Topless snow walks and cold water swimming: What you need to know about braving winter pursuits

Marie Claire Dorking
·9-min read
John Carstairs, 55, frequently walks in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh in his shorts and believes it has multiple health benefits. (Katielee Arrowsmith SWNS)
John Carstairs, 55, frequently walks in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh in his shorts and believes it has multiple health benefits. (Katielee Arrowsmith SWNS)

A topless rambler who regularly walks in freezing temperatures and believes exposure to the cold is the best stress-buster is one of a growing band of people embracing cold weather exercise.

John Carstairs, 55, lived in Germany for more than a decade and learnt to appreciate the health benefits of exercising in the cold.

Now he’s returned to Edinburgh, the dad-of-four regularly turns heads when he goes for walks dressed in nothing but boots, a wooly hat, gloves and a pair of shorts.

The fitness instructor is trained in the Wim Hof Method, which promotes being “happy, healthy and strong”, and treats cold exposure and breath work as central to achieving those aims.

Wim Hof, also known as The Iceman, is a Dutch extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures.

Dutchman Wim Hof, better known as "Iceman" for his ability to withstand seemingly impossible levels of cold, demonstrates at a hotel in Kathmandu, 28 May 2007.   'Iceman', who failed in his attempt to conquer Mount Everest wearing just shorts vowed to have another half-naked crack at the world's highest peak next year. Hof said that next year he would try Everest again, and then with a paraglider and two French people they would fly down.  AFP PHOTO/DEVENDRA M.SINGH (Photo credit should read DEVENDRA MAN SINGH./AFP via Getty Images)
Dutchman Wim Hof, better known as 'Iceman' for his ability to withstand seemingly impossible levels of cold, demonstrates his strength at a hotel in Kathmandu, 28 May 2007. (DEVENDRA MAN SINGH./AFP via Getty Images)

Hof has set Guinness World Records for swimming under ice and prolonged full-body contact with ice, and still holds the record for a barefoot half marathon on ice and snow.

Now, after following Hof’s method, Carstairs says he believes regularly going for 10 mile walks has helped fend off chronic stress during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I lived in Germany for 15 years, we used to cut holes in the ice and do ice bathing and cold water therapy,” Carstairs explains.

Read more: Just one age group has 'increased their exercise amid coronavirus'

“Going outside and being in nature helps as you need sunlight for vitamin D - there the mind goes quiet and you are left in peace with focus on your own self,” he says.

“You are focused on your breath, your stress has gone and let go of fear.”

Watch: Impressively fit 85-year-old takes dip in frozen lake.

After five years of practising the “powerful” technique, which he is a trained practitioner of, Carstairs has some words of caution for any novices who fancy following in his chilly footsteps.

“We don’t want anyone freezing to death or having a heart attack,” he adds.

“I would never let my body get hypothermic.

“My backpack always has got all my clothes in it and a foil blanket just in case.

“It is about being in touch with your body and mind, showing yourself the wonders of your body and how powerful it is.”

Read more: Super fit 73-year-old pulls off planks, chin ups and handstands while working out six times a week

Going for a topless walk in freezing temperatures isn’t the only cold weather exercise seeing a surge at the moment.

Recent figures from Sport England suggest more than 4.1million people are regularly donning their bathing suits to go cold water or wild swimming.

Alice Goodridge, from Newtonmore in the Highlands, attempts to take a dip every day throughout the year, and is currently having to first break up the thick ice using tools.

Alice Goodridge uses a sledgehammer to create a channel in the ice in Loch Insh, in the Cairngorms National Park (Jane Barlow/PA)
Alice Goodridge uses a sledgehammer to create a channel in the ice in Loch Insh, in the Cairngorms National Park (Jane Barlow/PA)

The 33-year-old business owner has been outdoor swimming since taking on a challenge to cross the English Channel in 2010.

“You get a buzz and a high from just being in the cold water for a few minutes,” she told PA news agency.

She urged other people to try outdoor swimming, but to first make sure it is safe by contacting someone who is already experienced at swimming in the area.

Alice Goodridge swims in Loch Insh (Jane Barlow/PA)
Alice Goodridge swims in Loch Insh (Jane Barlow/PA)

Benefits of exercising in the cold

As well as physical fitness, Swim England say the health benefits of wild swimming are thought to include better sleep, improved circulation and increased happiness.

“Cold water swimming (and cold weather exercise) are becoming increasingly popular for their psychological and physiological benefits,” says Harry Aitken, sports scientist and master trainer for Auster Fitness.

“Training whilst getting fresh air, increasing your vitamin D levels and working your whole body’s cardiovascular system is excellent.”

But what it is about exercising in the cold that has particular benefits for our health?

According to Aitken some of the plus points of cold exercise come about because the extreme vascular system is often not worked in everyday life.

“The body is very accustomed to warm temperatures, we have hot showers, wear many layers of clothing and have the heating on at home,” he explains.

“Cold exercise, or cold water immersion, shock your body into producing heat and insulating it.

“It can help regulate the cardiovascular system, most prominently at the extremities – the small capillaries that help push blood around and control flow become activated, reducing load on the heart.”

We could perform better in cold weather. (Getty Images)
We could perform better in cold weather. (Getty Images)

Read more: Why cold water swimming has become so popular during lockdown

Another anecdotal benefit, he adds, is the rush of blood when you come in from the cold.

“It rushes to your skin to heat it up, and is very satisfying and relaxing,” Aitken explains.

“Rather than feeling ‘tight’ and ‘constricted’ people claim to feel ‘loose’ and ‘relaxed’ – this could be because of the relaxation of the body, allowing the capillaries to open up and allow blood back to the skin and extremities to warm it up.”

Exercising in the cold could also have an impact on calories burned.

“During exercise in the cold, we need to meet the metabolic demands of exercise in addition to the demands of thermoregulation (maintaining normal body temperature),” explains Dr Joel Chidley, programme coordinator in sport outdoor and exercise science at Derby University.

“This means more energy (calories) will be used, which might be beneficial for weight loss.”

Turns out we could perform better in cold temperatures too.

Studies and meta-analyses have shown that performance is often optimised in cold conditions,” explains Aitken.

“As thermal stress is reduced, vital fluids are retained, perceived difficulty of exercise is lower, and blood can remain in the core and working muscles, rather than being required to cool off underneath the skin.

“Physiologically then, cold exercise can actually improve your performance quite significantly. The heart needs to work less hard and can focus on performance, rather than managing heat stress.

“Although it is worth noting the risk of injury is slightly higher in colder conditions (extreme cold and extreme heat both increase the risk of injury slightly),” he adds.

What about the potential benefits for our mental health on exercising in chilly climes?

“There is a current hypothesis that some depressive disorders may be exacerbated by a lifestyle that lacks sufficient physiological stressors, such as brief changes in body temperature, resulting in inadequate functioning of the central nervous system,” explains Dr Chidley.

“Thermal stress, such as exposure to cold air or cold water, has been suggested as a useful way to provide activation of the central nervous system.”

Woman jumping off diving board into lake, side view
Cold water swimming could have both physical and psychological benefits (Getty)

According to Dr Chidley cold exposure has been shown to increase noradrenaline, which is a key hormone (and neurotransmitter) associated with depression and anxiety.

“Indeed many drug treatments for these conditions act by increasing noradrenaline (along with serotonin),” he adds.

“Cold exposure has also been shown to increase beta-endorphin, by up to four-fold. This neurotransmitter (signalling chemical in the brain) is responsible for producing the sense of wellbeing and suppression of pain through opioid receptors.”

What are the risks of cold weather exercise?

There are some risks associated with cold weather exercising, particularly cold water swimming, to be aware of.

“It is important to be mindful when starting cold water swimming, that there are two competing responses when exposing the body to cold water,” explains Dr Chidley.

“When you submerge your body in the water temperature sensing neurons in your skin detect a drop in temperature then activate a sympathetic nervous system response ('fight or flight'), with increased heart rate and ventilation that is referred to as the 'cold shock response'.

“This provides an awakening experience and can be extremely invigorating. However, when the face is submerged in the water it activates the 'mammalian dive reflex' where there is a parasympathetic ('rest and digest') response, with a lowering of heart rate.”

When the face and body are submerged in cold water simultaneously, Dr Chidley says it can create a form of autonomic conflict, where the heart is receiving signals to speed up and speed down at the same time.

“In some individuals with predisposing factors, this conflict can result in cardiac arrest,” he says.

“Predisposing factors such as long QT syndrome, ischaemic heart disease, or myocardial hypertrophy, are necessary for fatal cardiac arrhythmias;

“However, non-fatal arrhythmias (in individuals without predisposing factors) could still indirectly lead to death if they cause incapacitation and thereby drowning.”

Therefore, Dr Chidley says it is wise for anyone with a predisposing factor that could put them at risk to consult with a medical professional before starting cold water swimming.

It is good advice for all when entering cold water, to only go in up to their neck, before submerging the face, “as this will to overcome the initial 'cold shock’” and “minimise the autonomic conflict that can result in cardiac arrhythmia,” he adds.

Read more: Bonnie Tyler reveals she learnt to swim at 69 - how to get started swimming as a grown-up

What are the benefits of cold weather exercise? (Getty Images)
What are the benefits of cold weather exercise? (Getty Images)

Dr Chidley says the intense ‘cold shock’ response occurs in water below 15 degrees Celsius, so recommends that those new to cold water swimming stick to waters 10-15 degrees.

“Perhaps try starting cold water swimming in the summer/autumn and then sticking at it into the winter to adapt gradually as the temperature drops,” he says.

“Alternatively, starting in cold air (which has 30 times less thermal conductance) will provide a less intense thermal stress but may still have many of the benefits.”

Tips for those wanting to exercise in the cold

As for other cold weather exercise, Aitken suggests making sure you wear socks and gloves to avoid frostbite.

He also recommends you take it slow and steady to begin with.

“Start off at a slower intensity than normal to ‘warm-up’,” he says. “This might sound odd in the cold, but if you’re running for example, allow blood to flow into your calves and quads/hamstrings before you start going fast. This will help reduce the potential risk of injury.”

You should also keep your cold exercising periods shorter to begin with.

“Start with a short period of time too, go out for 15-20 minutes rather than an hour long session,” Aitken continues.

“Start to get your body being used to it being cold when you exercise. Simply take off your jumper, or wear shorts rather than tracksuit bottoms.”

Additional reporting SWNS and PA.

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