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Northern Ireland couple offer new way to de-stress... an icy bath in the countryside

Mary Walsh (42) tells Leona O'Neill why she's set up a bed and breakfast in Bryansford which offers ice bath retreats - and health coach Scott Riley (31) reveals how the unique therapy relieved his rheumatoid arthritis

Unique approach: Mary Walsh with husband Jay and pet Dougal at their home in Bryansford
Unique approach: Mary Walsh with husband Jay and pet Dougal at their home in Bryansford
Mary Walsh
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

There's a long history of the health benefits associated with cold water swimming - just ask any of the hardy Northern Irish swimmers who brave the sea all year round - and ice-baths have been part and parcel for athletes recovering from training.

Immersion in cold water evokes a stress response - a set of physiological and hormonal reactions, which are a response to life or death situations. But if you can manage the stress that comes with being dunked in the freezing cold sea or a bath full of ice cubes, you can certainly deal with the stress life throws at you.

Now a group of alternative health practitioners are bringing some groundbreaking, tried and tested methods of managing breath work, mindset and the cold to Northern Ireland.

Mary Walsh (42) and her husband, Jay (47), have recently joined forces with health coach Scott Riley and launched weekend retreats, which will allow guests to learn the techniques - and even take an ice bath while overlooking the splendour of the Mournes.

Mary says her interest in cold water therapy was initially sparked as a child, frequenting the Rock Pool in Newcastle. It was only when she and her husband left the rat race in London with their son, Daniel (6), that she tapped back into the methods to tackle stress.

"I was brought up in Newcastle," she says. "There is a seawater pool there called the Rock Pool. And that is where all of us spent our childhood summers and therefore I was always pretty used to swimming in cold water.

"When I grew up I moved away to London and became a solicitor, I was there for 15 years and I kind of forgot all about it. But I moved back a few years ago and I got back into going to the Rock Pool over the summer holidays. And one year, I didn't want it to stop and I kept going.

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"Then I moved from the pool to the sea. There is a group who go swimming at the harbour every morning in Newcastle, whose average age is around 65 to 70 years old and are mostly women. I knew some of them from the Rock Pool and they asked me to join them and that is what I did.

"And what I found really extraordinary about it was that it really, really managed my stress levels. And through that I became a lot more interested in the science behind it and what the cold water is actually doing to the body.

"Basically, it produces a stress response and then you learn to manage that. It means that in your normal day to day life, when you experience a stressful situation, you are better able to deal with it and regulate it.

"I would now do this all year round, even in the winter. There is a growing community doing this in Northern Ireland - not just sea swimmers."

Mary says that she rediscovered the power of cold water and breath work after coming home from her stressful job in London four years ago.

"I worked in London for 15 years," she says. "I had the quintessential corporate job, which was very stressful. I was working as a solicitor and later a company director. I probably wasn't best equipped to deal with stress all of the time. It can be quite overwhelming, especially when you have a job where the phone can still ring at 9pm at night. There didn't really seem to be an off switch.

Scott Riley preparing an ice bath for one of his clients
Scott Riley preparing an ice bath for one of his clients

"Most people these days do live quite a stressed existence. There is a constant barrage of emails and we all have these tiny computers in our hands, which are amazing in the way they keep you connected to everything, but also mean that we can never switch off.

"We moved home in 2015. My husband, a psychotherapist, and I were always interested in how to deal and cope with stressful situations.

"We came back home to downshift our lives and in the process of doing that decided to open a bed and breakfast in Bryansford, which is very much centred on outdoor activities, targeted at walkers, swimmers and mountain bikers.

"We have installed an ice bath in the garden and partnered up with Scott Riley, who is an instructor who practices the teachings of Dutch extreme athlete, Wim Hof.

"Wim Hof, also known as the Iceman, is noted for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures.

"He 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.

Staying calm: Mary in an ice bath
Staying calm: Mary in an ice bath

"He has pioneered some really great techniques and done some crazy stunts in the cold. He climbed Mount Everest in a pair of shorts, all done using the breath work technique that helps your body to down-regulate stress."

Mary and Scott hope to bring the methods to Northern Ireland participants.

"Since I have started the cold water and breath work, I have been able to manage work-related stress much, much better," she says. "It is almost like flexing a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. So if you are able to deal with these minor elements of stress through the cold water, it improves your ability to deal with stress day to day.

"When you swim in the sea, the temperature can vary from anything from five degrees to 14 degrees, but obviously it is still colder than the average bath. So when you go into the water, you automatically have that fight or flight response.

"So your body thinks you are in a stressful situation and your breathing gets short and the chemicals released in your body make you want to run away.

"But actually what you can learn to do is regulate your breathing - and I often do it by breathing very slowly from five down to one as you go in - and that puts your body back into a parasympathetic state. It takes the stress response away and puts you into rest and digest mode.

The couple with their son Daniel
The couple with their son Daniel

"The courses that we are running over the summer with Scott will involve lots of breathing workshops and an ice bath. Doing this totally changes your perception on how to deal with stress.

"In our workshops, you will do breath work for an hour - which involves lying on the ground, breathing, holding the breath at various points. That changes the chemical composition of the body and makes you better equipped to deal with the stress reaction.

"Then we go out to the ice bath and it is quite an extraordinary thing. You are looking at a bath full of ice cubes and freezing water and thinking, 'This might not work'. But if you remember how to regulate your breath, and how to train your body to deal with it, it's absolutely fine. Within around 10 to 30 seconds you are in quite a calm state. It's amazing really."

Bangor health coach Scott Riley (31) will be leading the special retreat at Mary and Jay's B&B. He says he investigated cold water therapy after a painful bout of rheumatoid arthritis.

"I came to the cold water therapy as I was battling rheumatoid arthritis," he says.

"I suffered with it for around four years in the middle of my 20s. Cold water and breath work were one of a list of things that I had tried to combat it and maintain my health, alongside juice fasting and plant medicine treatments.

"The latter two things helped me get my health back and when I had done that, I wanted to keep it that way and also pass it on and help other people.

"I first tried it about a year after I regained my health. I was still investigating different health methods that could bring something to my life. I watched a really great documentary on the Wim Hof method, and I watched some podcasts and wanted to give it a try.

"His methods showed that you could reliably reduce inflammation in the body so, as someone who had suffered from chronic inflammation, I thought it would be a good thing for me to learn.

"And when I tried it, I found it to be amazing.

"I got loads of health benefits from it. I noticed that my cardiovascular fitness really improved and my ability to deal with stress was a lot better than it was before. I haven't suffered any symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in five years now."

Scott says it is a lot more than just filling a bath with ice and jumping right in. He says preparation is the key.

"I started quite gradually," he says. "I took cold showers. There is a breathing technique and a mindset element that helps you prepare.

"So it wasn't a case of going under the cold shower and screaming.

"With the preparation beforehand, it was a lot more doable than what you might think. I really thought there was something to it and investigated it further.

"I did a course on it and by the end of it, I was in under the cold water for 10 minutes and I was out swimming in the Irish Sea in the spring time, which is really cold.

"I did my instructor training with Wim Hof himself and together we climbed Mount Sniezka in Poland in just our shorts and boots.

"It was just amazing and I felt I could then help other people deal with stress."

Scott Riley is leading a retreat focusing on breath work and cold water using the Wim Hof Method (WHM) at the newly opened Bryansford Cottage B&B from July 26-28, cost £499. Bookings can be made via causewayliving.com/whmweekend or by contacting Jay and Mary via bryansfordcottage.com

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