Cold Showers Are Cool

I mentioned in a previous post on this topic that while the sea was warming up last spring I noticed an interesting phenomenah – my body felt more chilled in 22 C water than it did in 21 C. I proposed a hypothesis that there was some sort of breaker switch in my body that turned on at 21 C and activated a more aggressive conservation of heat in my core and brain, while 22 C seemed to not do this and therefore my blood circulated more freely and I got that chilled feeling almost immediately.

I was curious whether I would feel that again in the autumn as the sea got colder again. Well, in my first crossing of this temperature threshold last week, between 22 to 21 C, sure enough, I felt more comfortable immersed and cruising along at 21 C under overcast skies that I did in 22 C with sunny skies. I am still very curious at exactly what is going on inside my body!

Here is one important thing to note: it matters to my comfort a great deal at how strong the core temperature is just before I plunge in for the swim. If I am already slightly chilled getting in it will be extremely difficult to build up the fire enough to get the body to super-heat itself for the first part of the swim. My internal alarms start going off from the beginning. If it is strong when I get in I’ve bought a great deal more time in the water (without suffering) before I start to feel the chill. From what I’ve read and heard, this is the central factor of acclimatization – training the body to keep the core warm. Literally, survival, let alone comfort, depends on it.

Another question I’ve listed in my experiment: as I grow even more acclimated to cooler water this year, will my tolerance for ‘hot’ water decrease? I am wondering if our acclimatization range – what we might call our ‘comfort zone’ – stays about the same but shifts toward a cooler or warmer range, or if we can actually widen that comfort zone to include a wider range of cool and warm temperatures.

It did seem that I had less tolerance for the 29-30 C water this summer in July and August, (and naturally I was more comfortable in swim pools where my students were shivering). That hot water just sucked the energy and ambition out of me. But it could have been the hot weather, and intense overhead sun adding to that. I stayed in the cool water pockets along the sea cliffs as much as I could.

And this month I’ve abandoned my bare feet (too cold sitting at my desk writing like this) but have kept on with cold showers. Not necessarily every time but most times I use just straight cold water – depending on how strong my core temperature is.  Our house doesn’t always have hot water (we have a solar water heater that has some problems) so I conveniently have no choice sometimes. And I like to be clean more than I like to stay warm so now, if I am not planning to head out for a sea swim, I have a ritual of a morning cold shower.

But in the shower also I have noticed a change in my body’s response. If the water is just ‘cool’ immediately I feel chilled by the water throughout my body. But if I let the water be ‘cold’ my skin feels the ‘burn’ of the cold water yet my core immediately feels extra warm. In this sense I am more comfortable taking a cold water shower than I do in a cool water shower. Very interesting!


Just in case someone pops in for the first time I feel like I need to keep repeating the fact that I know water above 15 C (65 F) may more accurately be regarded as ‘cool’ water and not ‘cold’ water. I am not sharing this to brag to anyone. I live in on the Mediterranean Sea so I don’t have such extremes here. And suffering is a relative thing – put a man of the tropics in the artic or vice versa and each will suffer. I, for my part, am simply taking on the project of expanding my swimming world right here where I am at. And act of eager adaptation (rather than forced). Something each person can do no matter where in the world he/she lives and with what swimming opportunities are available.

Some of you are, no doubt, far beyond me in enjoying cool, or even cold water (without wetsuit, I mean) and for quite long swims (my Channel Swimmer friends!). But I realize most swimmers rarely venture out of the safe, climate-controlled pool facilities. We see strong evidence that OW swimming is the fastest growing branch of swimming in many countries. Often, after stepping from pool to warm (or wetsuit-insulated) OW swimming, the next step is to chuck the wetsuit, and/or head for cooler water. So my observations and questions may be of interest to those of you who are likewise eager to make this liberating transition also.


2 responses to “Cold Showers Are Cool

  1. I am 2/3 of the way through Swimming to Antarctica. After reading your article I have some observations: Lynn Cox experienced the band of comfort change similar to yours. She lived in the LA area and trained in the darkest coldest hours of the day, she was much more affected be hot summer weather.. Mat, you live in an area with a smaller temperature band than many areas. You can do 2 things: expand your entire comfort range for hot and cold. Or change your comfort band higher coming into the warmer season, and lower it in the fall to adapt to the cooler temps.

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Yes, you are right. I have a smaller temp band here. Well, by necessity I just keep on swimming as summer comes and I am in the heat a lot by natural circumstance. There’s not a lot more I can do to acclimate back to the heat other than just stay in it as the weather heats up. By August I’ve got to swim at sunrise or sunset, but the sun and sea don’t permit cooling down during the day. In water that warm there is simply nothing your body can do to cool itself better- the whole medium surrounding the skin is too hot to absord the internal heat fast enough. Sweat doesn’t work in water.

      But still, my whole metabolism seems to shifts toward cool water preference. This is one of the research topics: what will happen to my body in the summer as I get more comfortable in the winter?

      The sea will be 16 C (62 F) at its coldest. Really, the hard part will be the air temperature and getting in and out, and home again without wrecking my car from the shivers.

      Frankly, I find the discomforts of cool water more desirable than the discomforts of swimming in hot water (hot being anything over 29 C or 85 F). One of the things that prompted me to do this experiment is that our only public access pool in the city is 2 m deep and usually 30-31 C (86 F +). Why? I’ve come to find that Turkish culture has a dislike (even fear) of being wet and cold, and 28 C is cold water to the general population that uses the pool, and they enforce a cap rule there which makes it even harder to cool off. So I’ve abandoned the pool completely (unless I was recovering from illness or something) cuz I want to swim at too high of a HR to swim there comfortably.

      I am quite slim too. Not much insulation on my frame and I hope my little experiment will inspire some brown fat to build up inside, without chubbing me on the outside too much. It will be an interesting transformation if so.

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