How to tackle your first cold water swim post-lockdown

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There was a celebratory mood at Brockwell lido this morning. After a month of no swimming, the unheated outdoor pool was busy with swimmers. The talk poolside was: “How cold? How long did you swim?” and, as the shivers set in afterwards: “Why do we do this?” The question was rhetorical – the answer could be seen in the smiles of everyone bouncing around to keep warm. We’re back! And it feels wonderful – bloody cold but wonderful.

The temperature pre-lockdown 2 in Brockwell was 11 degrees. This morning it was 8 degrees. I have been lucky to have been able to keep swimming through lockdown – wild swimming in the Thames. But not everyone was so fortunate. So how to approach your first swim back if you have been out of the water for a month?

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Brockwell lido busy with swimmers on 2 December 2020

Well, obviously you will have been following my pre-lockdown advice! Four weeks of cold showers, ice baths, walks in shorts and t-shirts, no heating and sleeping with your windows open will have helped keep you mentally and physically prepared for your return to the water. But even if haven’t been taking cold showers throughout lockdown, you can still have a safe and enjoyable swim despite a loss of acclimatisation. Just remember some key points.

1. It’s not November anymore.

It’s time for a reset. Don’t expect that you will be able to swim the same distance that you could last month. Even without lockdown that wouldn’t be the case: the water is colder therefore you should be swimming less distance. In November I was swimming a mile in 11 degrees, this morning I did 500m in 8 degrees.

2. Three degrees.

Three degrees might not sound like much, but as seasoned winter swimmers will tell you, it is a big drop. Whatever the temperature difference at your local swim spot, it is going to be markedly colder than it was last month. Respect the water and respect the cold.

3. What does acclimatisation actually mean?

Being acclimatised to cold water doesn’t mean you can keep swimming the same distance you did when it was warmer. It means you are able to cope with colder temperatures BUT to do so you will be swimming less distance.

4. Is this the end of my winter swimming season?

Even if you aren’t acclimatised, you can rebuild (or build) up your acclimatisation. When I started winter swimming it was Christmas Day and the water was sub-5 degrees. So don’t worry if you don’t feel acclimatised (or if you are trying cold water swimming for the first time): it is possible to start in cold temperatures. Just be aware that you won’t be in the water for very long and follow safety advice on how to get in the water and deal with cold water shock.

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Cold water shock can be dangerous

5. Dips not distance.

Unless you are training for an ice mile, winter swimming is not about distance. It is about the experience and how it makes you feel afterwards. Enjoy the experience and don’t stay in the water too long. Cold water must be respected – the dangers of hypothermia and after drop are real.

6. What about my cold water challenges?

There are lots of great cold water challenges happening this winter, both for charity and for personal achievement. Allow yourself time to re-acclimatise to the cold before embarking on a challenge swim. Putting yourself in danger is not worth it for the sake of a new badge.

7. It’s your swim, not anyone else’s.

Just because Sue has swum 500m doesn’t mean you should. Everyone’s experience of the cold is different – listen to your body and get out when is right for you. And remember that every swim is different – being tired, hungry, feeling down, hungover can affect how long you can swim for. One day you might be able to swim for 10 minutes, the next day 5 minutes might feel too long. Be aware of what your body is telling you.

8. Kit, kit, kit.

You don’t need much for cold water swimming – just a swimming costume and a couple of silicone hats. But kit for afterwards is a different story! The air temperature is now much colder so it is going to be more difficult to get warm – especially as it is unlikely we can warm up inside in cafes etc because of covid restrictions. Take that into account when you are swimming. Remember warm layers, coats (I currently take three coats with me!), warm trousers, wooly hats, gloves, changing robe, flask of hot drink etc. A car or van is a great place to warm up in but make sure you are safe to drive before setting off home.

Most of all, enjoy it! A short swim in cold water with (socially distanced) friends is a wonderful way to beat lockdown blues, recharge ourselves and look after our mental and physical health. You can read more advice on winter swimming in the cold water swimming section of our website and watch a panel discussion on winter swimming with myself, Ella Foote, Dr Heather Massey.

01  Cover  April

Issue 48 April 2021

  • Revival! Celebrating our pools and lidos
  • The environmental impact of your swim kit
  • Top tips for returning to swimming after lockdown
  • How to find a wetsuit that fits
  • Legends of the selkies – the myths of underwater folk

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