Winter Swimming……….is it cold? Why bother?

I get asked a lot of questions about swimming but there are two that always stand out the most over winter:

  1. Is it cold swimming outside at this time of year?
  2. Why bother when you only go in the water for a few minutes?

In reply to 1: You appear to be wearing a warm coat because the air is cold. The second law of thermodynamics will result in the water and air temperature eventually reaching equilibrium thereby the air and water temperature will become the same. So yup, just as the air’s cold the water’s cold too. Obviously, I never actually come out with that. I usually just say “yes, it’s cold”.

Sometimes people just nod and smile and try and pretend that they don’t think I’m a complete idiot and move onto another topic. Much of the time though people expand the questioning. How long do you swim for? What do you wear? Where do you go? Don’t you get really cold? Do you actually enjoy it?

A small minority “get it”, they seem to understand the buzz I get from this slightly non-conventional activity and accept my responses with open arms. Most look a bit perplexed, wince at the thought of the cold and, when they hear that I’m often only in the water a few minutes, pipe up with question 2: Why bother when you only go in the water for a few minutes?

So, why do I swim outside in winter when the amount of time spent in the water is so brief? Because winter swimming isn’t really about the time spent in the water it’s everything else around it. The process, the effort, the experience. Below I’ve tried to present a pretty average swim for me this winter. It’s similar to this post (How much do we actually swim?) I did last year about The Short One and I’s swims but my desire to swim has finally exceeded The Short One’s availability. As a result this winter I’m going with anyone who’s free and fancies a dip.  I’ve met lots of lovely people and the way the swims pan out have altered a little bit.

Swim planning

This could be weeks or minutes in advance.

  • Cue facebook post, messenger or whatsapp to ascertain someone wants a dip;
  • Suggest a time and place;
  • Discuss whether that suits everyone;
  • Umm and ah about meet time and location;
  • Finally agree time/place;
  • Discuss if anyone’s bringing snacks;
  • Discuss if anyone needs any extra kit;
  • Begin to feel like a child again at the prospect of doing something that most people think is complete lunacy.

The meet

  • Congregate at agreed meet point;
  • Give out hugs, greetings, welcomes;
  • Make sure you each have the relevant kit you need to swim. For some that’s a tiny shopping bag and a single coat for others that’s more layers than you’d see on an arctic explorer plus a bag containing more layers, food, drink and a hot water bottle;
  • Walk to get in. Chat………lots;
  • Decide on appropriate place to get in and leave stuff;
  • Question each other’s sanity. Why are we doing this? Do we really want to do this?
  • Discuss weather conditions. Is it colder/windier/wetter/foggier than last time. i.e. are we more mental for doing this than last time;
  • Tentatively remove layers, making sure that you’re all unclothed at the same moment. There’s nothing worse than hanging around in just your cozzie while someone else removes twenty layers of clothing;
  • Lay out clothes, towel etc. in correct order to put back on;
  • Ensure bobble hats are firmly on heads;
  • Agree it’s time to go for it after a good 20 minutes of faffing.


Water entry

  • Tentatively put feet in. Discuss whether it’s colder than last time;
  • Slowly wade in. For some this takes seconds for others it takes minutes. Every seasoned swimmer has their own finely honed entry method. If you’re The Short One you might dive head first (not recommended to anyone, she’s a total freak of nature and doesn’t seem to ever experience cold water shock like the rest of us. Cold water shock does sometimes kill people!);
  • Squeal, wince, turn a little operatic, hear the kind of swearing you’d only expect on a building site or down a mine;
  • Watch everyone assume “the position”. This involves making yourself as small as you can as you enter the water thereby preserving heat and resisting exposure to the cold for as long as possible. Usually arms in close, elbows bent, hands scrunched up towards your chin, shoulders get higher and higher as you wander in. Sometimes the arms extend into the air as your body submerges to put off putting your arms and hands in for as long as possible. It’s utterly ridiculous, incredibly funny and rather pointless. After all, the point of this is to fully submerge. Why put off the inevitable? My view – it adds to the laughter!
  • Encourage the tentative ones that “it’ll be alright once you’re in”;
  • Finally everyone’s submerged.

The Swim

  • Breastroke around, frantically to start with, slowing as your body acclimatises to the cold;
  • Keep an eye on each other, make sure everyone’s OK;
  • Breathe! Concentrate on your breathing until it starts to calm. Cold water can cause hyperventilation and the effort needed to calm this in the water is one of the best meditations going;
  • Watch everyone’s faces go from winter melancholy to all round pink cheeked Cheshire cat grins;
  • Chat like the excitable child that you feel you currently are;
  • Feel the tingle of a million tiny needles touching your skin. Alright, that sounds a little weird but it’s truly wonderful. An electric shock for the soul;
  • Enjoy the moment when your body starts to go numb and you can’t feel the cold quite so much;
  • People slowly start to get out. Some can cope with the cold for longer than others. It’s important to know your own limits and everyone respects each other’s needs and time limits. For me right now, in a swimming costume, I’m in the water for 5-10 minutes.

Getting out

  • Stumble gracefully out of the water;
  • Enjoy the unbelievable all over body glow of a cold dip;
  • Grin;
  • Observe your cold water lobster tan. Who needs a tropical island when you can look sunburned from 5 minutes in 5C water?
  • Grin a bit more;
  • As rapidly as possible and whilst attempting to not flash your arse to EVERYONE, get dried and dressed into however many layers you have. This improves with practice;

The post swim warm up

  • Once dressed, enjoy the company of your fellow loons. You’ve done it, you’re all glowing and have a deep connection with those people around you who’ve just done this amazing, life affirming, adrenaline spiking thing with;
  • Jump up and down, run around like a loon, do some squats. It all helps to warm you up and at that point no-one cares what’s going on they’re just trying to warm up too. The sillier the movement the better……………laughter’s a great way to warm up;
  • Enjoy a warm drink and eat something. I surprised even myself the first time I managed to eat cake wearing 2 pairs of gloves but I can verify it is definitely possible.

The departure

  • Walk back to the meeting point;
  • Chat, enjoy the glow, enjoy each other’s grins;
  • Collectively agree it was so good we need to do it again soon. Ideally in the next 10 minutes but tomorrow or next week usually have to suffice;
  • Occasionally go to a café to warm up. Ignore the strange looks people give you because you’re wearing huge coats, hats and gloves when it’s 20C in the café.

The remainder of the day

  • Enjoy the rest of your day knowing that you did something awesome and shared that awesome thing with other like-minded folk. That connection is something really special!

And there you have it. That 5 minutes in the water is surrounded by so much more. People, a ritual, a joy and happiness that goes way beyond those 300 seconds in the water. I think anyone who sees me on the school run after I’ve been for a dip will verify the difference it makes to me. Even if I’m not still wrapped up in a million layers the look on my face gives it away 😉

For some it may indeed seem like too much hassle but for me it’s become my joy, excitement and the thing I look forward to. And let’s face it, in the dark, grey winter months of the UK we all need something to look forward to.


16 Replies to “Winter Swimming……….is it cold? Why bother?”

  1. I loved the way you wrote, in many details, how you guys swim in such cold waters!!! Amazing post. I live in Kona, Hawaii, and I love to swim in the ocean with friends, but in the winter, the water continues to be warm. Some day I will like to try “super cold waters”. And I completely agree with you, the whole beauty is the friendship, the laughs and the whole experience. Aloha.


  2. What a fantastic article! I recognise every single aspect of it. Now known around work as ‘that looney who goes in the sea.’ Love it!xxx


  3. Fantastic description of ‘the position’. Laughed so much and my husband confirmed that he watches me assume said position. But I am now hooked after 4 months of swimming and can’t imagine my life without it 😊


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