Everything you need to know about cold water swimming

With a global audience and growing sense of community, cold water swimming offers swimmers and adventurers the chance to explore some of the most beautiful landscapes and natural bodies of water our world has to offer.

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With proven benefits for your physical and mental health, along with the chance to join a sociable and supportive community, it’s no wonder that cold water swimming has been embraced by so many. In this article, we explore this awesome activity so you can learn everything you need to know before trying it yourself.

What is cold water swimming?

Cold water swimming involves swimming or immersing yourself in fresh, natural bodies of water. This can be in the sea, a lake, or a river.

Cold water swimming or open water swimming is unlike traditional swimming in that it takes place in natural environments that are open to the elements, unlike an enclosed location, such as a swimming pool. Born out of a desire to embrace nature and seek out the thrill of cold water immersion, the sport has been recognised to have multiple health benefits with a following of like-minded adventurers and thrill seekers.

Benefits of cold water swimming

Cold water swimming involves swimming or immersing yourself in fresh, natural bodies of water. This can be in the sea, a lake, or a river.

Cold water swimming or open water swimming is unlike traditional swimming in that it takes place in natural environments that are open to the elements, unlike an enclosed location, such as a swimming pool. Born out of a desire to embrace nature and seek out the thrill of cold water immersion, the sport has been recognised to have multiple health benefits with a following of like-minded adventurers and thrill seekers.

Physical benefits

As well as giving you the addictive ‘rush’, cold water swimming can greatly improve your physical health over time. The demanding conditions of cold water swims are a great form of exercise, improving your flexibility, endurance and physique.

🌊 Cold water swimming is great for your immunity too, as it’s a great source of pain relief for muscles and inflammatory diseases. Exposing your body to cold water also stimulates the production of white blood cells and increases your metabolic rate, which helps boost your immune system.

🌊 As your body reacts to the cold temperatures, it directs blood away from your extremities, protecting your organs and decreasing the blood flow to your limbs. The results of this process are similar to an ice bath, resulting in an extreme bodily response that can help refocus the mind, and body and aid muscle recovery.

🌊 Your body’s response to cold water is also known to help boost cardiovascular health and improve blood flow. Cold water immersion causes your blood vessels to constrict and dilate, which helps to improve your immune system to ward off future illnesses.

Psychological benefits

The strong effects of cold water shock response produce a high-intensity reaction as your body acclimatises.

Over time, cold water swimming will help you endure this sensation, known as a ‘strong water shock response’. Building up your body tolerance is known to greatly help reduce stress responses in day-to-day life, as your body acclimatises over time.

For many cold water swimmers, this regular exercise helps them to handle their stress and anxiety, helping them to manage situations in day-to-day life and respond far better to ordinary stress triggers.

Social benefits

Cold water swimming is also a fantastic way to meet like-minded people. It’s one of the fastest growing and most social ways to get outdoors;, attracting swimmers of all ages and abilities.

Friendly community groups give solo swimmers the chance to meet like-minded people while keeping fit. With a shared sense of achievement and adventure, groups of all ages and abilities come together to swim, socialise and feel the benefits of this invigorating sport.

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What types of cold water swimming spots are there?

Rivers are great for swimmers looking for a unique swimming experience.Tok recommends to only swim in a river if you are experienced, or are swimming with a group of seasoned swimmers. River currents and temperatures are prone to change depending on the location, season and altitude. This can make it a thrilling experience and offers the chance to swim in some beautiful locations.

Large ponds or swimming ponds are another popular choice for outdoor swimmers. More accessible in cities and built-up areas than a river or a lake, swimming ponds offer similar surroundings to a lake, on a smaller scale.Depending on the pond’s location, size and exposure to sunlight, the water temperatures may vary. Swimming ponds and bathing ponds such as Hampstead Heath have a great community feel, making them a good choice for a laid-back swim that’s more sociable and fun.

Lakes are a very popular choice for cold water swimming. The large, still bodies of fresh water offer more consistent conditions for swimmers, making it easier to plan swims and find entry and exit points.Open water swimmers can familiarise themselves with the lake environment without the need to worry about tide times or currents, and lakes are generally easier to access for community-based groups. Lake water temperature can vary, and the vast expanse of water can mean it takes longer to warm up after a dip

Sea swimming provides a wonderful backdrop and surroundings but is arguably the most testing environment for cold water swimmers. Swimming in the sea naturally holds separate risks due to the unpredictability of the open water and changing weather conditions.You have to navigate saltwater, tides and challenging conditions, as seawater is far more exposed to the elements. If you’re swimming in open water at a beach, it’s always best to swim at a lifeguarded beach. Chat to lifeguards so they’re familiar with your plans, and listen to any advice they have about the weather conditions on the day.

The cold water swimming community

The community-led nature of cold water swimming makes it an incredibly welcoming sport for beginners. If you are planning to swim in open water for the first time, try and find a local group or community so you can ease into chilly waters with seasonal swimmers.

Fellow swimmers can provide advice and support and can come to your aid should you struggle during your first few swims.

How do you prepare for a cold water swim?

No two swims will ever be the same; this is an exciting thought, but it also means you got to gear up right for each session.

Get to know your swim spots

Being familiar with your chosen swimming spots helps you prepare as much as possible. You may want to check the regulations of the swimming spot to understand certain risks of swimming in that area.

By knowing the area, typical distances, and suitable entry/exit spots, you can have an enjoyable and safe swim, no matter if you’re swimming alone or with others.

Check the tide times

🌊 High tides, or a flooding tide can cause changes in the flow of water, and rip currents can happen which have the strength and force to knock you off your feet and cut you off.

🌊 Ebbing tide refers to when the tide goes out, it can reveal additional hazards such as rocks and seaweeds. Ebbing tides can cause riptides due to the change in water flow.

🌊 Low tide is when the tide is fully out, as far from the beach as it gets. Tides are also susceptible to changes depending on the moon.

Spring tides and neap tides occur every 2 weeks. It’s really important to familiarise yourself with the tide times if you’re swimming in open water. Open water can be notorious for its ever-changing conditions. As an open water swimmer, you are responsible for your safety, which is why it's key to take all the necessary precautions so you can open water swim in a suitable and safe environment..

Check the wave conditions

The size of the wave is dependent on the wind, and as waves break can impact the shape and slope of the ground beneath it. This can change swimming conditions from one day to the next, so it’s important to be aware of the wave conditions on the day of your swim.

Different wave conditions can lead to certain risks and challenges for an open water swim, take a look below.

🌊 Spilling waves are more gentle, found on flat beaches, and are suitable for swimmers.

🌊 Plunging waves are found on sloping or steep beaches, and break with a great amount of power and force. They can break suddenly and can knock you off your feet.

🌊 Surging waves, found in steep beaches or rocky areas, may never break on approach and have strong undertows so be careful.

Take note of the wave height, beach type, and water conditions on the day that may affect your swim. For example, a pebble beach on a stormy day will offer incredibly different conditions compared to a calm day on a sandy beach.

Pay attention to the shoreline, any inlets, and how sheltered the swimming spot is. It’s also important to take note of other swimmers, boat users, or things in the water to be aware of.

Rip currents

Rip currents are notoriously dangerous and can catch you off guard, so preparation is key to ensure you’re swimming in a suitable and safe location. Rip currents form when there is a build-up of water on a beach, caused by the tide and waves. These waves flow from the shoreline back out to sea and can occur at a rapid pace, taking you out to sea with speed and force.

How to Identify a Rip Current During a Cold Water Swim

Rip currents can be identified by churning sand, seaweed and debris floating away from the shoreline. Waves tend to break on each side of the channel, with minimal wave breaks.

How to acclimatise to the water conditions

To avoid cold water shock and hypothermia, acclimatise yourself to the colder temperatures through gradual exposure and practice swims. It’s a good idea to practise breathing techniques to ensure you regulate your breathing as you enter the water.

As you plan to enter the water, let your body temperature drop so the shock is less intense, lower yourself into the water and don’t stay in too long. It’s recommended to have somebody, especially if you’re new to cold water swimming.

How to avoid afterdrop

Afterdrop is a term used to describe a common feeling swimmers experience. It happens when your body temperature continues to drop after exiting the cold water and can lead to swimmers feeling cold, shivery, faint and unwell. It’s really important to dry off slowly and gradually to bring your body temperature back to normal after you’ve swam in open water to avoid the effects of hypothermia and shock.

The cooler temperatures of our skin and muscles start to mix with the warm blood at our core, which can cause you to shiver, feel faint and unwell, and potentially bring on hypothermia. To avoid after drops, make sure you layer up to warm your extremities with socks, hats and layers and have a hot drink to regulate your inner temperature.

Cold water swimming safety checklist

Plan and prepare - Keep an eye on the weather conditions and tide times and take the necessary precautions.

Try to swim with a friend if it’s your first time - More experienced swimmers can help you feel at ease and can keep an eye on you should you need their help.

Map out your entry and exit point - this ensures you can get out easily when you’re ready.

Acclimatise to the cold temperatures - Start by slowly adapting your body to the cold water. If necessary, have a quick dip or practice dips so your body knows what to expect.

Don’t stay in too long - Don’t be a hero and try to push yourself too hard. Recognise your limits and don’t put yourself or anyone else in a dangerous position. Shorter swims can be just as thrilling , so don’t push it!

Dry yourself as soon as you’re finished - Wrap up warmly as soon as you’re out of the water to regulate your inner body temperature.

Have a warm drink to warm up from the inside, and have a sugary snack to help keep your energy up, as cold water swimming can use up a lot of energy. Make sure to pack lots of warm layers to put on straight after your swim.

Cold water swimming safety checklist

Wetsuit - Invest in a high-quality wetsuit designed for cold water conditions. Make sureit fits snugly to provide optimal insulation without restricting movement.

Tow float - A tow float is a great way to keep safe when swimming. It can provide buoyancy if you find yourself in difficult conditions, and it keeps you visible in the open water.

Footwear and gloves- Protect your extremities by wearing neoprene gloves and socks. These accessories not only keep you warm but also provide additional buoyancy.

Safety accessories - Consider carrying safety accessories such as a brightly coloured swim cap, a whistle, and a waterproof phone case.These items can be great to have on hand in emergencies and boost your visibility to others.

For more information and advice, check out the RNLI and The Outdoor Swimming Society.

What to wear after cold water swimming

Towel - After your cold water swim, it's essential to warm up quickly. Bring a large, absorbent towel or towelling robe to remove any cold water and regulate your skin temperature.

Changing robe - Wear a changing robe to help you get dressed in total privacy after your swim. You can wear it straight away, and its’ longer length and functional design help keep the elements at bay.

Woolly hat - It’s important to warm up quickly after a cold water swim. To stabilise your body temperature, keep your head warm with a bobble hat to fend off the cold.

Warm, dry clothing -You’ll need to change immediately after exiting the cold water, so make sure you have everything you need as well as some extra layers.

Socks - Keeping your extremities warm is as important as your core temperature, so make sure you pack some good quality woolly socks! Get inspired and head to our blog for the latest news or get kitted out with our cold water swimming accessories.

Get inspired and head to our blog for the latest news or get kitted out with our cold water swimming accessories.

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