASAP. Rehydrate and sip on something warm to help boost your body temperature.

Cold plunging can be an incredible experience when done safely. If you have any tips for people new to cold water swimming, leave them in the comments! For more swimming tips, subscribe to the MySwimPro YouTube Channel, and download the MySwimPro app for personalized daily swim workouts.

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