Many people believe in the healing power of cold water for both body and mind. But cold water does not come without it’s risks. Even in the summer months swimmers can experience cold water shock. So how do you make sure your cold water swim is the cure you are looking for? After 3 years of year round skin sea swimming in Brighton and Hove, this is what I’ve learnt.
Why do it?
There are lots or reasons and lots of research into cold water swimming and why people do it. People looking for a cure for depression, anxiety, physical pain and discomfort. It’s a great group activity and creates community and camaraderie. It’s time away from the fast pace of modern day living. Exposing yourself regularly to stress, by swimming in cold water allows your body and mind to adapt to dealing with stress in daily situations. Yes there is pain to begin with, alongside a lot of profanities but sharing the experience with other swimmers is fun and you get to eat cake afterwards!
How to do it safely
The most important skill you need for cold water swimming is self-awareness. If you’re looking to push your limits do it gradually. This isn’t about your swim experience and abilities. This is how you feel on the day. Have you eaten, do you feel physically and mentally well, do you have an injury. All of these factors need to be considered before entering the water.
Swimming in groups is always a win. But do not rely on others to advise you whether it is safe to swim or if you are capable of a completing a swim. You are responsible for your own safety and your own swim as are your fellow swimmers.
Check conditions before AND during your swim. There are lots of apps that help you do this before your swim and when in the water be mindful of potentially changing sea, tide and weather. Regularly take a rest and check the environment. If you need to, change your swim, cut it short, do it a different day.
Knowing the temperature of the water can be useful but it should just one of your checks before you swim. There is no hard and fast rule about how long you can stay in for and when or if you should start wearing neoprene. This again comes back to self-awareness. Doing it regularly helps with adaptation.
Acclimatisation in the first few minutes is key to a safe swim. Your body’s response to cold water is fight or flight. Your heart rate increases and you will struggle to catch your breath. This in turn can cause swimmers to panic. The key is to immerse yourself slowly, control your breathing and float until you feel it pass. You are then set to start your swim.
Swimmers can also be overcome by the cold water temperatures during a swim so sticking close to a safe exit point i.e. the shore is a good choice and make sure you have the skills to get out via breaking waves.
Don’t be concerned with distance covered or time in the water. On a different day at the same temperature you may only manage half of what you usually do. There is still cake afterwards.
Wearing a wetsuit doesn’t remove cold water shock, cold water still needs to trickle in before it warms up, but it does dull the pain. They are designed to keep you warmer for longer so can increase the time you spend in the water. They also help you float which is only ever a good thing. If you have decided skin swimming (cossie only) is for you then you can wear neoprene accessories to keep your extremities warm.
And as Dory says – “Just keep swimming”. As the sea temperature drops, face in freestyle may become less possible but movement is just as important. The less you move your body the quicker the cold will affect you. If you are struggling to keep moving, it could be the start of cold incapacitation and it is time to get out. Remember cold can overwhelm swimmers very suddenly.
How to get warm
Get dressed as quickly as possible. Lots of thin layers. I lay all of my clothes out in the order I will be putting them on and wrap the first few layers in a hot water bottle. Nothing tight fitting or fiddly. Fingers are too numb for bra fastening and I never remember my knickers.
Move around and keep moving long after your swim. It will take your body a while to warm up and it needs to do it from the inside out. Hot water bottles and blankets warm up your surface and trick the brain into thinking it no longer needs to focus or warming up your core. You may also experience the dreaded ‘after-drop’ as your core temperature can continue to drop after you have exited the water. Also try to avoid hot baths and showers for a while.
Drink something hot and eat cake!
Author: Seabird Kath (who drinks a lot of tea and eats a lot of cake)