Last year I entered the water on Hampstead Heath on a December dawn. I could not stand the 4-degree coldness, the pool spat me out. So, in September I decided to take to the water each weekend in attempt to soften my body to it. To open my arms, heart, stomach, liver – exposing my organs and my mind. To learn to accept the cold-water shock with complete calmness.
On landing after a work trip away, the first place I head to is Jesus Green Lido in Cambridge, I imagine the water and crave it. The lido will only be open to the end of Spetmeber, I will need to find a winter watering hole soon to submerge myself into. I want the coldness, I am excited for the moment I am wading beyond waist deep accepting the coldness composed and without a sign of complaint. As the water surrounds me my blood does not know whether to flush my skin or heat my core. The dense water feeling on my limbs purifies away the week’s stresses. I wish to let this coldness into me, to become permeable to it.
On moving to West London in October, Max and I found there was quite a winter swimming scene (check out the Facebook communities!). We found 3 nearby lakes to choose from, Denham, Shepperton and Bray. Each lake was closing at different times throughout the autumn with Shepperton closing mid October, Denham in early November, but Bray is open all year!
During October we were on the coast for 2 weekends in a row and swam in the sea. On returning to London, I had not realised that the small land locked bodies of water were falling dramatically in temperature with the air temp. The sea was stable at 16-degrees and posed no threat to my body. On returning to the lakes west of the M25 I was acclimatised for the cold-water shock, but not the drop.
The thermometer read 10 degrees as I crept anxiously up the jetty at Denham lake. Wetsuit clad swimmers crowded round to watch me enter the water, muttering ‘she is not going in is she?‘ This was a big jump in temperature to ask of myself seeing as I am new to winter swimming. I decided just 5 minutes today, experience the drop and tomorrow try again for longer if re-warming goes ok. I knew that if I missed this weekend of swimming then I would struggle to continue cold water swimming this year. Thankfully, the next morning at Bray Lake the temperature was 10.5degrees and I happily swam for 20mins.
November has arrived and Max (he wears a wetsuit and is still swimming 4km in an hour!!) and I are still swimming each weekend. This weekend the temperature rose back to 8.5degrees, but I decided to wear neoprene socks and gloves. This made a huge difference to re-warming as I had begun to struggle and dread it. My hands and feet remained cold, but my hands never turned lobster red and I maintained some level of dexterity.
I pride myself on my ability to listen to my body and hear its needs, but winter swimming is a new sensation and there are several things to know. I must emphasise I am not an expert in cold water swimming or a health expert, but I can share what I have learnt through both reading other’s experiences and through my own mistakes. Here are some starting points for anyone seeking to become a year-round cold-water swimmer.
Where to swim?
There are open air lidos dotted around the country, but a good place to look online is triathlon clubs as they will know the best local open water swimming lakes. Through Facebook there are many communities that have social swim groups and are a good place to go for advice. The sea is an easy option, but there also a couple of all year- round swimming lakes. The benefit of organised swimming lakes and lidos is there are life guards and indoor facilities available. If you are new to cold water swimming, these a good place to start. Here is a little bit of info on the three lakes we use west of the M25. All cost about £5-6 for a swim.
- Denham is a waterski lake and the water dyed to stop weeds growing. You enter by a ladder and there is a life guard on duty. Indoors you have changing rooms, showers, sauna and a bar for hot food and drink. This a staple lake for us, with a large swim loop, friendly staff and great atmosphere. You can also hire wetsuits. In the summer it is really popular with triathletes, but as the temps drop the cold water swimmers are all that remain. On Monday nights in the summer there is also a BBQ!
- Shepperton is a beautiful open swim spot in! If you are a new open water swimmer or a bit nervous, then I can recommend this location to try it. This was the most well run, clean and beautiful open water swim we have experienced in England. Clear, deep, weed free with great safety cover (kayaks and life guard, who will watch you swim 100m before you can swim a larger loop on your first visit) and sandy beach entrance. There are 3 swim options – short out and back by the shore, 450m loop and 750m loop. Includes fresh water (cold) showers and changing rooms/ toilets. You can buy hot drinks after and I believe can hire wetsuits there. A lot of triathletes, but I swam without a wetsuit, nice and slow and it was gorgeous. Very friendly organisation and zone3 reps on site.
- We have only visited Bray in the winter, but we love it! Great indoor facilities (good radiator in changing room), well run, cafe, life guard on duty and has 3 swim loop courses including a cold water loop close to the shore for the skin swimmers. The largest loop is 1km so Max is very happy! In the winter the lake is still VERY popular and after a swim every one sits around trying not to spill their hot teas as they shiver away chatting about what they love about cold water skin swimming! This lake has a great community of both triathletes and cold water swimmers and also runs social swim events.
When to start?
Start cold water swimming in the summer, before the temps drop below 16degrees and gradually build up your swimming duration. Cold water swimming is about adaption. Try swim at least once a week, more often is better and you can complement your one swim week with cold showers or baths. Saying this, I have never had a cold bath (I live in a van) and some people do start swimming in autumn! Wear a swim hat, feel free to breast stroke head out or swim front crawl, it does not matter!
We have all experienced the gasping for air reflex of cold-water shock. Unless you are practised, it may be best to get into the water slowly at your own pace rather than diving in. I am not sure if you get used to this shock feeling, or now that it is winter the smaller difference between air and water temperature reduces the shock feeling? All I know is I love this feeling and crave it (though I recently found out that no one else does!).
First 10 mins
The first 10 minutes your skin and limbs feel tingling and burning. After this, your body restricts blood flow to your extremities so this feeling passes. My rational human brain spends these minutes calming my reptilian brain that is screaming at me to exit the water. You can feel pretty comfortable once this sensation passes, but do listen to yourself and get out if you need to whether for mental or physical reasons, do not push yourself.
How long to swim?
Wear a watch. You can feel good in the water and might not want to get out, but you need to acclimatise gradually, not just to the temperature changes, but to the duration you are in water. The drop (see point 6) is still to come! A rule of thumb is 2 minutes per degree, so 10-degree water means a 20-minute swim. However, do not set time goals and listen to your body. I read online that if you start feeling AMAZING, get out!
You have at most 10 minutes before the drop so plan your re-warming routine before arriving at the water. Play it out in your mind and lay your clothes out in the correct order. You need to rewarm slowly so no hot showers as these will speed up the drop before you are dressed. My routine is,
-Keep swim hat on
– Layer up my torso first, legs can wait. Remember your hands will not be functioning well. I go with T shirt, thermal long sleeve, wool jumper and a down coat.
– Trousers and thick socks
– Replace swim hat for wool hat.
– Now get a hot drink in.
The drop is where the cold blood in your extremities begins to be recirculated into the rest of your body. This cold blood will travel to your organs and your heart and cause your core temperature to drop very quickly. It can be unpleasant. It may not be safe for you to drive until you have recovered. Try get somewhere warm, have hot drinks and allow the shivering, shivering is helpful. Give yourself at least 30 minutes of rewarming, this is great if you are at a cold swimming lake with a café to meet other swimmers and chat before heading home for a warm shower and breakfast.
I am not sure how much I will keep swimming when the water falls below 6degrees, if I stop enjoying it I won’t continue. I may stick to the sea on the south coast when I can. Below this temperature it can be dangerous and there is risk of cold-water injuries to extremities. Many swimmers use neoprene gloves, booties and hats. Be careful, listen to your body, but have fun!
Finally, I am not sure why I am doing this each weekend. I enjoy a feeling of privilege experiencing the view of the water and the sky from the lake level and the bodily freedom of swimming under the clouds, especially when it is blustery. For me, it is the clear headed feeling on entering the water that I crave. Forcing my brain and body to accept the cold and enter the water despite it. I am interested in what makes other swimmers head to the shores in winter so please comment!