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Ice Baths Vs Open Water Swimming (IN WINTER)

It’s been almost a year now since my Ice Bath Experiment – where I did 30 days straight of ice baths in February of 2021.

But these were INDOOR ice baths with tap water and added ice courtesy of crushed cocktail ice. I didn’t actually know the water temperature either.

Since then, I evolved my journey quite substantially. One of my big gripes with the indoor ice bath was the inability to completely submerge myself. Now I don’t mean head as well, I’m not a freaking psycho, but in a bath you either have your legs fully under but your shoulders and chest out, or you legs/knees out and chest/shoulders under.

The solution to this is the iconic trashcan bath or rubbish bin dip!

So that’s what I did through summer and into the autumn of 2021. I thought it was more hardcore and I guess it was but at the end of the day, it was warm(er) air temperature, fresh tap water and the sun was beating down on my face most of the time. Sure, the 10 minute straight stints might redeem me somewhat but I’m hardly worrying any of Wim Hof’s elite practitioners.

It’s always funny to look back on a journey and see how it unfolds in a progressive fashion – at least my journeys always seem to anyway! Because I went from indoors partially submerged to outdoors fully submerged, to then doing these ice baths later in the evening when the sun was sometimes well and truly down. So my beloved sun-on-the-face comfort blanket was gone. And it made a difference, believe me.

The New ‘Hot Tub’

Come the late summer/early autumn of 2021 my family got a hot tub. An outdoor one. And yes, another midlife crisis boredom buy. If it’s not a new car, it’s a fantasy holiday, gimmick for the garden or some empty vow. I’m sure it’s the same in your family too?

Anyhow, little did I know what opportunity lay in wait with this new toy. As summer turned its back on us and the dark nights drew in, and suddenly the garden became more and more off limits, to where even having a door or window open for 10-30 seconds would spark complaining, I had the idea of using the hot tub for a possible challenge in winter.

I wanted to level it up from last time. 30 days of indoor cold baths? Pfffft, that’s for pussies. Let’s do it outdoor, in December for 30 days! The hot tub has a temperature reading as well which means I could track any personal bests….yep, the training mindset never leaves.

It was one of those scenarios where you think about it now, worry about it later. December was a while away so why worry about it yet? I’ve always been a don’t pack until the night before kinda guy and don’t buy the card or present until near midnight on the eve of the birthday or Christmas, so why break the habit of a lifetime?!

As October rolled around and the dreaded clocks going back time arrived, the motivation to keep filling up the wheelie bin with the hosepipe was waning. And in conjunction with this, I became more and more conscious of water wastage and curious as to what more open water dips would feel like; would it be harder? Surely being enclosed in a tight wheelie bin would make it easier to warm the water up around you with your body heat?!

The hot tub we have was the perfect opportunity to try my theory – plus it saved water & would theoretically be colder water as it had been sitting outside for months.

Water temperatures

I remember watching a Cecilia Blomdahl vlog from the great land that is the Svalbard Islands around this time, and she did a sea dip. The sea water was 2 degrees Celsius apparently. It was here it dawned on me how much water temperature would vary, and obviously, impact the intensity of the cold dip.

Hilariously, I remember seeing her ‘overreact’ to her 30-60 second dip in the icy sea and I thought it was so dramatic and unnecessary. I was so ignorant to water temperatures then. To this day I haven’t experienced waters that cold (more on that later).

When I first dipped in the ‘hot’ tub the water was a modest 14 degrees or so. Which sounds warm but the average range for ‘cold water’ is 10-20 degrees celsius, generally. And if you’re not used to cold water, 14 degrees is plenty cold at first!

Being the stat lover I am, I tracked this as the weeks went by and December loomed. I remember it hitting 11 degrees for the first time, and each time it hit a new low I’d set myself a rule: I had to take at least a 5 minute soak each time this happened.

And yes, that meant I did it for 10 degrees, 9 degrees, 8 degrees, 7 degrees, 6 degrees, 5 degrees and the coldest so far….

A collage of my instagram stories sickening people with the temperature updates each time I’d see a new number

4 degrees!

If you’re weather smart you’ll know that in order for these water temperatures to drop, the air temperature and real feel has to drop too.

Right at the end of November we had a cold spell in the UK and I did 5 minutes in 4 degree water, in the evening with a minus 2 real feel outside. This was FRESH. It felt like I was in ice. The water stung my body and you could feel the organs fighting to warm themselves up the whole time…

When I got out I felt INVIGORATED. But it was nice to get inside a warm house and back into clothes as I’d shiver myself warm. This is a luxury that makes a big difference (as you’ll see later).

So, to recap, we’ve gone from:

  • An INDOOR ice bath of 3 mins per day throughout Feb 2021
  • To an outdoor ice bath (trash can style) through spring to autumn 2021
  • To then a larger surface area cold water ‘hot’ tub in November/December 2021 with temperatures dropping from a regularly cold 12-15 degrees, to a Baltic-like 5-10 degrees!
  • No matter what though I kept the maximum duration to 10 mins at any given time, simply because of the cortisol response associated with long ice baths.

But what about real OPEN water?

This was the only unanswered question come the end of 2021. I’d not open water swam or dipped, discounting some hot summer’s day swims at the iconic Hampstead Heath bathing ponds some years ago now.

Hampstead Heath ponds reopen after lockdown with phased early morning swims  - MyLondon
Hampstead Heath mixed bathing pond on a summer’s day…

Sea swims, lake dips or river jumping had yet to be dabbled with….until new year’s day 2022. I didn’t even know this was a tradition but as I found out, beach swims on Xmas day & new year’s day is a big thing in the UK and around the world. And I call myself a cold water exposure enthusiast?!

So a group of us took the plunge, literally. We were lucky as well because the weather that day was exceptionally warm – 13 degrees with bright sun & the water temperature was around 9 or so. Very kind conditions for Jan 1st.

It was great fun & the group dynamic obviously made it even better/easier. Although it wasn’t too bad at all; the groundwork I laid on those crazy cold, dark evenings in my garden prepped me to not scream like a little girl, hyperventilate like a virgin having sex for the first time but instead, calmly walk in and submerge myself, with no external reaction.

A one-off vs all weathers

Everyone who did the new year’s swim was buzzing and enjoyed it far more than they thought they would. But did we see all of them back next week for more?

Did we f*ck.

Since that day we’ve had a group of us through Instagram that arrange weekly sea swims and I can proudly say I’ve been to every single one. And yeah, I know you’d expect me to with my ‘experience’ but this equates to somewhere between 7 and 12 additional sea swims in water as cold as 6 degrees and air temperatures as cold as 1 degree.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m never totally alone, there’s always been at least one other person with me for these which makes it massively easier to motivate yourself to actually do it.

But I finally feel somewhat qualified to comment on the spectrum that is cold water exposure, at last.

The verdict: Open sea vs ice baths?

In my humble experience the sea swims are harder than any home ice bath for one main reason: you can warm up far quicker at home than you can at the beach. Once you’re done at home, it’s either drain the water or get out and go back inside the toasty house.

At the beach it’s either bring tons of layers, hot water bottles and whatnot and then fight to get warm again until you get home, or just stay in your t-shirt (like I always do) and let your body do its thing.

This is massive. The reheat process of outdoor open water swimming is far slower than home ice baths. The other factor is the moving water and the vast amount of it. As cold as smaller tubs of outdoor water are, it’s easier for your body temperature to influence it. Whereas in the sea it’s near enough impossible to warm that amount of moving water up with your puny body.

It’s like trying to put a forest fire out by taking a piss…

Although on the flipside, I suppose the solo aspect of the garden ice bath adds to the mental difficulty, whereas the group aspect of the sea swims reduces the mental difficulty?

I still think from a purely physical and physiological standpoint, open water swimming – i.e. the sea, rivers, lakes etc takes the trophy as the tougher of the 2 when it comes to the whole cold water hierarchy.

The Cold Water Hierarchy 2.0

It’s only right that we update the original humorous hierarchy I shared in my original Ice Bath Experiment post.

Ordered in difficulty from easiest to hardest:

  • Cold shower in summer
  • Ice bath in summer/open water swim/outdoor ice bath
  • Cold shower in autumn/winter
  • Ice bath in autumn/winter (indoors)
  • Ice bath in autumn/winter (OUTDOORS)
  • Open water swim in winter (river, lake or sea)
The cold water exposure spectrum according to STF 😉

I can’t think of any other ways to amp this up besides emigrating to north Norway, Svalbard, Greenland or Alaska?

I could always go longer but like I’m finding with training so much lately, less is more and doing ice dips for long periods actually create too much of a stress response.

So yeah, that’s where we’re at on the ice bath journey for those interested. As is common now, I’ve made a YouTube video to accompany this article so check it out if you’ve got 5 mins and I’ll love you forever.

Cold water therapy – accessible to everyone, scalable, effective & one of nature’s finest stimulants. I’m sold for life.

JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

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