How to start wild/cold water swimming?
"It's everywhere! How do I get invovled?!"
As Spring blooms many of you may be considering dipping your toe into cold water or wild swimming - after all, the media appears to be flooded with images of happy people in trunks, bobble hats and cozzies happily swimming and dipping in the sea/rivers/ice baths/lakes at the moment! Don't be fooled by this. Cold water swimming, like any sport should be approached knowing what you're getting yourself into and fully prepared. Immersing yourself in cold water has enormous, and now well documented, health benefits, but also dangers.
"Own every decision you make... With the freedom to swim outdoors comes the responsibility to do it safely". The Outdoor Swimming Society.
As a qualified swimming coach, and having swum outdoors for years now, I'm writing this from my personal perspective. At the end, there are links to additional resources.
1. What to wear? The kit
Make sure you are prepared! My basics are a swim costume (double thickness), goggles, thick silicone swim hat and neoprene boots. (I'm waiting for some neoprene gloves to become available online!) I do have a wetsuit and use this for longer swims if necessary. In addition, I throw all my kit into a massive easily accessible IKEA bag along with my towfloat (keep keys, phone in and makes me more visible in the water should I get into trouble), water bottle, flask of hot drink, snack, hot water bottle, two towels, spare goggles, thermal socks, ski bobble hat, thermal top, extra hoodie (on top of easy to get off and then on again clothes - like sweatpants, DM chelsea boots...) I have an Alder fleecelined waterproof robe and a Swimzi (both of which I love and keep me super warm post swims!)
2. Where to go?
Locally you can seek out places by looking online, going for a wander, checking out google maps. There are a muiittude of local swim groups to connect with online and find local swim spots. The Outdoor Swimming Society has a fantastic wild swimming map online that is regularly updated. If its a new spot to you, take some time to observe the environment and anyone in the water. Know how to get OUT of the water before you get in!
3. Swim Buddy or Swim Solo?
I recommend you do not swim alone (especially when starting out!) Seek out a local insta or FB group and ask to meet someone for your first dip. I know that near me there will always be swimmers in the sea at 08:30 and just after midday so I can swim safer.
4. What to expect when you enter the water
Before you enter the water take some deep breaths in and out and warm up (there are specific exercises you can do, but jogging on the spot/waving your arms around - anything - is better than nothing!)
I recommend you enter the water slowly. Focus on what is happening to your body. You may well feel you can't breathe. Expel a massive breath (this may seem counterintuititive, but if you breathe out you have to breathe in!) Splash water onto your arms, face, back of the neck before fully immersing. Once immersed you can float to regulate your breathing and get used to the cold. Breaststroke is a good way to start before you immerse your whole face in the water with front crawl.
5. How long should I stay in the water?
I hear a lot of people saying you can stay in one minute per degree – above 10 degrees. I honestly don't know where this came from, and can't find the science behind it. My advice is to do whatever feels right for you, listening to your body. Want to get in then get straight out? Do so! I struggle to stay in for longer than 15 minutes usually in my cozzie at the moment.
6. What to do when you get out of the water
Warm up as quickly as possible! Take off wet, and put on dry, clothes. A bobble hat is one of my favourite post swim must-haves. Layer up! Move around - jog on the spot, wave your arms around. Have a hot drink to hand and drink it. Even being "used to" cold water, sometimes it takes me hours to feel fully warm again. Listen to/take heed of your body. You will feel coldest after up to ten minutes of being out of the water as your body readjusts its' temperature.
Most of all ENJOY cold water dipping, don't worry about what you look like, focus on how you feel, don't try and keep up with others, do what's right for you and swim safe!
There's heaps of fantastic resources out there to help you on your way. Here's just a few:
Wild Swimming | Daniel Start
300 hidden dips in the rivers, lakes and waterfalls of Britain
Wild Swimming | Flora Jamieson and Gemma Koomen
Dip Your Toe In - An introduction to wild swimming
Taking the Plunge | Anna Deacon and Vicky Allan
The Healing Power of Wild Swimming for Mind, Body & Soul
Websites for more in depth information:
The illustration with this article is by Gemma Koomen from the Wild Swimming Book by Flora Jamieson