A webinar facilitated by Open Water Swimming Coach Kath Ferguson. An Introduction to Winter Sea swimming.
The skill you need for winter swimming is patience. During a season full of storms it’s a waiting game for safe swim conditions.
I am often asked what do you need to swim in the sea through the winter? Is it maintaining the frequency of your swims? Is it having all the kit? Is it a wetsuit? It is none of these. What you need to swim in the sea, through the winter, is patience.
Along with a drop in temperature comes an increase of storms and conditions that are unsafe for swimming in the sea. With less daylight hours, opportunities to swim can be scarce for days on end and there is quite literally nothing you can do but wait. I’m not very good at living in the present. I tend to live in the past, rehashing and overthinking every interactions, or the future, making an overwhelming amount of plans in the pursuit of happiness. Being present and being patient is very difficult for me. But if I don’t practice patience it can be detrimental to my mental health.
I am also asked how cold water sea swimming through the winter improves my mental health. Based on the above you could assume it would have negative connotations. But it doesn’t. The answer is, in lots of ways. The kindness of the community I swim with is uplifting. My time in the water is full of fun and innate joy. The cold water biting and burning my skin improves my resilience in my day to day. But, one of the most fundamental impacts it has had is it has taught me how to wait and appreciate the present and the swims no matter how scarce they are.
I learned that lesson, the hard way, some years back. About 8 years ago I attended a conference in Cornwall in the winter. I travelled with a couple of colleagues from the south coast. We took our surf boards and at the first opportunity during a free afternoon, we pulled on our neoprene and headed to the beach. The wind was cross shore and savage. There were blinding squalls. The waves were all over the place. And it was cold, bitterly exposed Atlantic cold. Undeterred we paddled out. Waves are rare on the South coast so anything is better than nothing right? Well no.
I spent a good hour being smashed about on frankly shit waves, every bash depleting what little energy I had left. I was tired, I was frustrated but I refused to get out. Soon, I was pretty much incapable of getting out past the waves, my arms were like jelly and my head dropped so far my cheek was practically stuck to my board. But then it happened. The happy ending to this tale, isn’t the perfect wave but the realisation that I needed to stop. What happened next I remember so intensely, when I think about it I am transported back to that moment. I sat on my board, finally past the breaking waves, exhausted, freezing while hail from another squall stung my face to the point of crying. I sat motionless, depleted and defeated. And I became acutely aware of my surroundings. I marvelled at the towering granite cliffs and watched the waves relentlessly pound at their foundations. The sky was full of fast moving grey, fully laden clouds, they were hypnotic to watch from my front row seat. I took immense pleasure at what was on offer, and that was not good surf conditions. And I was happy, content, in the illusive moment. I headed back to shore when my numb fingers reminded me I’d outstayed my welcome. Surfers have long since learned patience, finally so had I.
When I started swimming in the sea year round I was able to apply my new found approach of waiting for the right time. It is assumed that those that advocate the benefits of cold water swimming go in every day. But that simply isn’t true and just not possible. Even if you have the time and energy the sea will dictate whether it is safe to swim. Like good surf conditions, good swimming conditions are not guaranteed. You can only control how you respond. The world we live in is all about the immediate and instant gratification. We can sometimes sneer at the younger generation as they order food to be delivered by Uber in five minutes, buy the latest trendsetting item of clothing the day it launches, use of snapchat and TikTok counting the speedy likes. But are the middle aged (me included) not guilty of the same when we moan about our WIFI providers, in inability to get a next day delivery and, as is the case for a sea swimmer, when you cannot get your cold water fix because the sea is inaccessible? If your expectation is that you can get what you want when you want it you will always be disappointed. In my case I have applied this to swimming in the sea through the winter. I am swimming to improve my mental health but without the right mindset and approach, in my case setting the expectation that I won’t always be able to swim, it can actually have the adverse effect.
According to the OED patience is the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious. Not much research has been done into patience and the link this personality trait has to mental health and wellbeing. A study published in the the Iranian Journal of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences in 2015 examined the relationship between patience and mental health “Conclusions: Patience is a unique predictor of mental well-being. It is suggested that long-term patience is more important for depression and general health, whereas short-term patience is more beneficial for hedonic well-being.” So while we seek the solace of the sea to improve our wellbeing it should go hand in hand with our ability to wait.
I see practicing patience as a powerful choice that suppresses the stress of modern day living. I don’t always achieve it but I try! According to Judith Orloff a practising Psychologist, “Practicing patience will help you dissipate stress and give you a choice about how you respond to disappointment and frustration. When you can stay calm, centered, and not act rashly out of frustration, all areas of your life will improve.” Whenever I go for a sea swim I am prepared to abandon it before or during the swim. This may be because the sea conditions are unsafe but it could also be because there is pollution, I’m too tired, it’s too busy. In beauty spots in rural parts of the UK people block roads, park in passing places, block access to farm land in their pursuit of a swim…… I always have a plan B so waiting for another opportunity to swim isn’t such a difficult decision.
Living in Sussex can be a challenge when you want to swim outdoors. There is a distinct lack of inland waterways or sheltered coves. There is one ugly industrial port you can access when the sea is just too rough to swim in but frankly it is like swimming in used dishwater and the back drop is like something out of a dystopian novel. Being a coastal county all of our rivers are tidal meaning the safe slack tides may not be at a time when you are able to swim or in fact during daylight hours. The porous chalk of the South Downs prevents lakes from forming and any there are tend to be privately owned or privately run. Pells Pool, a beautiful spring fed freshwater outdoor pool remained open until November this year but has now closed for the winter. Saltdean Lido only opens it’s heated outdoor pool for the summer season. So when relentless storms arrive on our shores at the start of the winter season, there really is no option for me but to wait.
Finding other things to do other than swim in the sea is a good way to wait it out and can still provide the cold water therapy and blue space that your wellbeing requires. Reframe your winter sea swimming as a small part of the holistic experience. Part of the adventure could be looking through maps for new swim spots and a coastal walk with friends. Even if you are unable to swim you will have found a new swim spot for a future date and enjoyed the journey. If the sea is not safe to swim in it may still be okay to play in the shallows. Sit on the shingle and let the waves roll over you, known locally as pilcharding or wave bathing. It’s a really good way to watch the behaviour of waves and understand their strength and gain the experience and expertise needed to swim another day. Beachcombing or beach cleaning are really mindful pastimes and a really good way to understand the topography of your local beach as well being a guardian for your swim spot. After the recent storms there is a huge amount of plastic in the strandline and it you feel like you have done something positive as you place it in the bin. On a recent beach clean a particularly wet weather front arrived very suddenly after blue sky. I was soaked though to the skin, resistance was futile and I found myself laughing uncontrollably at the situation – pretty much the same experience as swimming in the sea! And the reward was a hot bath afterwards.
Even if the sea provides the perfect swimming conditions I may not be physically or mentally capable of a swim. During the colder months people are more prone to illnesses and this year a significant number of people will have contracted C19 which entails a slow recovery. Physical injuries like sprain and strains also put a stop to swimming. I suffer from BPPV which kept me out of the water and in bed for quite a while this month. Experience reassures me that my ability to enter the cold water again, when I am ready, will always be there. I can understand the fear of those new to winter swimming that they will lose the cold adaptation they have built up to combat a drop in sea temperature and nurtured since the summer, if they do not swim regularly. This simply isn’t true. Yes getting in regularly helps, I hardly have a gasp reflex at all after 4 years of skin swimming but it isn’t the be all and end all. Don’t worry so much about cold adaptation, it’s the acclimatisation you do before each individual swim and entering the water safely each time you swim. that is important. Not how often you swim. A couple of years ago I was unable to swim for 3 weeks. When I was finally back in the sea it was no different to any of my other dips. So if you can’t get in for days or even weeks, don’t sweat it. And trust me when I say, that first swim after a setback is oh so sweet!
Above all remember, all good things come to those that wait!
The first question a fellow open water swimmers asks you is, skins or suit? Most people are a mixture of the two. Here is our guide to neoprene accessories, how they work, and how to look after them!
Are you skins or suit is pretty much the first question fellow outdoor swimmers will ask you. And my answer is both. I have been swimming in the sea, year round, for 10 years. The first 6 in a very thick 5mm wetsuit, gloves, boots and hood and skins for 4 years, the last one forgoing boots and gloves too. I choose what to wear depending on my swim. I have a 5mm watersports wetsuit for teaching children in, when I can be in the water for up to 2 hours in the middle of winter. I even wear my swimming wetsuit when I am coaching in the summer a lot of the time so I am warm and prepared to deal with emergencies should they arise. I also wear it when I swim alone for long distances, again for the same reason, I want to be safe. But most of the time I swim in skins. And it isn’t because of the faff. After decades of putting wetsuits on and taking them off I’m pretty quick at it and I have plenty of space to dry them. It’s just because now I associate my wetsuit with work or a work out and I associate skins with fun!
IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU WEAR AS ALONG AS YOU GET IN
Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water between your body and the suit, that your body warms up, so you need to get wet! Wetsuit wearers tend to gasp when the water finally trickles from the neck down the back. So you see, it does not protect you from cold water shock and you still get that initial ‘getting in’ screeching feeling, but you will be kept warmer over all by the neoprene. Neoprene is made of small closed cells that are filled with air which provide insulation against cold water by trapping heat in. The thing that they do need to be is tight. It will loosen a wee bit in the water, as it expands, but it does need to be close fitting without constricting the movement of your swim. Can you wave your arms about and do some squats is a good way to test it out for size. Too big and it will just fill-up with too much water to warm up, so pretty much pointless. If your core is kept warm by a wetsuit, a noticeable difference will be you hands, feet and head stay warmer for longer and so you may be able to swim head in and without the faff of socks and gloves as temperatures decline.
So what type of wetsuit? Oh and there are so many. So work out what kind of swimming you want it for and how you deal with cold temperatures. So you can opt for a swimming wetsuit or a watersports wetsuit. A swimming wetsuit is specifically designed for front crawl, lots of shoulder and arm flexibility, a smooth surface and it makes your bum buoyant to achieve correct body position. They can rip and tear easily so you need to be very careful when putting it on and it can make your neck and shoulders ache if you are wearing it to do head up breaststroke as you are fighting against a floating derriere. (There are also tri-suits which are specifically design for triathlons and transitions ). A watersports wetsuit is more robust but much less flexible making front crawl a lot of hard work. It is perfect for bobbing and head up chatting swimming though.
How thick should my wetsuit be? The thicker the suit’s neoprene, the warmer the suit will be because it has more heat-trapping insulation. However it is a trade off so the thicker the neoprene the less flexible and more constricting your suit will be. The normal range of thickness for swimming outdoors in the UK goes from 2mm in the summer to 5mm in the winter. The thickness various across the suit as it is thicker on the torso to aid with body position and keeping the core warm and thinner on the limbs for freedom of movement. You can of course opt for sleeveless, shortie, vest, cossie, zip up jacket, leggings….the list is endless. All aimed at keeping your core warm the difference is simply down to personal choice.
Many skin swimmers opt for neoprene accessories, like gloves when temperatures really begin to drop. Some swimmers suffer from Raynaud’s Syndrome, Cold water Urticaria and chilblains. For them gloves are a game changer and allow them to continue enjoying cold water swims. Indeed it allows most skin swimmers to continue as the hands feel the cold strongly and after a prolonged period in the water warm blood is redirected away from them to keep your core warm making them colder still. Much like your choice of wetsuit or neoprene core warmer the right gloves for you will depend on what kind of swimmer you are or swim you plan to do. If you wish to continue head in front crawl throughout the year then you need a thinner glove with good flexibility so you can continue to feel the water and adjust your stroke accordingly. It you plan on a head out breast stroke you may be happier with a thicker choice. What ever you choose the advantage of wearing gloves is that you are able to get dressed and warm quicker after your swim than someone with numb lobster claws.
These are all slightly different and again should be selected for the swim you want to do or the swimmer you are. The purpose of neoprene shoes is to protect the sole of your foot but not keep your feet warm. The purpose of the neoprene sock is to keep your feet warm but not protect the soles of your feet. The purpose of a neoprene boot is to do both. Both the shoe and the boot will affect your ability to swim as they will make your feet too buoyant but a good sock should allow you to swim normally regardless of which stroke you are doing. Again they need to be tight fitting or they will end up full of water some have additional fasteners to keep them flush to your skin. The boots can be awful to get on and off but there are some that have zips to make it easier. All offer some form of protection, for example, allowing you to enter and exit the water safely if it is a steep shingle beach and stopping shar objects from cutting your feet. So some form of neoprene on your feet is a good option for swimming year round!
It is a bit of an old wives tale that your body loses a lot of its heat out through the head. However as normally the only bit of your body that experiences the sea temperature, air temperature and wind chill while swimming outdoors it is a good idea to keep it warm. Again there are few options for swimmers to chose from. Whatever you wear cover your ears, they definitely need protecting from the cold water and ear infections and swimmers ear can keep you out of the water for long periods of time, so cover them up with some neoprene.
Neoprene is not cheap, and it goes through more stress than normal fabric, constantly being submerged in water, which in my case is salty. It is held together by a mixture of glue and stitching which don’t take kindly to be roughly treated. So look after it. Turn them inside out if you can and give them a rinse in fresh clean water. I put my watersports wetsuit on a gently rinse cycle in the washing machine, my swimming wetsuit I do not, it’s too fragile. If they really pong you can add a bit of specialist gentle detergent. To dry them, inside out again if possible, remembering to turn them the right way when they are dry to the touch and allow them to dry again. Outside in the wind is always best. Don’t use a coat hanger on your wetsuit – it will stretch and damage the shoulders. Radiators can be used but they can damage the seals and glue! Gloves and boots should be dried allowing the evaporating water to escape – so not upside down or they will remain wet. You can use newspaper or kitchen towel to absorb the stubborn moisture from the finger and toe area but remove it after a short amount of time, remaining in there wet and damp just hinders the drying!
So the choice is yours! Wear whatever you want as long as you swim safe and have fun! You can always strip back to just a cossie just as you are about to exit the water if you want to feel the water on your skin. And look after your kit so your kit continues to look after you.
How swimming into winter in a wild swim community ensures you are looking out for each other physically AND mentally.
There is a reason birds roost together, fly together, flock together. It’s for strength, safety and warmth. And this is also the reason the Salty Seabirds swim together. As we move into the cold winter months and a second lockdown in England, it is more important than ever that we look out for one other both physically and emotionally. In the immediate future, we may be swimming in pairs or not at all due to distance but we definitely need to come together for the winter.
We’ve had a huge increase in the number of swimmers joining our flock since September. A mixture of excitement and nerves as they look to swim through their first winter. Swimmers tend to focus on the practicalities of cold water swimming. Like what kit is required? How long should they stay in? How often should they go to build up acclimatisation? In reality you don’t need any kit at all. Yes it makes it more comfortable to have a sports robe and a woolly hat post swim but really to swim all you need is your cossie, and sometimes not even that. Instead what experience has shown me is, I need support to swim through winter. The support of a swimming community to look out for me both physically and emotionally.
How can we look out for each other emotionally?
Simply by bringing your swimming into your everyday. I don’t mean actually go swimming everyday but the sense of community, kindness and care you experience with your fellow swimmers shouldn’t be left at the beach, but bought into your everyday. Keep in touch with each other digitally with simple text message checking in on each other providing peer support. Particularly if you notice someone has been missing from swimming for a while or if you noticed a change in their behaviour when you last swam with them. Many swimmers live alone and a swimming community that they regularly interact with may be he first to notice if they are absent, if they are distracted, if they appear sad.
We can look at meeting other swimmers for a walk before or after our swims to be able to catch up with each other without our voices being drowned out by the sound of waves. You don’t even need to talk, just being with another person surrounded by the sound of the sea can provide a positive emotion response. Eating, particularly cake after a winter swim is pretty much compulsory so trying out new recipes and sharing baked goods or even stews and soups with one another can provide much needed routine and activity.
If you have been swimming in the sea year round for a while you are likely to have made some swimmy friends that you swim with regularly. You will have a good idea of swim routine and rituals. If you notice any changes to this it may be worth a quick check in with them. If they are normally okay in challenging (not dangerous) sea conditions but are choosing not to go in. Or if they are choosing to go in when the sea is challenging and/or dangerous and this is not a risk they would normally take. This change in behaviour could be due to changes in their wellbeing and someone asking them how they are could make all the difference.
Swimming with others makes winter swimming more pleasurable. It can provide you with the confidence needed to enter the water. If you are meeting someone for a swim it’s harder to back out and you know you never regret a swim! Other swimmers can also provide you with the reassurance that you don’t have to get in. If it’s too rough they’ll sit with you on the beach. You can get the same benefit from cold water swimming just by paddling. Just getting out of the house and being by the sea with a likeminded soul may be just what a swimmer needs! So invite someone to swim with you!
How can we look out for each other physically?
So to do this you need to know how cold water swimming can impact swimmers physically. Our body’s response to being in cold water can be both immediate and when we have exited the water. Knowing the signs and symptoms and what to do to help your fellow swimmers is a really important part of winter swimming.
Cold water shock
Happens in the water. Water does not have to be really cold for swimmers to experience cold water shock. It can occur in 15°C water and it can occur if you are wearing a wetsuit. Acclimatisation throughout the colder months and upon entry into the water as well as breathing exercises can help but they are not guaranteed to prevent it. When you immerse you body into cold water a couple of things happen. 1. You can gasp involuntarily which may result in you breathing in water. 2. Your blood arteries constrict and your blood flow increases to warm you up making the heart rate increase considerably as it works harder. These reactions to cold water can quickly turn into drowning and/or a heart attack. So watch out for your swim buddy(s) as you get into the water, keep an eye on each other, keep talking to regulate breathing. If your fellow swimmer is struggling to breathe and swim – get them out and warm them up!
cold water incapacitation
Happens in the water. While your body is immersed in cold water it works to adapt to this change in circumstances and survive. Blood is redirected to your core and vital organs leaving your limbs and digits without blood and unable to move and function as they should – i.e. you will not be able to swim which can obviously lead to drowning. Whilst you are swimming watch your swim buddy’s stroke, are they slowing down, disorientated, finding it difficult to propel themselves through the water. Talk to each other as you swim asking how your bodies are coping, which bits of them are cold, are they beginning to tire. If you are concerned about a fellow swimmer actually ask them if they are ok to keep swimming – they may well answer yes – so ask them other questions to gauge their cognitive processing like what they watched on TV last night or who their favourite Spice Girl is. If you feel their cognition is impaired its time to leave the water, you may need to lead by example or be quite straight with them about the risk of staying in.
Happens out of the water. All of that blood that left your limbs to keep your core and vital organs warm now heads back out to your cold limbs and extremities cooling back down as it does so. As it is cooled down by your cold body it makes you even colder for a while. You though your were cold when you got out of the water when in reality you will be at your coldest about ten minutes later. Which is why it is important to get out of cold wet swimming attire and into dry warm layers as soon as possible. If you see your swim buddy faffing, taking photos or chatting before they’ve got dressed tell them off! Help them if they need help pulling on layers, now is not a time for dignity and grace. Get sipping that tea and scoffing that cake whilst moving around. It’s also a great excuse for a post swim hug!
Happens in and out of the water Hypothermia occurs when the bodies core temperature falls below 35°C – fortunately the onset is slow so if you spot the signs early enough you have time to take appropriate action. The first one being – GET OUT OF THE WATER. Mild hypothermia: uncontrollable shivering and numbness, loss of simple coordination. Probably more noticeable out of the water than in but again regularly check in with your swim buddy and get out if in doubt. Out of the water, the signs are similar to the After Drop but remember this time the core is cold so moving around will not help warm them up. Get them into layers and lots of them. Get them into a warm shelter, off the cold ground, in a car with the heaters on full will suffice. Don’t put hot things like hot water bottles and mugs of hot drinks near their skin. Moderate hypothermia: confusion and strange inebriated-like behaviour, slurred speech it’s like they are drunk. Get them out of the water now! And if you are on land post swim get them warm with layers, hats, towels, coats, gloves and follow the advice above. Keep them talking and keep monitoring them. Ask them to count from 10 backwards or other more challenging mental tasks and keep a note of how they answered to assess if they are improving or deteriorating. If they deteriorate call 999. Severe hypothermia: blue-grey skin, slow or halted breathing, loss of consciousness. Do all of the above and call 999 immediately!
I am lucky to be a part of the Salty Seabird community. This community has, at times, carried me into the water and now I look to them to carry me through another winter. It’s strange because I don’t usually thrive in a group, but in this one I do. Let’s keep looking out for one other both physically and emotionally so we both thrive and survive! Together we will get through another winter……..
Coming soon the Seabird’s winter swimming webinar with tips on kit, acclimatisation, safety, weather, sea conditions……..
There has been a lot of chatter in the Salty Seabird Community group as swimmers are gearing up for for cold water swimming. Many more swimmers are keen to join the flock as year round swimmers but need some pointers regarding kit, safety advice and tips on getting warm afterwards. So here goes;
What should you wear in the water?
That is entirely up to you. If you wear a wetsuit you will be able to go in the water for longer and be able to bear colder temperatures without the need for boots and gloves further into winter. You will also be able to swim with your head in the water longer into the season. Bear in mind that swimming wetsuits are designed for front crawl and can make your neck and shoulders ache if you are a head up breast stroke swimmer. You may wish to consider a standard watersports wetsuit instead which is more hard wearing and easier to get on without damaging. Oceans sports offer a discount for Seabirds. If you wish to skin swim (no wetsuit) all year round it is a good idea to wear neoprene accessories. Boots not only keep your feet warm but help you exit the cold water safely as the shingles move around with waves and hurt like hell as you try to walk back up to the beach to your warm clothes. Neoprene gloves keep your hands warm and able to function when it comes to fastening zips and negotiating getting dressed. A swim hat keeps the wind chill off your head and your hair dryish which also helps with staying warm. Thermal rash vests, neoprene rash vests and cossie are all options too.
What should I wear whilst getting changed and after swimming?
Lots of loose layers – there is absolutely no need for underwear as you are likely to forget it anyway. We use Haramaki belly bands to warm up our cores and use as bras too. You can also pop a hot water bottle in there to warm up your kidneys. A woolly hat. We use bobble hats as a way to identify ourselves as Salty Seabirds. As soon as you whip off your neoprene or silicone swim hat – get a woolly one on. A Sports robe to get changed under whilst keeping the elements at bay. We particularly like the Charlie McLeod ones which now have version made out of PET but there are lots on the market to choose from. We like the Charlie because it is amply big to get changed in but not so big you can’t cycle in it etc. There short sleeved versions are the most popular. Woolly socks and cozy slip on boots are also recommended along with wrist warmers.
How can I warm up after swimming?
Have a hot drink of your choice. It you use an isothermal bottle to keep it in then poor into a mug to warm your hands. Sip it slowly and obviously accompany it with cake. Hot water bottles are great just be careful not to burn yourself as some have done in the past. You can wrap up your changing towel or clothes in it while you swim so they are warm when you get out. A mat to put down on the cold pebbles to stand on and keep the chill off your feet. Move around, whatever you do don’t sit still, or have a hot bath, or wrap in a blanket in front of a laptop. You need to warm up slowly using exercise. Walk the dog, do squats, run up and down the beach, do the hoovering. You need to warm up from the inside out, not the other way round. Your core and essential organs need to be warmed up slowly to prevent the after drop and hypothermia.
“After drop” is common after swimming in cold water; you get out and feel fine, and then you start to get colder, sometimes growing faint, shivering violently and feeling unwell.” (Outdoor Swimming Society)
Learning to head off the after drop is a key part of continuing to swim in cold water all year round. While in the cold water you can be lured into a false sense of security (numbness!) and stay in for what turns out to be too long. With practice you learn your limitations and just how cold you are going to be about 10 minutes after getting out. You then moderate your swim times and get out before you feel you have to. Then the key is warming up – slowly. If you have a hot shower, for example, the blood can run from your core (where it is working hard to maintain your core temperature and keep you alive!) to your skin and actually make your temperature drop along with your blood pressure – potentially making you feel faint and ‘stinging’ your skin.
How do I know if it is safe to swim?
Only you can answer this question. And if you are asking the question “is it safe to swim?” you are demonstrating uncertainty in your ability so the answer is probably no. It is unfair to ask your fellow swimmers to make this decision for you as only you really know you. Here is a checklist to go through but it is not exhaustive.
- Check the weather and sea forecast using Magic Seaweed, Wind Guru and Windy – this will give you a good indication but nothing beats taking a look yourself. Be prepared to change your mind/plans accordingly when you get to the beach. And during your swim.
- Consider your SEA swimming ability (not pool swimming ability). Are you an able and experienced year round sea swimmer that knows this beach well?
- Have you acclimatised throughout the season and do you know how to acclimatise and prevent cold water shock before each swim?
- How far, how long are you intending to swim for?
- Do you know how to get in and out of the sea safely and are there safe exit points?
- Are you physically well. No injuries, or infections or viruses that may impact your ability to swim and stay warm. Did you sleep well or are you tired.
- Are you mentally well or is your judgement impaired by tiredness, your state of mind of substances
How long should I stay in for?
No idea! That all depends on so many factors like what you wearing, how far you are swimming, what is the water temperature, your physical abilities, your seasonal acclimatisation. Again only you can make this decision. Experience will allow you to understand the messages your body is sending you so try to go regularly and build up slowly. Some get out when they start to feel comfortable and like they could stay in there forever. This is the stage your body enters prior to hyperthermia so it’s good to get out before you become pre-hyperthermic which can make you disorientated and shake uncontrollably. You’ll only do this once (we hope!).
What is the temperature of the water?
The answer to this will depend on who you ask, which forecast you use, what thermometer you use etc. A better question would be how cold will the water feel. So if the wind is northerly it will feel colder because the air temperature is colder. If it is the morning the pebbles won’t have had time to warm up making it much colder under foot. If it’s wavy with a south westerly wind it seems warmer somehow. If you are tired or if you haven’t eaten it will feel colder as you don’t have the resources to stay as warm. If you are just bobbing and chatting rather than swimming consistent strokes you will cool down quicker. So rather than how cold is the water you should be thinking how cold am I?
What else do I need to know?
Most of all have fun! Don’t take it too seriously. Wear a woolly hat and paddle if you need to earn the post swim cake. Find some other salty sea swimmers to share swims, laughter, loud swearing with. The Outdoor Swimming Society also has lots of useful blogs and articles to get you started.
Happy (cold) Swimming!
10 Best Bits of Cold Water Swimming Kit
- Woolly Hat and gloves, arm warmers. – it’s all about the layers
- Sports Robe – to keep the wind chill and rain off you while you change and protects your dignity on a public beach
- Haramaki core warmer – this is a game changer and warms up your vital organs fast and keeps the drafts out
- Changing Mat – keeps your feet warm and clean and you can wrap wet stuff in it.
- Neoprene gloves – keeps your hands warm to get dressed quickly
- Swim hat, cap or headband – you lose lose a significant an=mount of heat from your head
- Footwear – so you can get out of the cold sea quickly and safely
- Neoprene cossie or vest – keeps your core warm so you can stay in for a wee bit longer
- Flask of hot tea, coffee, chocolate or ribena
- CAKE – an lots of it – you have earned it!
The best things about swimming n the sea in the winter in Brighton and Hove.
We are transitioning from winter swimming to summer swimming. Sea temperatures are definitely in double digits. But the waters have been devoid of swimmers. It’s around now that I start to swim less often, but for longer. The swim area buoys are still locked in their winter cages, a maiden voyage may have happened by now. By the time July and August comes around, I avoid the seafront, but I’d even face that to swim with my birds right now. That first swim is going to be glorious, but I still prefer winter swimming………
Over the winter months the tourism trade dies down and we get our beach back to ourselves. We reclaim our treasured sheltered spots in the morning sunshine on the east side of the concrete groynes or wooden breakwaters. Space to spread out the huge array of winter swim kit we have accumulated, borne of experience of regular year round swimming.
For those that don’t live within walking distance of the beach, parking spots are actually available on the seafront. Unlike other seaside resorts, it is not free off season in Brighton and Hove, but the traffic wardens tend to migrate inland to prey on locals rather than tourists in the colder months. Having a car in close proximity to the beach is great for a quick getaway when you need to warm up quick. Those with heated car seats are the most prized seabird friends.
The starlings only mumurate over the winter months. Starlings spend their days on the South Downs but just as evening approaches they make their way to the piers and the marina to roost for the night, I live below their flight path and they often stop and rest in the trees that line the streets of terraced houses. Just before sunset they come together to create mesmerising displays of aerobatic feats. This winter we donned wetsuits to swim underneath them, the best seats in the house. You can also catch great clouds of them in the morning as they head north again for the day, giving the gulls their turf back.
Dawn is at a more reasonable hour during the winter months so a sunrise swim is actually achievable without having to have an afternoon nana nap to recover later the same day. And sunsets are at teatime so swimming in the fading light is a regular treat. Our much treasured moon swims often have moon rises that coincide with sunsets in the winter. We have fire pits and bike lights in tow floats to create a festive and fun backdrop as the light fades. Many pairs of knickers have been lost to the sea as we scrabble in the dark and cold to get dressed. On these swims, you look to the east to see the moon make her entrance and then turn to the west to watch the sun kowtow to her night-time friend. Both are strikingly visible and the sea’s constant horizon ensures you have an uninterrupted view, with the exception of the piers, but they just add to the magic! The colours created by the sunsetting are so much brighter and intense in the winter. There is less water vapour in the air and it is colder which removes any filters. Dust and pollution particles are also less prevalent in the sea. So the best place to watch the sunset is in the sea, in winter. Add in a full moon and some starlings and you’ve hit the jackpot.
For many of our flock, winter swimming brings a strange kind of security. The seaweed dies back and the jellyfish disappear so they are secure in the knowledge that whatever lies beneath will not brush past their legs whilst swimming. The dreaded May Bloom doesn’t plague the seas in the colder months. The algae feeds on sunshine as the waters begin to warm up and at it’s worst it can be like swimming through frothy yeasty beer. It even makes the water effervescent. It can hang around for weeks on end leaving your skin slimy and your cossie stinky. Once it dies back it leaves plankton for the jellies to feed on, so once your skin stops being slimy it starts to get stung. But not in the winter.
Many of our salties swear by cold water therapy as a way to manage their wellbeing. This is only possible in the winter months. There are lots of 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. 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 the benefits are oh so worth it.
Head in swimming over winter is only for the hardy. And that’s not me. I can manage year round skin swimming, without any neoprene accessories but my head is up for the duration, unless I am wiped out by a wave. I wear a swim hat to keep the wind chill away and my hair dry but other than that I am clad in only my cossie. Cold water swimming does not come without it’s risks, you need to make sure you have a quick exit route and strategy. But this awareness can enhance the swim no end. With your head out of the water you are able to notice your surroundings, become more aware of the behaviour of the water and the waves and understand weather patterns. It is also a more social swim as you chat and check in with your fellow swimmers. And for those who feel a swim is not complete without getting your head wet and stimulating the vagus nerve, there is always the opportunity for handstands before you get out of the sea.
Post winter swim rituals also provide more reasons to get in the sea during the colder months. It is a time to dust of your baking books and start making cakes. The extra layers of insulation created by eating cake, makes you more resistant to the cold temperatures. This has been tried and tested by many of our flock. You can also partake in indulgent day time baths to warm up afterwards (not recommended immediately after swimming!). Baths and baked goods are reason enough to swim in December.
So what of swimming now? False summers, that commonly occur in the UK, can bring a false sense of security. Air temperatures rise at a much quicker rate than sea temperatures and also we are now well into May the sea is very cold. Particularly if you are not a seasoned swimmer. Even in mid-summer you can experience cold water shock, a life threatening reaction to being immersed in cold water. So although there is still the opportunity to get your cold water fix I am still wearing my sports robe, woolly hat and haramaki post swim to beat the after drop caused by a cold core . And eating lots of cake!
A guest blog by Salty Seabird Claudine – how to beat the blues whatever time of the year it is!
Guest blog by Salty Seabird Claudine
January, hey? It gets a bad rap. “New year, new you”, Dry January, Blue Monday. Not much fun and joy contained in those words. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
A couple of years ago when I first discovered the body positive movement, it became so much more than a transformation of how I see myself when I look in the mirror. I did an exercise called “taking the blinkers off”, and it opened my eyes to the nonsense I’d been fed by the media for so long. Not only the societal ideal of beauty which for the most part was airbrushed, unrealistic and certainly not what I was ever going to look like, but also to other media bias. I mean, I had of course known about this and been somewhat mindful of what I chose to read and watch, but suddenly I saw through the lies I’d been blind to before.
One of them was about how depressing January is, and in particular the concept of Blue Monday, the third Monday of the year. As well as being a song of my youth, it is a concept apparently made up by the travel industry to make people feel particularly low so they book a holiday to escape the grey drudgery of a British winter. This is despite being “depressed” (obviously, some people actually suffering depression and others just feeling pretty down for a while) and having the Christmas bills coming in whilst waiting desperately for January pay day.
But it doesn’t have to be all bad, does it? I have the joy of seeing my girl turn another year older each January, always scraping together a party for her after the madness of Christmas. Although I haven’t made new year resolutions for years, I like to use the start of a fresh year to take stock, think about what’s happened over the last 12 months and give some thought to the 12 months ahead – how I want to be, and how I can achieve that. And now for the second year, I’m looking forward to swimming (or at the very least dipping on the coldest of days) in some of the lowest water temperatures of the year. It’s a pleasure to have something to look forward to through winter, and for us cold water lovers and to the confusion of the rest of the population, the colder the better.
At the event I curated for iSWIM, entitled Reclaim Blue Monday, we heard from a range of panellists and experts in cold water immersion and blue space. The discussion was about why and how we benefit from this crazy (as some people see it), pastime of wild swimming, in terms of socially, physiologically, psychologically, spiritually and environmentally. What does the sea give us; and in return, what can we give the sea?
We heard about the stimulation of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, enabling us to cope better with stress – physically and mentally. We heard about the transformative, connective and re-orientating power of a swim, especially a chilly one. We heard about the power of awe, and how immersion in freezing water and being in nature contribute to positive wellbeing. We heard of the value of the beach and the sea as a therapeutic landscape, and the idea that the more we use the ocean and gain some benefit from it, the more likely we are to care about its wellbeing and take action against water pollution. It reminded me of the short film, Nature is Speaking, with Julia Roberts voicing “mother nature”, a powerful message about how nature doesn’t depend on us but we depend on it. Nature has existed for billions of years before us, and will exist long after us, she will evolve no matter what our actions. But we need to evolve as well if we want to carry on as a species.
All this means much more than the things we might be encouraged to do every new year: cutting out alcohol, stopping smoking, becoming fitter, faster and slimmer, or setting ourselves goals of achievement, smashing our PBs. It means being mindful of what is around us, of separating the truly important things from those we are told to believe are important. And for me, this begins in the sea. It’s a place where I can be myself, get what I need, and take nothing away (apart from plastic I find on the beach). The sea is a place I can feel free, forget the stresses of the day, week, month, and reset.
Every swim is different and gives me something the last one or the next one may not. It could be a purely physical refresh, a wake up, a shock to the senses by the prickling of the cold water on my skin, bit by bit as I get in. It could be the sense of achievement of getting in a bouncy sea, assessing from the shore when and where to get in, whether the waves are too big, how often they are breaking. Watching the waves break with such power and force, working out where the shelf of the beach is, and how likely it is I’ll get “washing machined” by the shore break. On these swims I barely notice the cold, too busy trying not to drown. Once I’m in, I’ll enjoy the swim, but with a little part of me feeling anxious about how difficult it will be to get out, whether I’ll time it right or get knocked over by a wave, and pummelled by stones.
Once I’m out after a swim like this, I feel like I can take on the world! Or it might be the conversation or uplifting support of fellow swimmers. I’ve had such a vast range of conversations with people whilst bobbing along beside them, hearing and sharing such profound and personal stories with people I’ve just met, or sometimes sharing my own struggles and letting the overwhelm and anxiety wash away, with my tears, into the salty water. Other times, it’s the hysterics of the after-drop, the not remembering exactly how to get dressed, the giggles about a risqué comment from another swimmer, or just the fits of laughter that come out of nowhere and are about nothing.
Whatever I get from a swim, whether it’s the things I consciously feel and think, and whatever unconsciously going on in my brain and my body, I always get something good. Even on the very rare occasion I feel like it wasn’t much fun, I didn’t really enjoy it, felt rubbish as I went in and far from ecstatic coming out, and I got battered with wind and rain trying to get dressed, I’m still convinced I come out feeling better than if I hadn’t gone in. It’s sometimes hard to put into words what I get from it. But every time I get in, once I get over the breathlessness of cold shock, I find myself taking a deep inhale, and as I exhale, I always find myself saying, “ahh, that’s better”. Discovering cold water swimming and meeting the incredible community of i-swimmers and seabirds has certainly cured anything blue about January for me.
Note on the Author; The life-changing film Embrace is being screened again by BoPoFitCo – Christine Chessman and Claudine Nightingill-Rane – a body image coaching duo from Hove. For both of us, and for many more who have seen our previous screenings, it has been a catalyst for a hugely positive change in the way we see ourselves, treat ourselves and the work we do to help others do the same
We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing – George Bernard Shaw
“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.” Victor Hugo
Since its conception, the Salty Seabird Sea swimming community flock has grown rapidly. Not sure whether it is due to the group name, the times we swim or because of the community aspect but the majority of our flock are female. And not just female, but females of a certain age. Most of us fall into the 45-55 age group and we regularly forget our knickers. But we feel a lot younger!
As the sea temperature drops our numbers continue to grow. Swimmers who have been bathing regularly over the summer are keen to continue, with company, into the winter months. Many arrive for their first swim consumed with anxiety about their swimming ability, what to wear and stormy seas. After weeks of bathing with us they are becoming confident water warriors. It’s good to do something you are afraid of. Swimming in the cold sea, when the waves threaten to knock you off your feet provides reason for a very real fear. It would be so much easier to go home. But what the flock have found is, it is a fear worth facing because the other side of it is a feeling like no other. It’s recapturing the feelings associated with our younger selves, having adventures, experiencing pure joy. We are preserving ourselves in salt!
Regularly swimming in the sea exercises our brain, keeping it young by learning new skills like how to read sea forecasts and how to exit the sea safely. Swimmers have learnt by experience that their fears can be overcome. This neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways and synaptic connections in response to learning, having new experiences or healing from an injury, keeps us young!
We are also exercising our bodies – but in a playful, kind way. Free from distraction, in the sea, we can tune into how our body feels (which is bloody cold most of the time). We begin to understand it in a way that is just not possible on dry land. Every part of your body immersed in cold water is talking to you and you have time to listen. We are weightless. We are soothing aching limbs. But we are moving. Anybody can get in the sea regardless of their swim abilities – and just move. This joyful movement has the added benefit of improving memory, focus and motivation. We really are preserving our youth.
Mother of all Movement, Kathryn Meadows puts it perfectly. After starting a family, struggling with PND which lead to an unbalanced approach to exercise, she stopped all intense training. “Part of my knowledge growth in that time was learning to love moving again. Moving for the sake of feeling how awesome my body was, not because I “had” to lift heavier or go faster or prove I was still fit. I fell in love with exploring how it felt to use my muscles well, to improve how efficiently I could use them and how amazing it was when I asked my body to do something challenging and it could respond.” This is also true of our Salty swimmers.
Women who swim through winter have a lack of fuss about themselves. Day-to-day dressing, hair and makeup do not apply here. It’s all about getting warm, fast post swim. Underwear is foregone, layers are essential and showers or hair brushing are positively frowned upon. Photographer Christian Doyle photographed the Salty Seabird Swimmers as part of her ‘Against the Tide’ project. She said, at the time “Getting your subject to relax in soft flattering light is the aim of every portrait photographer. None of the rules apply here – rather it is saying ‘this is us, how we are now, makeup free, cold and wet and unbelievably happy‘. And its’s true. We give less of a f@?k about what we look like. As long as we’re cold in the water and warm afterwards we are happy.
It is not just how our body looks that we are confident about, it is a confidence in its strength and capability in the water. We may not have washboard stomachs, toned biceps and the tight arse of our youth (did we ever?), but we are strong. Whatever shape or size, level of fitness or swim ability our bodies are up to the task of winter swimming. Every month ticked off on the calendar is a reminder of what our wonderful wobbly bodies have helped us achieve. And we need to nurture those wobbles with cake.
During a woman’s lifetime they will experience huge changes. During the menopause years alongside all the delightful symptoms many of us are experiencing varying forms of grief. We are saying goodbye to our youth symbolised by our inability to reproduce. We are saying goodbye to our fledglings and they begin to leave the nest. And many of us are saying goodbye to our parents. It can be a very lonely time and a time of great sadness. But there is a cure for this loneliness and it is swimming in the sea with a bunch of women who have or will experience the same grief as you. Alongside laughter and fun there can also be tears when we swim. But there will also be a hug, some stoic advice and a piece of cake. The salt in the Seabirds preserves your sanity.
Swimming in the salty sea I am not sure if we are being cured, or being cured, but we are definitely having fun! And as Mae West said; “you are never too old to be younger!”
The clocks have gone back, it is officially Cold Water Swimming season. But how do you do it safely?
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)