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Myth busting: you only get the benefits of cold water without a wetsuit

If you go for a winter dip wearing a wetsuit, will you be getting the same benefits as those swimming in ‘skins’?

With Wim Hof on the TV and endless articles in the media by journalists trying wild swimming, cold water therapy is definitely having a moment. 

When everyone from Fearne Cotton to Joe Wicks is raving about the benefits of cold water immersion, you know it’s probably time to give it a go – especially if you already swim outdoors. But if you go down to the water in winter wearing a wetsuit, will you be getting the same benefits as those swimming in ‘skins’?

Firstly, always ‘swim your own swim’. If you want to wear a wetsuit, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be a proper winter swimmer. You are swimming in winter, therefore you are a winter swimmer!

But what about the benefits of cold water immersion? True, by placing a neoprene barrier between the water and your skin you won’t be getting the same experience as a swimmer in skins. That is not to say, however, that you won’t be getting any benefits. 

Research into cold water swimming suggests benefits through three routes: cold water immersion; being outdoors in blue and green spaces; and community. So even if you are swathed head to toe in neoprene, you are still benefiting from the feel-good factor of being outdoors in nature. 

When it comes to mental health, being part of a community is proven to make us feel better about ourselves: it promotes a sense of belonging and social connectedness. Those connections we make when swimming outdoors improve the quality of our lives in so many ways. 

And when it comes to cold water immersion, being in cold water in a wetsuit is still going to be colder than sitting on your sofa in your dressing gown! When wearing a wetsuit, cold water enters the suit between your skin and the neoprene – this then acts as a radiator to keep you warm, but initially it is very cold. 

What about cold water shock?

Being in a wetsuit doesn’t minimise the cold water shock response (if anything, I find getting in cold water in a wetsuit more unpleasant than in skins – maybe because the cold is more of a shock when it finally leaks into your suit!). 

Getting your face cold will still stimulate the vagus nerve, which helps you feel good, combat stress and become more resilient. It might not be as strong an effect as if you were just wearing a swimming costume, but you will feel the benefits. 

Also think of the kind of wetsuit you wear – a thermal wetsuit is going to be very different to a swimrun or shortie wetsuit in terms of skin coverage and insulation. Different people have different reactions to the cold and are differently acclimatised. A very slim person in a wetsuit could have the same insulation as a larger person swimming in skins. Obviously the wetsuit creates a barrier to the skin receptors, but the slimmer person will still get cold despite the neoprene.

One of the benefits of cold water immersion is becoming more resilient. Increased resilience will help you deal with stresses in your everyday life. Part of this process is ‘getting comfortable with being uncomfortable’ – and what is more uncomfortable than struggling out of cold, wet neoprene on the side of a lake in a howling gale while your skins swimmer friends are already wrapped up in their robes drinking hot chocolate! Neoprene or skins, we are all winter swimmers.

This feature is from the October issue of Outdoor Swimmer, which is on sale now. Read more myth busting and cold water swimming features.

Image: Jumpy James

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Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.