Our 9 Top Cold Water Swimming Tips for Beginners

Has cold water swimming piqued your interest lately?

Have you ever considered whether cold water swimming is good for you?

You are not alone in considering this a possible addition to your outdoor activity routine or perhaps something new to try.

Despite the chilly temperatures, you may be surprised to learn that many people enjoy open water swimming during winter. As frigid as it sounds, winter swimming when the temperature drops can provide many health benefits.

In this article, we’re going to discuss how cold water swimming outdoors can boost your health and wellness. We’ll also share our best tips for cold water swimming for beginners. 

WHAT IS COLD WATER SWIMMING

Cold water swimming involves immersing yourself in cold water outdoors, most often in a lake or open water.

Wild swimming involves swimming in water temperatures the body is not used to, which activates the nervous system.

This is why it’s generally not recommended to swim in waters with a temperature lower than 12 degrees celsius – as hypothermia can become a potential risk factor.

While swimming in nature has many calming effects, the beneficial effects of cold water are widely reported.

Following a few basic tips we’ll outline below, cold water swimming can benefit your health and well-being.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF COLD WATER SWIMMING?

Here are some of the health benefits of swimming in cold water:

  • It’s great for mental health. Cold water swimming helps you to feel good by reducing stress and making you feel more relaxed.
  • It helps to burn calories. Your heart rate tends to increase when swimming in cold water as the heart has to pump faster to keep you warm. This means more calories are burned than if you were swimming in warm water.
  • It enhances your circulation. Cold temperatures force blood to the surface of your skin, improving your circulation to help you become warmer.
  • It boosts your immune system. Cold water swimming improves your white blood cell count as your body adapts to changing conditions, such as low temperature. In the long term, this aids your body in becoming better at initiating its defence system.
  • It makes you stronger in body and mind. Plunging your body into cold water can lower your body heat and put your body into fight-or-flight mode, triggering cold water shock and putting your body into stress mode. Provided you understand how to safely deal with the cold water shock, your body will adapt to it and become better prepared to handle other types of stress the more you repeat the experience.
  • It increases your libido. Cold water improves the production of testosterone and oestrogen, which is great for libido and fertility. This can enhance your confidence, mood, and relationship with a partner.
  • It helps you to socialise. Joining an outdoor swimming society/group gives you the chance to make new friends and share a new experience with like-minded people.

COLD WATER SWIMMING TIPS

Has reading about the benefits of cold water swimming made you feel excited and ready to find your next swim or dip?

Before you go, read our beginner tips for cold water swimmers; they'll help you feel prepared to meet the water safely and confidently.

1. Take cold showers

Ditch your daily hot shower in favour of regular cold showers. Immersing yourself in colder water daily can help cold water swimmers to start training.

Cold water showers are the best way for beginners to prepare for the water temperature of swimming outdoors.

Being in very cold water can cause an initial cold water shock, resulting in hyperventilation. If you're unfamiliar with cold water shock response, it can make you feel panicked in a scenario where it's essential to stay calm.

By acclimatising yourself to colder temperatures, your body will become familiar with it and help you avoid the initial panic that comes with cold water shock.

2. Choose the right clothing

A wetsuit made from neoprene protects your body from cold temperatures. Just ensure that it’s flexible enough for you to swim in.

The wetsuit you use for your summer surf is unlikely to be the same as the one you need for winter swimming.

Look for material that’s between 4 to 6 cm thick, as this will help maintain your body temperature.

With cold water swimming, safety is key, and you might be sharing the water with other users like surfers, kayakers, paddle boarders and boats! With this in mind, it’s a good idea to use a brightly coloured silicone swim cap to keep you visible in the water.

Some other things to use are a swim tow float for extra protection in the water if you get cramp. Choosing a brightly coloured one, as they often are, will give you added visibility in the water.

Goggles are an excellent idea for improved vision in the water — again, panicking in a natural body of water is never a good look, and it would be understandable to panic if you can't see where you're going.

Neoprene gloves, booties or wetsuit socks will protect your hands and feet from the initial shock of cold temperatures and prevent knocks and scrapes as you enter and exit the water.

After your swim, we highly recommend a highly absorbent changing poncho, such as the Vivida Poncho Towel Robes. These allow you to change out of your neoprene easily without having to find a private place behind a bush or car door. They also dry you off to get you warm quickly, after that cold plunge. 

3. Always warm up beforehand

Though the water may look tempting, spend a little time on dry land warming up before you go swimming.

Doing a quick jog before getting into cold water will help to increase your core temperature and heart rate to help you deal with the cold water shock when entering the water. It will also help to loosen your muscles, improving your flexibility during swimming.

It doesn't have to be a jog. A few star jumps or burpees could be just the thing to raise your body heat. This is particularly good if it's a cold time of year when removing your warm layers of clothes might not feel welcome!

4. Do a recce of your surroundings

Whilst you're on your warm-up jog or walk, it would be prudent to take in your surroundings.

This acts as a mini-risk assessment allowing you to think about what you would do and how you would act in case of an emergency.

Think about how you will enter and exit the water. Are there any slippy or rocky patches you should be mindful of?

Is there a lifeguard on duty, and if not, where can you leave your phone so that it's safe, dry and accessible in case you need it.

What does the weather look like in the area? If the waves look choppier than usual then you might reconsider your swim. If there has been poor weather before your swim, lakes might be less clear and rivers more turbulent than usual.

A great idea is to check out an app like WILD — it includes weather reports, tides and reviews by other swimmers.

5. Enter the water slowly

When the body is immersed in cold water, and its temperature drops, its natural reaction is to gasp for breath, your heart rate will increase, and you might feel as though you're hyperventilating.

Don’t be frightened by this, as there will naturally be some initial shortness of breath, and this is just your body reacting naturally to the cold. The best thing to do to avoid cold water shock is to remain calm and follow these steps:

  1. Splash your face with some of the water first. This will get your body used to the water temperature.
  2. Gradually wading into the water is far better than rushing in at once. Entering the water gently allows your core body temperature to cool more slowly, and you get used to the water as temperatures drop.
  3. Keep your head above the surface if you're new to cold water swimming, as the arteries may constrict.
  4. If you have asthma or a heart condition, it’s best to get advice from your doctor.
  5. Finally, remember to breathe. Take a slow intake through the nose and exhale even more slowly through your mouth. This is how we should breathe if we want to calm the body down, which is precisely the desired effect when swimming in cold water.

6. Don’t push yourself too hard

Knowing your limits is important when you’re a beginner at cold water swimming. If you've made the effort to pack your kit and travel to a natural body of water, you'll want to make the most of it and spend as much time in the water as possible. This isn't always the best idea as your body adapts to spending time in cold water.

Start with short sessions in the water. At first, even a few minutes is ok. Gradually work up towards longer lengths as your body gets used to the feeling of cold. You should be aiming to go for a dip at least once a week.

Open water swimming is very different from indoor swimming. You can become tired very quickly because your body is using energy to swim and extra energy to keep warm.

If you feel exhausted, fatigued or achy, you could be at risk of mild hypothermia, so get out of the water as soon as possible and get warm immediately. If you experience deep shivering, you should leave the water and preserve body heat with a warm drink like hot water or herbal tea — nothing too sugary. Pile on good warm outdoor clothes to generate heat and try to keep moving.

7. Don’t swim alone

Cold water swimming is an unexpected fun social scene that can allow you to meet other swimmers. For some, socialising is as much part of the swim as the swim itself, as the sense of community is a great way to combat depression or catch up with new and old friends.

It’s also much safer to go cold water swimming with a friend or group. You’ll be able to track each other’s progress and stay close to each other when swimming. Check in with one another at the start and the end of your swim to assess the general energy and mood. Share tips on the best entry and exit points, and share a warming hot drink at the end of your swim to debrief and warm up.

You could even join a swimming group to make new friends!

8. Keep close to the shore

Unless you cold swim regularly and have done so for some time, it's always a good idea to stick close to land until you're comfortable with your limits.

Swimming close to the shore keeps you safe if you suddenly get cramp or become too cold or tired and need to get out of the water quickly.

Weather conditions can also change quickly during winter, meaning you may need to end your swim earlier than planned. Unless you're a very strong swimmer, getting caught out in bad weather is not a great idea.

9. Get dressed in warm clothes and put on a changing robe

Avoid any temptation to have a hot shower immediately after your cold water swim. This can cause blood pressure to drop as blood vessels open up too fast.

Instead, dry off and get dressed in warm clothes. Have a hot drink and keep your body moving to return to your average body temperature.

Investing in a good quality changing robe is the most effective way to get warm quickly.This way, you can put on something warm right away while changing into your clothes underneath the robe.

An excellent changing robe will double as a toasty jacket you can pop back on over your clothes after you're changed, so you're doubly snuggly after your bracing cold water swim.

 

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Indie Bornhoft is a personal trainer and watersports coach, who encourages her clients to make movement their mantra. She has coached every ability in wakeboarding, paddleboarding, SUP fitness, and windsurfing for over ten years, and is highly qualified in all disciplines. Discover more about her drive to just keep moving and be inspired to connect to the raw power of body & spirit through fitness.

@trainwithindie