My buddy Gráinne and I have just done our first season of swimming through winter and it’s been a blast! We built a 70 odd strong group for Wicklow Bluetits, which we decided to leave to return to our roots of a smaller more intimate group of friends for our daily swims. We get asked quite a bit for advice about the how to of cold-water swimming, so we thought we’d pull together a joint blog post from our resources to make sure that we’ve links to share when we’re asked – otherwise you’ll have to listen to hours of salty swim talk!
When we originally pulled a document together, it was December and we were cautioning people about not staying in too long and being VERY careful with sea and air temperatures. Actually that advice would still apply for anyone, starting at any time of the year – there is always wisdom to plan not just your swim, but just as importantly, your recovery from that swim too. So our tips from what we’ve learned in this short time.
Know your swim spot: check out where you’re swimming, what it’s like, what the tides are like, currents, what you might need to be aware of – local groups and pages can be a great resource for this as can other swimmers who are more than happy to advise you when you’re on the way in and they’re on the way out! My rule for myself is to never swim if I’m unsure about a spot – it’s just not worth it.
We do always encourage swimmers to be sure to swim with someone else for safety. If you can’t find another swimmer to go with, perhaps have someone come with you to spot you from the shore and keep an eye on you. If I’m swimming alone even with someone spotting me, I have made a pact with my hubby that I always wear my tow float in the water if there’s no one in it with me. We always tell people to stay within their depth and swim parallel to the shore too instead of out to greater depths.
Pick a milder day if you can for your first few swims – air temperature can make a big difference especially if it’s windy. Have a quick dip, don’t dilly dally or stay in too long and build it up gradually. Pre-swim preparation and post-swim recovery are very important – more on these below. If you’re unsure about going swimming, join some friends who are going to see how they do it – I will always welcome someone who is curious but unsure along to sit on the shore and shout encouragement or just observe – company is always welcome!
What kit do you need? Whatever you want! It is all a matter of personal preference. I swim with boots and gloves as my hands and feet have issues with the cold. We do recommend high visibility swim hats (I have to take this recommendation on board myself yet!) and a tow float for safety. If you want to just wear togs that’s OK, and if you want to suit up with a wetsuit that’s fine too! Whatever works for you. (Of course skinny dipping is always a buzz! 😊) A big towel and/or changing robe, a mat for your feet while you change, a towel/turban for your hair. I have two big microfibre towels for myself and the kids as I was driven demented last summer trying to get heavy conventional towels dry on the days I dipped twice with two kids!
A hot water bottle. A flask with your favourite hot tipple. Cake’s highly recommended so if you bake please bring some along! I bring some nutty bars or chocolate in my bucket just in case. I change at home before a swim and just put my coat on over my togs and boots. I bring loose easy to get on clothes (vest/tshirt, massive knickers, fleece/sweatshirt, a pair of fleece lined leggings, socks, easy shoes/boots, hat and scarf/cowl – all rolled up in one roll in order of what goes on first!). A really warm coat is a godsend. I love my dryrobe (sorrynotsorry) and Gráinne has a Cosimac. There are many many new brands of robe every time I look so the choice is yours.
When you Arrive: It’s really helpful to lay out your stuff for ease of getting dressed as you will need to get dry and warm ASAP. Allow for the fact that you might have uncooperative cold fingers when you get out and ready your clothes for that.
Getting in/The Swim: If you decide to take the plunge, do it at your own pace and in your own time. The people you’re with will keep an eye on you and if you’re nervous or unsure let someone know. We tend to get our courage from each other at this point and we all take a few moments to breathe and get acclimatised. Do what works for you! Some are mad into Wim Hof’I find slow breathing works best for me – nice big in breath followed by a longer out breath – but it’s different for everyone and you’ll find your own rhythm with what works for you. Mid-winter I do try to acclimatise a bit before I start to swim – I’ve discovered my shoulders need to relaxed, otherwise my muscles tend to be tense and prone to injury if I take off too fast! If you are sensitive about cursing then bring ear plugs, this is the time it’s most likely to happen! We usually swim parallel to the shore just a little out – in the harbour this may mean being out of your depth, so please check before you swim out where you are comfortable and safe being with the depth.
Length of swim: There are many resources and articles about this online. I tend to listen to my body and trust it when it tells me it’s time to get out. Start small and build up, but don’t overstay and be careful of feeling like you could stay in much longer with colder temperatures. Mid winter if I feel like I could stay ages, this is a flag for me to get out! This article is particularly useful and a look around their other articles might also be helpful. https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/how-to-acclimatise-to-cold-water/
Getting out: Straight out and dressed as soon as possible. This is copied from a swim group (source unknown). “The important bit is to watch for ‘after drop’ when you get out. Get dressed within 10 minutes (not easy with numb hands), wear your swim hat till you’ve dressed, then swap it for a woolly hat at the end. I also bring a hot water bottle. Thick socks, gloves and layers all good. A hot drink ASAP is helpful. Wait for about 90 minutes to warm up properly before you have a hot shower. The whole idea is to warm up your core from the inside out by indirect heat. Otherwise if you get straight into the hot shower all of your body heat rushes to your skin which is the opposite of what you want.”
I don’t always wait 90 minutes, but I am usually well on the way to warmed up by the time I get home and get to a shower as I love my cuppa and chat after the dip. And I bring a turban for my hair – that’s the first thing I do when I get out, get a dry towel on my head. I leave it on until I have to wrangle with a sweatshirt and then swap it for a woolly hat. It works for me! My friend has made me a great hot water bottle sling that ties on to my torso for the cold days – it’s a godsend. Everything goes in a tub/bag that fits everything (my tub recently broke so there’s a swim feral bag coming soon for my birthday I hope!).
I tend to swim early mornings, so before I go to bed I pack my stuff for the swim the next day. It helps to know I just have to get up and get the togs and coat on to go and I don’t have to think!
It’s safer to warm up with a cuppa a little before you drive home, so we usually have a cuppa and a catch up after a swim. If we’re out at Brittas this involves the camp chairs and some time staring at the sea while we try to wrap ourselves around the cups! Again this is a time we tend to mind each other and make sure everyone’s warm enough and OK after their dip.
For us it’s all about the joy of the swim, the grounding joyful spirit that you discover in the water, and the ability to feel your body surrender to belonging to the sea a while. Then there’s the laughter, the soul-bearing and heart-warming conversations, the invisible blue ribbon that ties us all together when we swim together and the beautiful warmth we feel in each other’s company.
If you’ve read this far and still have questions that I haven’t answered, please do get in touch.
Much love and stay safe,
Alison & Gráinne