Swimming into Cold Water

Swimming Into Cold Water

The hidden depths of cold water swimming

I never set out to be cold water swimmer in the icy waters of East Yorkshire.   I just started to swim in my local lake because it was down the lane and I couldn’t swim or go anywhere else.  As the months went on I became a cold water swimmer and then an ice cold water swimmer!

Ironically the only time I have paused my swimming was when the water got too hot in the summer and there was a bit of eutrophication going on in the lake which was not very pleasant.  So apart from that short spell  I have swum at least 3 x a week predominately in the lake or the sea – I haven’t been in a pool for nearly a year.

How does open water swimming compare with the pool

Open water swimming is so different from the pool, there is  the walk or run down there with Kitkat my dog and the people and wildlife that I see and catch up with along the way.  My time in nature has always been a  necessity for me, I have been an outdoor girl all my life.  To combine my open water swimming with nature is the icing on the cake, I don’t think it is a passing fad.

Every outdoor  swim is different 

There is the sunrise, the temperature, the weather conditions, the colour of the sky, the birds on the lake, the choppiness and waves or the mood of the sea.  We always go to swim but sometimes its alive and its play time in the waves and surf.   For me everything  comes together to make it a different experience every single time, which I can only be present to, it takes all my attention and is an adventure every single time.    I don’t really want to go back to an indoor pool.

The actual swimming technique

My swimming has changed too; from the low gliding stroke of the pool  I now have a faster, more  windmill like arm action to take into account the varying environment conditions and the state of  choppiness, wind and waves of the water.  With the movement in the water you have to be agile so a faster stroke helps that.  My head is higher  for sight as well as for breathing,  It is all work in progress but in the cold water my breathing technique is definitely the hardest part.     In the colder water I have to alternate between crawl and breast stroke to change things around to help my arms and face cope with cold and feel my way in the different water conditions.  I am sure this will change more as I sort my technique out.  I am hoping that by getting  longer swims in the summer I will improve my capacity to keep at the front crawl.  To be honest it is going to be amazing to swim in 9 degree waters after the low low temperatures.

Breaking the ice and swimming

Getting into the icy cold  (yes I have broken the ice on a couple of occasions) can cut your skin,  burn across your back, make your hands hurt and the brain freeze is real, rub dry too hard and you will end up with some bruises too.   The tips of 2 of my fingers are still a bit fizzy but I think they will come good by the spring.   

Where is the why?

Here is the kicker; plunging your body into ridiculously cold water is one of the most full on body and brain experiences I have experienced, it is a painfully, comfortingly, ridiculously all encompassing – it totally controls all the senses and you cannot think about anything else during that time, it takes me a couple of minutes for my brain/body combination to accept I am not going to die.     

A milestone for me is that even in these ridiculously low temperatures  I have started to relax and swim rather than just survive it.  Continuously getting in has got me to this point.   I swam 1KM on Boxing Day which was a huge goal for me, not least because I swam no further than that in the summer. 

I am hoping by spending longer in the water in the summer I will build up the amount of time I can spend in the winter water and will get the ice mile badge to go with my 20m badge all those years ago!

Cold water swimming is extreme

It is extreme, there are huge risks to getting into exceedingly cold water.  You can soon be impacted and get mumbly fumbly and fuzzy when your core temperature drops.  You have to be attentive to how your body is reacting.

What are the things I have noticed:

  • Swimming is my thing, the actual sport of swimming I find meditative as I get into my stroke and breathing, that I now add the outdoor and more natural environment of the lake, river or sea it also fulfils my daily need for air and nature.  I am truly in my happy place. Whenever I get into the sea I dream of just swimming straight out to the horizon.
  • The colder waters have made me even more present to the moment.  I have an extremely healthy respect for the cold water.  I get into the right headspace to get in, I aim for positive but calm (an approach I adopted with those first tentative  cold showers) .  I don’t have a lot of chatter I really focus on my getting in, approach and setting off – not prepared and not being present can have you gasping at the cold that can soon turn in to panic and a problem as your brain thinks you are going to die and switches to survival mode.
  • I do literally breath myself into calmness and I am pretty quick at getting off and swimming. But, I can’t be with others and  control my body too.  I need to concentrate on my stroke so I am being as efficient and effective as possible.    The environment is different everytime and it needs adjusting too.  You have to be present to the impact of the cold water and what it is doing to your body and your stroke right there and then so you don’t stay in too long.

Cold water swimming and my mental health

I absolutely know that the cold water habits have helped my mental health but it is worth bringing in here that I have for many years been a fan of alternative therapies.  During some dark times in child bearing years I enjoyed real benefits from  reflexology treatment. 


More recently I have been fascinated with Reiki.  I felt permanently stuck and  struggled to keep moving through life, getting hung up on the lows and always seeing where I failed.  It was really impacting my energy.  At the turn of  2020 I was at an event and I  sat next to Janet Illedge (http://www.brightmindstherapies.co.uk/)  and I knew before we even spoke that I had found my energy manager.  Her work with me has really got me liking myself and accepting what I can and cannot control.  I am definitely still work in progress but I move through things and can cope with feeling things without getting too hung up on them. 

My goal is to welcome it all and realise that it is all part of the journey and I can choose where I use my energy.  So I am just mentioning it as if you have got this far I don’t think my cold water benefits have been an exclusive silver bullet.  I have  been on a journey of consistent effort to feel fine regardless of where my life is at.

The risks of swimming in extreme cold water

Entering freezing cold water is high risk and with the longer swims it does take you to dangerous areas. This suits my adventurous spirit whilst also making me alert and present to what I am doing which is why it helps my head so much.  I love watersport based people as despite their bravery and spirit for their adventures they have a great respect for the sea and the natural elements.

I adore the sea I could dive into the sea and keep going to the next shore, descending the steps into the lake off the jetty can feel a bit bleak and not so inviting; the cold shower is comfortingly miserable, serves a purpose in the comfort of  your own home.

I never go if I am tired, hungry or just not physically up to it – it is too punishing and the recovery too long.

The highs of cold water swimming

Leaving the water pushes the euphoric button.  As the blood rushes to your skin to create a deep red purple freezetan you feel like you could take on the world and you would win – you have just had a great adventure and all the pain is worth it.  

All I can say is once and only once will you choose to luxuriate in this amazingness.  For your second swim and forever more you will get out of your own way  and you will be head down out of the wind, dry changed and warming up as quick as possible before the “after drop”.  These are the shivers that can kick in after about 10 minutes.   It happens as the cold blood from the extremities comes back to the heart and creates the involuntary shivers as your body works to warm your core, blood and being back up.    Lots of warm clothes (absolutely no hot shower), woolly hat hot drinks and time to warm your body back to normal. I have been known to keep a hat on for the rest of the day which helps keep me toasty and comfortable.

Was there an epiphany?

Well, around late November I did notice I started to feel really well.  My temper was better and I was altogether calmer and more confident.    My family in turn  mentioned that I laughed more and kept commenting on how well I looked.  Everything (and I mean everything) started to feel more natural and I just felt very open and comfortable from within myself.  I felt things but I didn’t get hung up in them I just felt them, lived them and moved on.  As a woman of a certain age I did definately notice that I didn’t have such strong urges to murder my husband and daughters.   My husband for all his slight worry about my wild swimming habits and freezing at the waters edge warmed to the idea as things warmed up for him –  he is  a very willing towel holder.

For those that don’t know me I am extreme (for some), enormously energetic, adventurous and a tad crazy and I am finally totally comfortable with the fact that I am not everyones cup of tea.   

Amongst all the isolation of lockdowns. pandemics, homeschooling and working as  a freelancer, the poor decisions and judgements I have made and moved on from, the  outdoor swimming world has given me a great personal focus.  I have found a tribe – they are the Ice Warriors and they say “its never too cold” and they laugh a lot so it is my biggest personal 2020 takeaway probably.

Is Cold Water Swimming for  you

I cannot answer that and I  get tonnes of questions and people saying they would love to try it. If you are in my neck of the woods (East Yorkshire) Andy Butler is founder of the Ice Warriors and my go to expert  He is someone I would point you to for 121 help and coaching  – go and visit his Facebook page  called Ice Warriors

Things to think about:

  • Do you like swimming ? if you do start off on the rising water temps after April and keep going.  Test your love of cold in the shower – honestly for the length of time you can bare to stay in the lake or sea with no acclimatisation I don’t think I would have bothered returning (well I might have done but I am not everyone).
  • How can you help yourself? Whether you want to swim or just dip cold showers are great to acclimatise, you want to be working to somewhere around 3 minutes so you get your body accepting the temperature and why not do that at home!  But remember you are in the comfort of your own home with a heated towel to wrap yourself in.  To image the winter drying and changing at the beach or next to a river think of a winter festival atmosphere – bleak and basic and in the elements with the only cover being your car in the carpark.   You need to prepare and plan your exit from the water and drying and dressing accordingly.
  • Its not all about the dip – An icy swim will last from perhaps 5 – 15 mins . My longest so far is the  20ish mins for my 1km swim.  These timescales can make a winter dip more about the getting changed afterwards than the actual in water time.  The cup of tea, piece of cake and natter with the tribe can be the main thing and definitely worth making part of the adventure!
  • Does it link in with others things you love? I got really into the whole cold water vibe in tandem with my love of swimming.  When all this started in  the summer I found Justin Caffrey on LinkedIn floating in the Irish Sea extolling all the benefits of cold water and it resonated with what I was actually experiencing.  They say when the student is ready the teacher appears and  I went on to follow his meditation and mindset work so it has been another part of my cold water thing.   He is investment banker meets buddhist monk I love his pragmatic approach – check out his YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/c/JustinCaffrey/featured.   
  • Wetsuit or Skins (swimsuit).  Total personal choice, I am a no fuss sort of girl.   I cannot stand the faffing of the wetsuit vibe, all the wrestling to get it on and off and all that wet rubber to dry – no thank you!  I think I am dried and getting warm whilst the wetsuits are still getting their kit off!  There are boots gloves and hats to wear too and  many wear those too but swim in skins.   Its totally your choice – that’s the other thing I love too.
  • Towfloat and bright coloured hat are the real necessities and then lots of layers to put on afterwards – all mine are too big so they are an easy pull on. Hat is a must and a flask of hot tea is my go to thing – no alcohol and no hot shower or bath for a good few hours until you have got your temperature back to normal.  It is really dangerous to try and warm up in a hot bath/shower so don’t even be tempted and the steaming seductiveness of a sauna – it is for another game on another day.
  • Don’t go alone, find an organised group or a gang to swim with.  Be very very careful, do your homework, prepare – nobody has beaten it.

So for me my cold water experiment is me living my version of not waiting for the sun but learning to dance (swim) in the rain.  As fits my experience to date  I can also add  snow, hail fog and ice to my list! 

If you want to chat about anything I have raised  then please don’t hesitate to get in touch. 

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