4-way English Channel swimmer Sarah Thomas talks cold water tolerance

Sarah Thomas Column 1

At first, cold water tolerance was a necessary evil for me to succeed in swimming - but I learnt to love the cold

It’s the first Saturday of October, at 6:15 in the morning. It’s still dark out, with the faintest of light creeping in over the eastern horizon. I’ve arrived at the Gravel Pond, where most of my open water training over the last decade has occurred, hoping to sneak in one last long swim before the pond closes for the season. I have no distance goals today; I’m just aiming to swim until 10 am, when the session closes.

The nighttime air temperatures are hovering around 37 degrees F (2.7C). The water temp is still warm enough, right at 58F (14.4C). The temperature contrast is causing a fine layer of mist over the water, as if the air is struggling to steal the remaining warmth from the water below. The skies overhead are crisp and clear, with a nearly full moon just starting her descent toward the foothills to the west.

I strip down to my suit, shivering slightly as the air hits my skin. I apply a light layer of Aquaphor, tug on my swim cap, lick my goggles and slip quietly into the lake. The water is flat, like glass. Other than the splashing of my arms, there is little sound and movement as I pick my way carefully across the 950 meter pond. I’m swimming from memory, unable to sight much farther than 15 meters, in the dark. After I pass the island and over the sand bar, I catch a glimpse of one of the orange directional buoys, bobbing on the water in the mist like a spooky Halloween pumpkin head, emerging from the depths. I grin at him and pass on, eventually touching my feet at the other end, and turning back toward where I started.

When I first started open water swimming, cold water tolerance was a necessary evil- something I must achieve in order to succeed at swimming the English Channel. I dreaded the cold sessions and suffered for hours afterward. However, as the years have passed, I’ve come to love the cold. I enjoy the familiar sting when you first step in the water. The adrenaline rush as blood pours to your core in a desperate attempt to stay warm. The way your mind sharpens. The feelings of elation and joy that last all day. Problems become smaller as your body focuses on one thing: Swimming.

I’m not afraid of hypothermia at these temperatures, I’ve certainly swum farther and longer in colder, but there’s always that risk. As I swim, I’m mentally checking in on myself, making sure I’m paying detailed attention to my body. I’m fully present in the moment, basking in the rising sun, feeling the cold water slipping off my back, grateful for this body that has learned to embrace the cold and to thrive in it. I’m acutely aware of every hand entry, every kick and every breath.

As the minutes tick off the clock and the familiar laps pass by, a few other swimmers arrive, though nothing like the crowds we see in July and August, when the water is warmer. The skies lighten around me and the colours of the morning awake, emerging from the grey pre-dawn. The sky turns light pink, then blue. White, puffy clouds appear. The trees along the edge of the pond divulge their true golden, yellow colours. It’s rare we get to swim here in October, and I’m savouring every delicious stroke that feels like a new discovery of a place I thought I knew perfectly already.

A warm welcome to our new monthly columnist • Follow Sarah on Instagram @sarahswims04


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01 Cover January

Issue 45 January 2021

  • The Northumbrian adventurer blazing his own watery (and icy!) trail
  • Keri-anne Payne on how to train like an Olympian in 2021
  • History, nature writing and the Troubles
  • Sarah Thomas looks at the icy thrill of ice miles

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