Trevor Laffan: Ice baths are a form of torture - so why go sea swimming?!

Dipping people in frozen water used to be a form of torture... Trevor Laffan can't understand why people go sea swimming, especially at this time of year
Trevor Laffan: Ice baths are a form of torture - so why go sea swimming?!

COME ON IN, THE WATER’S BALTIC! British endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh in Antarctica in 2015

I GOT up early the other morning and I could feel a chill in the air, so I flicked on the heat before I had a shower. I like my comfort.

It was about 7am and my grandson Cooper, who had stayed the night, would soon be getting up for school. I wanted him to have something warm in the belly before heading out, so I made some scrambled egg and bacon with toast. He demolished it.

We jumped into the car at about 8.30am and the temperature indicator told me it was about three degrees, and it felt every bit of it.

When we got to the school we had to stand at the gate until the staff decided to let the children in and I could feel the cold coming up through my feet from the concrete. My follicle-challenged head wasn’t doing much to keep the heat in the body, so I was frozen.

When the gate finally opened, I darted back to the car as fast as a person of my age, shape and weight can dart, and turned up the heat to thaw out the bones.

As soon as I got home, I made a cup of hot coffee to ward off the hypothermia, and slowly but surely the temperature in my body returned to normal. I began to feel human again.

As I sat in the recliner with my coffee, I rang my brother Alex. The call went to his voicemail, but he rang me back a little later.

We’ve established by now that it was a cold day, but at 9am, at the end of November, when the outdoor temperature gauge in the car was warning me to be prepared for frostbite, he couldn’t answer the phone because he was swimming. Outdoors. In the sea.

When it goes below four degrees, my car sounds an alarm to let me know that driving conditions could potentially turn tricky. It shows a snowflake symbol as well and nowhere on the instrument panel does it indicate that this is the best time of the day to dive into the ocean.

You could possibly put it down to the foolhardiness of youth, except that my brother’s father-in-law went with him and he’s in his seventies. There were others too. In fact, there seems to be no shortage of like-minded souls.

I struggled earlier to get into a hot shower before the room warmed up properly, so I can’t imagine being in the altogether out in the open at this time of the year.

If someone put a gun to my head that morning and told me to strip off outdoors, I would have told them to go ahead and pull the trigger. 

Death was facing me either way because my heart would stop the minute I hit the water, so shooting me would have saved me the additional agony of having to go naked in Baltic conditions.

So why do people volunteer for this madness?

According to IPRS Health, a UK company providing Physiotherapy, Mental Health and Wellbeing services, there are significant health benefits attached to cold water swimming. They say it boosts your immune system and studies have shown that cold water helps to boost the white blood cell count because the body is forced to react to changing conditions.

It’s good exercise too, which helps to activate the endorphins that make us feel good during activities. That improves circulation, flushes the veins and arteries, burns calories, and has been proven to treat depression. So, it’s all good.

There are also ongoing studies into the positive effects that cold-water swimming can have on the menopause, but that’s more difficult to assess because while the cold water could be having a positive effect, the socialising and exercise could also be the reason for the improvement in general health and wellbeing.

Anyway, I think it would take a very brave man to suggest to any woman going through the menopause that it would do her good to jump into the river in winter. If you are considering offering that advice, can I suggest you stand well back and position yourself behind something solid.

I’m hearing a lot of talk too about the benefits of taking cold showers. Apparently one study found that having 30-second cold showers every morning for 60 days could decrease the number of sick days by 30%.

I’ve also heard celebrities promoting this idea, but I can’t help wondering if they would be as enthusiastic if they lived in Ireland.

It’s easy to champion the cold shower theory if you live in a Mediterranean country where shorts and a T-shirt will do you all year round, but it’s a different kettle of fish where I live. Cold showers are not nice, which is exactly why they were used to torture people once upon a time.

In the 1920s, the Chicago police used to extract confessions from prisoners by chilling them in freezing water baths.

That wasn’t the first-time cold water was used to put manners on people either. During World War I, American military prisons subjected conscientious objectors to ice-water showers and baths until they fainted.

I read an article on the internet recently suggesting that, in the 18th century, insanity was thought to stem from a “violent heat” and inflammation in the brain. Physicians knew that cold water could calm inflammation in joints, wounds, and elsewhere in the body, so the idea was that a shock of cold water on the head might have the same effect on an inflamed brain.

Doctors doused patients with cold water unexpectedly to shock them, and the showers would continue “for as long as the patient could endure, thus creating in them the fear of death.”

Alex and his buddies would probably have enjoyed that.

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