Have you ever wondered why on earth people are swimming in the baths through winter?
I have, especially when I have seen them religiously taking the plunge before the sun is up in the depths and darkness of winter.
I am more of a “fair-weather” ocean baths participant but, when suffering some ongoing body stiffness of late, that’s exactly where I ended up.
Granted, it was the middle of one of these mild winter’s days we’ve been having, which made it easier to get it, but after the burning cold sensation eased and I got my breath back I could certainly see the attraction.
I had just completed two games of football but almost instantly I felt relief. I also felt invigorated, not to mention a little bit tough for taking on the 15/16 degrees stated on the daily temperature board at the Merewether Ocean Baths.
I found myself researching the topic after my own experience. An article on Estonia’s official tourism site calls it “the Estonian vitamin” and, according to visitFinland.com, it will leave you feeling “fantastic and refreshed”.
They were talking about ice or winter swimming and there are plenty of clubs devoted to it, including a few of our own such as the Merewether Mackerels, who swim at the baths Sunday mornings from May until September.
It is also common to see sporting teams hitting the ocean, pools or ice baths after a game or hard training session.
A couple of the articles I read also suggested that cold water swimming could boost your immune system and help stave off illness.
I wasn’t up to doing laps just yet. I thought I might work up to that. Instead I jogged around a bit before psyching myself up to duck under. I was there mainly to hopefully prevent the feeling of waking up a day or so later and feeling like the Tinman.
When I wanted to find out the science behind it, physiotherapist Dave Naylor, from Ethos Health, told me the principle of cold water recovery revolves around “recovery from training or exercise, where you are trying to restore and regenerate the body to its normal levels”.
“To improve our fitness levels you have to work hard, and in general terms hard means ‘fatigue’, and cellular disturbance,” Dave said.
“The end result of that in the hours, and in some instances days, following exercise, is that you can get sore. Therefore you need to ‘recover’ from fatigue caused by hard training or sport to get the best follow-up performance.
“The efficacy of cold water immersion or cold water therapy has not been clearly established, but the principle is thought to work around reducing core body temperature and subsequent pressure-induced changes which reduce blood flow (vaso constriction) and muscle (tissue) temperature.
“The net result of this, it is proposed, results in reduced tissue inflammation post strenuous exercise. The reduction in inflammation might then be attributed to reducing delayed onset muscle soreness [DOMS] and enhanced recovery of muscle function.”
But how long and how cold should the water be?
“Not surprisingly there’s a few considerations,” Dave said. “For high aerobic strenuous sports where you want to cool excessive body temperature you can be looking at around 10 minutes in 15 degree water. You’ll commonly see AFL or soccer players wading in the water off Port Melbourne for this, as their legs have had a high aerobic workout.
“For other contact sports where you want to reduce inflammation of tissue from collisions, temperatures of 11 to 12 degrees for short bursts of 30 to 60 seconds three times is indicated. Because everyone of us is built a little bit differently with a bit more or less tissue (fat), there will be a bit of variation, but these are some numbers to work around.”
And, according to an article in the Herald on Saturday, it’s a good time to be in the ocean too with locals reporting some of the clearest waters around Newcastle for a while.