Hmm, The Winter Swim Challenge……..

I’ve recently completed a dip a day in November challenge. I’d done it back in 2020 to stave off the boredom of lockdown mk2 (the weird one that wasn’t really a lockdown). A self set challenge that I thoroughly enjoyed. Whilst I knew I’d be busier and would struggle to fit it in this year, I figured I could still have a stab at it. I was feeling decidedly in the doldrums (coming out of Covid’s been as weird as getting locked down for me, I think a lot of people feel the same) and thought it might perk me up. In truth it was a bit of a pain in the bum. I’d purposely made it simple, dip all or part of me in outdoor water every day. That could be a bucket of water in my garden or a proper all in swim. As it turned out Covid arrived for the last 10 days, so my broad interpretation of dipping was needed. I missed 3 days completely because I just didn’t have the energy to leave the house. Even before that I’d struggled with motivation. BUT I still completed my challenge as far as I’m concerned. I’m not a stringent one for rules 😉

That said I enjoyed every single dip. All the swims were wonderful and the foot dips refreshing. What I really loved though were the days I stripped off my bottom half and wandered round my local stream wrapped up warm with a brew in hand. They seemed to warm my soul like none of the others quite did. Maybe a new string to my coaching bow? I probably need to think about a better name for it though, I’m not sure “stream walk in your knickers” is quite the right pitch.

The very first winter swim challenge I did was The Polar Bear, a good few years ago now. Back when winter swim challenges were a new, rare thing, a bit vague, didn’t involve any money changing hands or myriad goodies. The challenge was to swim 200m twice a month from October to March. Swimsuit, goggles and one swim hat only. International ice swimming rules. Not a shred of neoprene allowed. The Short One and I completed our challenge. Just. The weather in March was horrendous. A bit of snow and sub-zero temps but worse than any of that, consistently strong, cold wind. When we started the challenge we expected March to be easy, it most definitely was not!

We learned a lot from that winter. The importance of our pre and post swim routine. How to get yourself and someone else changed whilst violently shivering. How to manage hypothermia.

That exposing my hands to such cold water for that period of time caused some long term nerve damage to my finger tips. They’d often be numb and tingly for a couple of days afterwards. I never swim in winter without neoprene gloves and socks now.

How incredibly important the weather and air temperature is over winter. Water temperature, whilst important, needs to be weighed equally against the air temperature and weather. The holy trinity of winter swimming!

I learned how hungry and tired that kind of swim makes me and that I can stay cold for hours afterwards if I don’t take the time and effort to warm up properly.

We discovered that the Short One only gets cold water shock when it’s below 5C (very, very rare, I think she’s a freak of nature, do NOT assume you’ll be like this!). That it takes a good while for afterdrop to kick in for me, The Short One suffers from it almost instantaneously. The water temperature can be measured by how operatic and sweary my water entry is.

Most importantly of all we learned we had to trust our body’s. The pain, the tiredness, that how we felt on the day would affect our ability to cope with the cold. That each of us are very different in our cold tolerance and ability to warm up.

Our first winter swim challenge was when winter swimmers were relatively rare, we didn’t have info to read online or anyone to ask. Our Polar Bear followed some vague rules posted somewhere on a Facebook page and we bought our own badges on ebay. Today organised winter swim challenges abound. They pop up on my social media feeds on a regular basis. Sometimes they’re to raise money, sometimes there are goodies, commemorative badges and hats in the deal (swimmer tat that may well end up in a drawer to be charity shopped or binned at a later date). There are a few challenges run face to face by coaches or at venues with the safety net of an experienced person able to support but there are many, many more that are virtual. Sign up via a website or facebook page, join a virtual community and off you go. Sometimes they make me wince.

So why do I wince when I see them? I’ve clearly managed to do my own winter challenges and learned a lot as a result? Are they a bad thing?

In short, no. It’s good to challenge ourselves, push our boundaries, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t do that almost every day but it has to come with an understanding of the risks you’re exposing yourself to.

Challenges often equal competition and comparison. Not necessarily a bad thing and something humans do all the time. Comparing to other’s is often how we frame our world. But is competition healthy when it could lead to hypothermia, nerve damage and potentially getting in a bit of a mess?

Some online challenges are better than others but sadly on a few I see little to no information being pushed on the risks associated with winter swimming and how to keep safe. Some feel very much like a means to promote a swim product or organisation. Clever advertising with little thought put in to what their challenge entails.

My particular concerns surround new outdoor swimmers. Uptake of outdoor swimming has gone through the roof in the last couple of years. That’s a great thing but there are lots of newbies out there still finding their way. Some of them don’t necessarily come with a good basic knowledge of the outdoors (I know, I coach them). That’s totally OK, no-one can know everything, but there can be a lot to learn. It’s what I’m here for, it’s why I do my job but I know from experience a lot of the knowledge just isn’t there.

On many threads relating to winter challenges I see posts like “I did swam xx metres in x degrees today!!?” or “I’m going to stay in for xx minutes tomorrow” or “How long did you stay in today?”. My concern is that this kind of competition, unaccompanied by some big safety warnings can lead inexperienced swimmers to take risks they just don’t understand and push themselves beyond what their bodies are capable of.

I may be completely wrong in my concerns but what I do know is that I’ve had some clients through recently who’ve had scares in cold water. A couple of examples from clients were that neoprene wasn’t the done thing or that you had to stay in for at least 10-20 minutes to feel the benefit of the cold. Neither of which are true. Wear what the heck you need and stay in for as long as your body is happy.

As winter progresses the subtle competition laid out by some of the winter challenges could lead novices into difficulty as well as take all the enjoyment out of this glorious activity.

So, if you’re in the midst of a winter swim challenge or thinking about taking one on what should you be thinking about?

YOU. This is about you not the person next to you. Learn and know your limits. Try not to compare 😉 I know it’s human nature and part of the point of these challenges for some, but is pushing your body beyond what it’s capable of going to make this enjoyable or help keep you or others around you safe?

Be realistic about what you think you can achieve. Do you tolerate the cold well? Will you have swim buddies to go with to get all of these challenges done? Will you have time to fit in the swims around work, family, other hobbies?

Understand and acknowledge how the weather and air temperature impacts your swim. It isn’t just about the water temperature. In reality the water temperature never dictates whether I swim or not, the weather and air temperature do.

Where are you in the country? If you’re watching people do these challenges on the South Coast of England but are based in Scotland the condition’s you’ll have to contend with will present a whole new challenge.

Know your swim location. All my winter swimming is done in places I’ve swum in the summer. They might look and feel a lot different over winter and you need to re-assess for winter conditions but sussing out completely new swim spots takes time. Working out the best get in’s, your emergency get outs and how long or hard the walk in might be are much better done with the safety margin of warmer weather and warmer waters.

Give equal priority to before, during and after your swim. Making sure you’ve got the right kit, avoiding getting cold before you get in the water and then planning for how you’re getting warm after the swim is just as important as thinking about the swim itself.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t complete it. Shit happens. You’ve pushed and challenged yourself by even starting out. You’ve achieved something even if whoever your organiser is doesn’t deem you worthy of the completion badge.

If the fun stops, stop.  For me winter swimming is about fun. I laugh so much more over winter, partly at the ridiculousness of it. But the laughter rapidly disappears if I’ve got hypothermia or my hands hurt so much I cry…………

Now, go enjoy your winter challenge however you like. Warpped up by the fire or freezing your proverbials off in your nearest ice coated pond. Both great ways to spend the winter!

If you’re looking for some alternative, fun and easy winter swim challenges how about this one from Rachel Andrews on how quickly you can get changed post swim. Or even how many pairs of gloves you can wear whilst eating cake……….I’ve maxed out at 3. Create your own?

For more info on safety go take a look at the Outdoor Swimming Society’s winter section here or have a watch of Sheffield Adventure Film Festival’s Winter Swim Chat here

3 Replies to “Hmm, The Winter Swim Challenge……..”

  1. Great article – its such a personal thing for me – but my swimming always has been. The ice temps of winter a totally different way if connecting with yourself you have to be so aware of the impact on your body .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: