With Ornagh Lee
Plunging into freezing water might not be everyone’s idea of fun, but for our ambassador Ornagh Lee, it’s a form of meditation. For over three years, the Dublin-based CrossFit and gymnastics coach has been swimming in the sea almost daily—a ritual she began as a way to tackle her own mental health struggles. She has since forged friendships with a tribe of fellow cold-water dippers, united by the shared experience of a shock to the system at sunrise.
“Cold water swimming makes me calm, but at the same time, it gives me a real high,” she says. Revealing her own personal story and how she discovered it, Ornagh also shares her top tips for how you too can dip your toe—or dive straight in—to this unique form of meditation.
What is cold water therapy?
For me, it’s more than just cold showers and ice baths. I love swimming in the sea, which also happens to be very cold in Dublin—during the summer it’s around 14℃, but in the winter, it gets down to 6℃. Cold water therapy works wonders for your mental health. The moment you hit cold water, it shocks the system and your mind clears so that all you can think about is survival. You have to concentrate on your breathing, slowing it down, and staying calm—just like traditional meditation.
How did you discover it?
I’ve suffered with mental health issues in the past and wanted to alleviate stress. I’d tried cold water swimming on holiday in Mayo and loved it, so I decided it would be a way to help me get out of bed in the morning, and also get a better night’s sleep. I posted on Instagram and invited anyone wanting to join to come along—that was crucial because it gave me some accountability, I had to turn up! Over the years loads of people have joined.
What impact has it had on your life?
The biggest impact has been the incredible people I’ve met. Cold water immersion has introduced me to a whole new community that I never knew existed. We’re a group of likeminded people who are drawn together to experience sunrise and the shock of the water each morning. Everyone comes from so many different walks of life but when we’re at the water we all have that in common.
What are the main benefits?
There are so many, both physical and mental. Swimming in the cold actually strengthens your immune system and I rarely get a cold. It also improves your circulation: when you’re cold, blood rushes to your organs, and when you warm up, you get fresh blood running through your body. It’s stress relieving and great for mental health issues as it also releases a surge of endorphins. Even on those rainy days when you don’t want to go in, you never regret a swim. Once you’re out of the water you have this natural high—it makes people so happy.
How would you suggest getting started?
Cold water therapy is so popular now that there are loads of options depending where you are. If you’re not near a lake, river or sea, you can take cold showers as suggested by Michael Coates or look out for ice-bath workshops where you’ll learn the crucial skill of breathing in cold water (like extreme athlete and breathwork master, Wim Hof’s). For breathing tips, Richie Bostock is also great.
You could also find an outdoor swimming group and head to your local lido. The Outdoor Swimming Society is great for resources.
Any top tips for someone’s first cold-water swim?
Establish a swimming group or at least take someone else with you—it’s much safer than doing it alone. You could also use a tow float. Make sure you acclimatise, before and after, and don’t take a hot shower straight away as you need to let the body warm up on its own. When you come out of the water, get changed immediately, wrap up in layers and have a warm drink.
N.B. To ensure a safe cold water experience, please consult your GP first if you have any doubts about your state of health.