Come on in, the water’s freezing…

Jonathan Cowie, editor of outdoor swimming magazine H2Open, explains the joys of taking the plunge in the outdoors this winter...


Jonathan Cowie of H2Open shares his tips for Cold Water Swimming Jonathan Cowie of H2Open shares his tips for Cold Water Swimming


This morning I received a text from my friend Mandy: “Do you want to go for a swim?” Nothing odd about that you might think. But outside, even though the sun was shining brightly, a thick frost covered the ground. And the swim she was suggesting was outdoors in an unheated lido – and we wouldn’t be wearing wetsuits.

The water temperature was a finger-and-toe-numbing 4.8ºC, yet the pool was busy with swimmers...

As outdoor swimming has grown in popularity over the past few years, many swimmers have decided to take on the challenge of swimming through the seasons, whatever the weather. This morning at Tooting Bec Lido the water temperature was a finger-and-toe-numbing 4.8ºC, yet the pool was busy with swimmers. As I steeled myself to enter the pool, Mandy lowered herself into the water with a scream and set off on her swim. We all have our little rituals when it comes to winter swimming. I like to swim one length head-up breaststroke, huffing and puffing, before I put my face in the water and swim front crawl. That way I can delay the onset of the dreaded ice-cream headache.

Swimmer Wearing a WetsuitWhen the water is this cold, you can’t swim for very long – often just a few minutes. This isn’t swimming for exercise. So why do we do it? For me, it is the adrenaline-rush of the thrill of the cold. It makes me feel alive. As Mandy and I ran from the pool to the sauna we couldn’t feel our feet but we were giggling uncontrollably. I can’t think of a better way to start the day.

We couldn’t feel our feet but we were giggling uncontrollably

Cold water swimming is a mental and physical challenge – just getting into the water is a small victory. It also gives you a real connection with the natural world: you are in tune with the passing of the seasons. The weather, as well as affecting swimming conditions, also changes the mood of a swim: a cold water swim in bright sunshine is a very different experience to one in the driving rain, even if the water temperature is the same.

As we warmed up afterwards in the busy sauna, talk turned to the coming months. Would it be a hard winter? And, more importantly, would the pool freeze over? For the past few years it hasn’t been cold enough for ice to cover the pool, but when it does the lifeguards cut a channel in the ice and we keep swimming, even though the water is literally freezing.

It isn’t just schoolchildren who look forward to snow and ice, for cold water swimmers it is the perfect way to help banish the winter blues.

Six Tips for Cold Water Swimming


1. Acclimatise

As the temperature drops in Autumn, just keep swimming and your body will get used to the cold.

2. Be safe

Open water can be dangerous. Only ever swim where it is safe, and make sure you can enter and exit the water quickly and easily. Never swim on your own.

3. Wear the right kit

Wear a swimming hat, or two, to help preserve body heat. You can also wear neoprene gloves, booties, balaclava or a wetsuit.

4. No diving

Do not dive or jump in unless you are used to the cold water. Cold water can cause gasping of breath and cold water shock, which can be dangerous.

5. Know your limits

As the temperature drops, decrease the amount of time you spend in the water.

6. Warm up slowly

Don’t have a hot shower. Hot water can cool your core and it can be dangerous. Instead, make sure you have plenty of warm clothes, wrap up well and have a hot drink.


About the Author

H2Open latest issue cover image Dec Jan 17

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