How to Make Cold Water Swimming a Regular Habit

Author: Anna Hattersley

I stand at the edge of the black waters of the river watching autumn leaves float by and an icy chill creeps up my shins. Part of my brain is screaming at me to return to the warmth of my couch, but I have never regretted a swim, so I step deeper.

I take my first stroke. My vision clicks into focus. Trees become defined against the sky and colours sharpen. My mind is reset. I feel calm, present and connected to the world around me. This is another swim in my bank of memories that will fuel future swims. 

Building a cold water swimming habit is about feeding that memory bank. It is about strengthening your mind. There will be days when you are desperate to go, but these tips are for those tougher days to help convert your desire into a habit.


Don’t go for a swim!

Go for a dip, a dunk or a splash and celebrate each one. When it is wet and windy  or you just don’t feel like it, take the pressure off yourself to swim any distance. It is safer this way and you are more likely to get in in the first place.

Much of the buzz from a cold-water swim comes from that initial dip into the water and the tingle on your skin when you get out while your core is still warm. You will cool down after getting out so dry off quickly, put on warm layers and relish the post-swim buzz. 

Our tolerance to cold water fluctuates depending on our body that day  and the conditions. The Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) has got good safety advice, as does Outdoor Swimmer magazine.

Expect it to feel like a terrible idea - you will be grateful afterwards

Be prepared for days when you feel doubt and resistance. I often find that the days that I feel least like a cold dip are the ones that I most benefit from so make an appointment to go for a dip and stick to it like you would a work meeting or collecting a child from school. 

Pack your bag in advance, pick it up and walk out the door without asking if you fancy a swim. If doubts come, and they will, remind yourself of times you were grateful you went before.

Always ask if it is safe to swim and stay out of the water if it is not, but otherwise be mindful of the procrastination demons. 

Cold water swimming is  a meditation - an exercise of the mind that begins long before you reach the water’s edge.

Find your cold water community

Ask around to find swimming companions.  A surprising number of people have got the swimming bug and, even if you don’t find a swimmer, you may find someone willing to give it a go with you.

Volunteer at a community lido - that’s a great way to meet swimmers. There are also a huge number of outdoor swimming groups, from charities to informal groups on social media to friends meeting up. The OSS Facebook group can be a good place to start looking.

Whether you are a social being or a quiet soul, finding people to swim with can definitely help you to show up and keep you safe so it is worth investing time in.

Warm your core

Walk, run or cycle to your swim spot if you can. Not only is this better for the environment, but the warmer your body when you get in, the more enjoyable the swim will be so you are more likely to return. If you can’t walk, layer up and move about as much as you can.

One of my regular runs is along a river and when I set out on a winter’s morning, the last thing I want to do is swim, but by the time I have reached a swimming spot, I can rarely resist a dip.

Don’t let kit get in the way

One of the great things about cold water swimming is that you don’t need much kit. I have had many gorgeous swims when I never intended to swim so returned from a run in soaking wet running shorts and top.

That said, there is a lot of gear out there to keep you warm, safe and comfortable. You may choose to go for a quick dip in a cossie and woolly hat, enjoy the warmth of a neoprene vest, gloves or boots, prefer a wetsuit or to wrap up warm afterwards in a changing robe. There is no one correct way to do it - you need to find what works for you so that you keep coming back!

Find what makes you smile

Cold water swimming makes me incredibly happy. I love how my worries disappear when I push off into the river and my mind is reset. There is the fun of messing about in waves or under waterfalls and the adventure of finding new swim spots.

Exploring the world from a pond skater’s viewpoint is magical, as is swimming in the rain and the snow. I love short winter dips and long-distance swims, seeing the river in different seasons and the sea at different tides, the connection to the natural world and the friendships made.

Ultimately, I hope that by packing your swim bag and walking out that door when your mind is screaming at you to stay on the couch, you will build your own cold water swim habit that makes you smile.

Anna Hattersley has been swimming outdoors year-round for more than ten years, mainly in Devon but elsewhere whenever she gets the chance. She is passionate about sport and the outdoors and sharing this with others. In 2014 she got together with local volunteers and saved her local lido, Ashburton Swimming Pool, from closure. She is still a trustee today.