Open water swimming is an exhilarating and enjoyable experience. Being in the water, especially colder water has great linkages to boosting mood and encouraging management of anxiety through controlled stress exposure. Each year thousands of people safely experience open water swimming, either as a total newbie or returning swimmer. However, open water offers different challenges to being in the pool- largely linked to deep, cold water and limited visibility. In winter and spring these challenges are exacerbated by the colder temperatures which put more stress on your body than swimming at other times in the year. Whilst numerically speaking the water temperatures that persist annually across the UK mean we still feel the chill even in summer- in winter the temperatures both in and out of the water are much colder.
Whether you’re a seasoned open water swimming (OWS), a novice or a complete newcomer here are some of my top tips to make your open water spring swim experience run smoothly.
Before embarking on Winter/Spring Open Water Swimming
If you’re completely new to the concept of OWS ask yourself if you feel ready to begin, especially early in the season. Just because we can open water swim, doesn’t mean you need to. Open water swimming is very different to pool swimming, the water is often cold, murky, there can be currents, you’re exposed to the elements and the wildlife (hello reeds that touch you whilst you’re swimming along!) and you often don’t know how deep it is or what is concealed below the surface. Similarly if you’re familiar with OWS bear in mind it is still cold early in the season, often below 10 degrees.
If you are pregnant, have a heart condition, experience high blood pressure or live with asthma it is imperative you seek expert medical advice before cold water swimming. Do not swim under the influence of alcohol (alcoholic courage will not warm you up!) and similarly don’t swim with a hangover- it won’t cure it!
Check if you have the right kit, especially the right safety kit. Whilst many open water swimmers prefer to embrace skins (just a swimsuit no wetsuit) you can also purchase thermal wetsuits or thermal base layers to fit beneath your regular wetsuit. A neoprene hat is recommended to help protect your inner ear against cold air/water which can lead to a condition known as surfers ear and swimming gloves/socks also help make the experience more comfortable and keep your extremities warm which can in turn help your whole body feel warmer. My one piece of kit I will not cold water swim without is my tow float/ dry bag. When the water is colder you can be more susceptible to cramp or cold shock and my tow float gives me the confidence that I can hold onto it and float on my back should I need help.
Finding an Open Water Swimming centre
I highly recommend using an open water swim centre- especially so early in the season. Not only does it support those working at the centre, but it provides a safe location to swim with lifeguards present and a chance to learn from the experience of swimmers around you. Google is a great starting point. As are websites such as Swim England, NOWCA and The Outdoor Swimming Society
When using an OWS centre, ring ahead if anything is unclear, read all the information and advice online and check any emails or communications prior to your session. You may need a membership for the centre so check this too. For winter/spring cold water swimming in particular, you may need to complete an open water swim induction so make sure you check before you arrive.
Each centre will have different regulations and many will require you to listen to a safety briefing prior to entering the water, even if you have visited before. Arrive in good time, respect social distancing (even in the water) and follow all the instructions given to you. Many centres will not offer changing facilities during this period so make plans for this- especially in winter when you will be cold getting out (I have a lovely Zone3 robe to throw on afterwards).
Setting open water swim goals
When setting open water swim goals early in the year the key is LESS is MORE! Ditch the ego and listen to your body, nobody else! Start with low expectations of how long/far you will swim, especially if you are not in a wetsuit. Often the aim in winter is to simply have a dip, manage a few strokes or a few metres. It’s impossible to base the time you aim to spend in the water on the water temperature itself as your tolerance can vary depending on other factors such as wind chill and choppy waters which can make the experience colder/ more exhausting.
Instead, you could simply set your goal as trying a cold water swim in Winter or Spring. Start small and get to know your limits.
Regardless of your goal, if you’re feeling cold, excessively shivering, feeling drowsy, disorientated or tired you must exit the water. Giving up before hitting the goal of your session is not weak, it is simply part of the learning curve of acclimatising and getting to know your body’s cues as to when it has had enough.
Your Swim Experience, Getting in and Gaining Confidence when Open Water Swimming
Before you swim ensure you feel warm, keep your layers on for as long as you can (swim robes are great for this). Make sure you have plenty of layers and a towel easily accessible for when you get out, a hot drink and a snack is a delightful and often necessary bonus too!
The key to entering the water early in the season is to take everything slowly and focus on your breathing and how you feel. Entry in summer is usually much warmer, easier and more pleasant.
Getting into cold water is a real shock to the system. Always go in feet first- i.e. don’t dive in. This is because most of us have a natural gasp reflex when immersed in cold water and when you do gasp you want your head to be out of the water. If you’re entering via a shallow incline wade in feet first, controlling your breathing with each step you take. It is normal to feel your heart rate spike and your breathing become heavy. Take your time, don’t rush, regardless of what others are doing around you. Try splashing some water onto your arms and chest, before submerging your torso whilst you’re in the shallows. If you’re entering the sea be mindful to waves as you can suddenly have a blast of very cold water and be out of your depth.
If entering from a pontoon into deeper water use the steps to ease yourself in, our dip your legs over the edge before gently sliding into the water. Float away from the point of entry so you aren’t in the way of other swimmers and then give yourself however long you need to adjust to the water temperature. This is when a tow float or dry bag comes in really handy as you can float and hold onto it whilst calming your nerves and breathing.
You’ll find a lot of people swim freestyle, but lots swim breaststroke too and if you don’t want to put your head under the water that is your choice. When the water is colder swimming breaststroke with your head out and a woolly hat on can be really pleasant and means you hopefully wont have wet hair when you get out. The only stroke I would advise against is backstroke as you can’t see where you’re going, and this can often mimic a swimmer needing assistance.
Sighting is important- every few strokes you should raise your head above the water and look forward, known as sighting. This helps you navigate where you are going and is even more essential at the moment to help maintain social distancing in the water. Give others space. Not just to follow social distancing guidelines, but also many newer open water swimmers may be nervous.
If you do choose to swim outside a designated centre look out for safety signs, do not swim where signs advise against it (even if others are), avoid locks, weirs and other aquatic structures, avoid swimming alone where possible given social distancing, don’t swim in stagnant water and be aware of tides/ currents.
Where restrictions allow and you feel safe to do so swimming (albeit at a distance) with a more experienced swimmer can help put you at ease, let you learn your limits and help keep you safe in the water.
Get out the water slightly before you feel ready. It is always better to leave feeling like you want more than to get out feeling absolutely exhausted and freezing cold.
Once you get out of the water pat yourself dry with a towel and begin getting warm clothes on as soon as possible. I always pat myself dry, throw on my swimming robe when work on getting my hair dry and getting a hat and a pair of socks on. Thick layers, such as fleeces or woolly jumpers are great after open water swimming in winter/spring. Whilst it is tempting, don’t use a foil blanket to warm up. These are designed to radiate heat inwards towards your body and when you’re cold after swimming you won’t have much heat to re-radiate.
Sanitise your hands and have a hot drink, sugary snack or usual recovery products to help warm yourself up and replenish your energy levels. Hot chocolate is wonderful post swim and helps you warm up from the inside.
Don’t have a hot shower until you’ve warmed up a bit. The heat can divert blood to the surface of your skin which in turn has the potential to chill your core. There is also a risk of burning yourself if you’re feeling a bit woozy or numb.
Watch out for afterdrop- this is something that you can experience all year round, but is particularly common in winter/spring. Afterdrop is the sudden cooling of your core. The very basic explanation is that when you’re immersed in cold water, your body tends to pool warm blood around your core to keep your essential functions going. When you get out and begin to warm up this warm blood is then circulated to your limbs which means your core temperature begins to drop as your limbs return cooler blood. This is why you’ll often feel great when you first get out of the water then start shivering afterwards. Afterdrop can persist for 40 minutes after exiting the water so be mindful to taking your time before driving.
Grass and sand can get everywhere so try keep your kit off the floor where possible, although sometimes when you’re cold it is a mad scramble to get layers on. When you return home shower and brush your teeth then wash all your kit. To do this I hose down my wetsuit, goggles, tow float, swimsuit, hat and goggles with warm water in the shower then leave to drip dry on a drying rack. Wash both the inside and outside of your wetsuit. You can find more info on caring for your wetsuit here.
Hypothermia and Open Water Swimming
It is essential to have some knowledge about hypothermia so that you can keep an eye out for the symptoms, be able to spot others who may be suffering and know how to mitigate against it. Whilst hypothermia may be more commonly associated with winter or spring season swimming, you can get it in summer so it shouldn’t be overlooked. Hypothermia is when your body’s core drops below 35degrees Celsius. It creeps up very gradually on you and is often difficult to spot yourself so always get out before you feel ready to. The main symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, numbness, loss of co-ordination, slurred words and clenched jaw/hands. If you have mild symptoms, gentle movement, hot sugary drinks and wrapping up after swimming can help. For those with more severe symptoms lying them down and seeking medical help may be advisable.
What do I need for Open Water Swimming?
For temperatures below 20degrees Celsius I strongly advise a wetsuit. Not only do wetsuits help keep you warm buy they provide buoyancy and help hold your posture in the water. The water is still cool at this point in the year so check your centre’s restrictions with regards to wetsuits as many have rules about compulsory use below certain temperature points. You can also invest in gloves, socks and hats for cold water swimming. If you have long nails advise in my fabric gloves to get your wetsuit on and don’t dig your nails into the neoprene.
Wear a swimming costume, bikini or tri suit under your wetsuit.
A brightly coloured swim hat is a must for visibility in the water and I also strongly advise using a tow float (currently compulsory at many centres). A tow float is a brightly coloured inflatable that attaches around your waist and floats behind you in the water. Whilst these are not life saving devices they can help if you experience cramp in the water, need a breather between swimming loops or want to hold on whilst you adjust to the water temperature.
Googles- often polarised ones are best for outdoor swimming to help reduce glare from the sun, but your usual pool ones can suffice. Even if you don’t intend to put your head underwater still use goggles as wind or waves may splash water into your eyes and inhibit your vision.
Take a towel and warm clothes which are easy to get on post swim. I also use a changing robe which I absolutely love. Its exceptionally warm and helps alleviate the lack of changing facilities.
My favourite kit for winter/spring includes the neoprene swim hat, neoprene swim gloves, neoprene swim socks and the Zone3 Parka Fleece Robe. I’ve also recently ordered a thermal Aspire wetsuit which I’ve been eager to try (I’m a Zone3 ambassador but genuinely LOVE these products).
Thanks for reading and I hope your 2021 open water swim adventures are really fun and enjoyable. You can catch up with more swim and triathlon tips here or join me on Instagram as I share my half ironman training.
One thought on “Top tips for Cold Water Swimming”
Cold water swim is a whole other thing. My first 70.3 iron man was in a really cold lake. I almost quit as we waited in the water for the start. Once we got started it was fine, but those first couple strokes with my face in the water were brutal.