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What to wear in winter: tips for cold water swimmers

Just in case anyone’s landed on this page by mistake, this isn’t a fashion column. Last weekend Ella Foote invited me to join her for a swim at Parliament Hill Lido, a beautiful unheated pool in North London. The water temperature was nine degrees Celsius and the surrounding air six, according to the pool thermometers. However my car thermometer read 2.5 degrees and I had to scrape ice off the window before setting out.
Any swim is potential writing material. Today I was curious to see what visitors to the pool were wearing. At seven in the morning it was just getting light. Already about 15 people were in the water swimming widths. I didn’t see this written down anywhere but apparently the rule is you swim widths until 7.30am and lengths thereafter.
I’d been told that wetsuits were welcome at the pool, but none of these early birds wore one. Mostly they were swimming breaststroke, but some were doing crawl. They all seemed totally comfortable with the single digit temperature but one man did comment to me, on his way to the shower after his swim, that “it’s a bit fresh in there today.”
The early crowd mostly wore just a costume, hat and goggles – traditional swimming attire – although a few (the head-up breaststrokers) had forgone the cap. Some wore nothing but trunks.
At 7.30 the width swimmers made way for length swimmers and it was time for a couple of experienced marathon swimmers to settle in for up to an hour of steady pacing up and down, again in traditional swimming costumes. They were joined shortly afterwards by what I assume to be triathletes, dressed in wetsuits naturally but also with a bag of kit and a drink bottle to leave at the end of the pool. As the morning progressed people came and went, and it was fascinating to observe the different combinations they wore:

  • Diving wetsuit with full hood, gloves, boots, no goggles
  • Swimming wetsuit, regular cap and goggles
  • Neoprene boots, budgie smugglers, neoprene hat, no goggles
  • Neoprene boots and gloves, regular costume, regular cap and goggles
  • As above but with neoprene hat
  • Full neoprene hood, board shorts, goggles
  • Bikini, regular cap and goggles
  • Neoprene gloves, regular costume, regular cap and goggles
  • Baggy shorts only
  • Regular swimming costume, goggles and neoprene hat

I would have liked to take pictures but shoving a camera in strangers’ faces at a swimming pool doesn’t tend to go down too well; nor does hiding in the shadows with a telephoto lens. However, when it comes to cold water swimming, it seems almost anything goes. The main thing was to enjoy the water, whatever you had to wear in order to do so. Talking to swimmers at the pool it became clear that cold water affects different people in different ways. For me, once I’m over the initial shock, it’s my teeth (more Sensodyne needed), my cheeks and the back of my head (ice cream headache) that hurt. For some people it’s their feet that cause most discomfort and others it’s their hands. What you choose to wear depends on where you suffer.
Although I’ve done (very) short sprints in water below five degrees, nine degrees is the coldest I’ve swum in for any reasonable amount of time without a wetsuit. What I always find amazing about cold water is how, after you’ve overcome the initial shock, the pain disappears and for a while you feel quite comfortable. Then, for me at least, I start to lose control of my fingers and swimming feels clumsy, then the back of my neck begins to feel stiff. I’ve always got out at that point.
What to wear after swimming is equally important. Ideally you should have lots of easy to put on layers, including a hat, warm socks and gloves. You could mistake a group of winter swimmers for the homeless when you see them huddled in their fleeces and body warmers, with shaking hands clasped around steaming drinks that they are unable to steer towards their mouths. Their speech will be blurred and their eyes wild.
If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, and you live close enough, Parliament Hill Lido is a fantastic spot to try out cold water swimming. Steps at the shallow end allow you to enter the water gradually, and it’s shallow enough that you can stand up and get your body out of the water quickly should you need to. As you progress and get used to it, you can switch to swimming 60m lengths. There are hot showers for afterwards but caution is needed. Showering when your extremities are cold reinvigorates your circulation sending cold blood back to your core. It’s not unheard of for people to faint because of this.
The pool is open all winter from 7am until 12 noon.

Parliament Hill Lido