The benefits of cold water swimming by Jane Woods, Cancer Coach volunteer

Sharing the experience of cold water immersion can be great fun and a lovely way to meet new friends - Photo credit: Milly Haines

Sharing the experience of cold water immersion can be great fun and a lovely way to meet new friends – Photo credit: Milly Haines

It’s 8.30am. There’s barely light in the sky and there’s not a soul in sight, apart from my friend Nat. Standing in just my swimming costume with corn beef legs and a middle-aged middle, I stride towards the waves. The air temperature is 6 degrees and the sea temperature is 8 degrees. I console myself that it’s warmer in than out.

My feet slide over the slippery seaweed – they find sand, then stones and finally reach the water. My arms unfold in a surrendering fashion. Then I wade purposefully in and feel the cold biting into my skin, prickling the surface of my legs. Now it’s up to my waist and my hands form an arrow, almost a prayer in front of me, as they pierce the water. I know what’s coming. The gasp, a sharp intake of breath and then shock.

In that moment, I am completely focused on my body. I start counting, one, two, three…by the time I get to ten strokes I can feel myself breathing and I’ve never felt so alive. Gradual acclimatisation is the key to success with this type of swimming.

Suddenly the sun breaks through the clouds. It shimmers across the sea’s surface and on to my face. My body is moving freely in the water, held up and embraced by the salty water, making my weight buoyant, like a cork. I feel a shift in my core temperature as it adjusts to the cold and then a calmness, a soothing of body and mind. For my busy brain, it’s the closest I can get to mindfulness.

Then it’s time to get out. I kick the surf and it sprays like a fan, a little ritual that reminds me that I feel good about my cake-shaped body and I’m ready to face the day.

My love of cold water swimming started with a quick dip one Christmas day several years ago in Swanage. I decided to swim once a month for a year, then once a week. Now it has become an almost daily habit, which helps lift my mood and keeps anxiety at bay.

Sharing the experience of cold water immersion can be great fun and a lovely way to meet new friends. There are several peer support groups who offer regular meet ups.

One such encounter happened when I was swimming near my home and I happened to meet a lady while we were both navigating a slightly choppy sea. Across the waves we both talked about why swimming was important to us and she explained that she started swimming as part of her recovery from cancer. She had worked as a nurse in a local hospital and found her regular trips into the sea beneficial to her physical and emotional wellbeing. She was so enthusiastic and swims regularly with a group of friends.

As my interest grew I could see why people became almost evangelical about the benefits of cold water swimming. It feels so good, you just want to share the experience with others.

Last year I became a Mental Health Swims host. Mental Health Swims  is a national charity offering inclusive peer support groups, where everyone is welcome. We regularly take a dip, laugh a lot and enjoy some cheery chat, which is particularly welcome at this time of the year. Shouting and squealing are encouraged and we don’t care whether you turn up in a bikini, tankini, mankini or full on divers suit.

There is growing evidence that cold water swimming on a regular basis can boost your mood, lower stress, reduce inflammation, improve your cardiovascular health and strengthen your immune system.

The Outdoor Swimming Society recommends that you get expert medical advice before winter swimming if you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, asthma, or are pregnant.

Professor Mike Tipton from the University of Portsmouth suggests benefits can be experienced in the first 60-90 seconds of cold water immersion.  In his book, Chill, Dr Mark Harper gives these six rules for a safe and enjoyable cold water swim:

  1. Before you get in, know how you’re going to get out.
  2. Warm up before you get in.
  3. Get your body in before your head.
  4. Focus on your breathing.
  5. Get out, get dry and get warm.
  6. Better together – swim with a friend.

This is what Amanda had to say about cold water swimming: “During my treatment for breast cancer, which involved chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy, I found exercise a positive focus, a way of moving forward and having some control. This involved running and cold water swimming – both are good for my physical and mental health, and wellbeing. There’s a freedom in the water, being in nature and you feel great when you come out of the water. It’s exhilarating.”

Like Amanda, if you have any experience of cold water swimming, which has helped your recovery from cancer, I would love to hear from you. Please email me at:


Jane Woods is a volunteer Cancer Coach for Cancer Support UK. She is an accredited Appreciative Inquiry/Conversations Worth Having practitioner, an ILM wellbeing coach and Mental Health Swims host. She also provides cancer coaching and support for the Youth Cancer Trust, ALK Positive and EGFR positive UK .


Cancer Coach is available to anyone previously diagnosed with a stage 3 or below cancer and who has now completed their physical cancer treatment and is experiencing low mood, anxiety and worry. The course takes participants through a series of weekly facilitated group sessions, run for a six-week period over the telephone or online video. Participants benefit from the peer support of the sessions, as well as learning tools and techniques for improving emotional wellbeing, which can help them move forward on their recovery journey. The course is free, completely confidential and accessible from the comfort and privacy of home.

If you’ve completed cancer treatment and are wondering how to cope, then please apply to join the course. Simply complete the application form online. If you have any questions, please email or call: 020 3983 7616.