…what to know before you go!
If you are curious about cold-water immersion, pause before diving in for your first wild swim. Sophie Hellyer, surfer, swimmer, founder of Rise Fierce, and co-host of the podcast Two’s Company, shares what to expect on your first dip.
Research suggests that cold water swimming can improve blood pressure, cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of respiratory infections, and improve mood (1). Regardless of the science, a cold dip always makes me feel amazing, and most of all it’s fun! I think of it as adult playtime.
I’ve found one of the biggest benefits of wild swimming is the community you will meet. There’s something pretty magical about seeing the same shivering faces every morning throughout the year and having this shared experience of immersion. The water is like a sticky friendship glue.
What to wear
You can wear a swimming costume or wetsuit, or some opt for a combo of a cossie with neoprene boots and gloves. Don’t feel pressured to go without a wetsuit, staying safe is the most important thing and it’s still exhilarating with a wetsuit on.
It’s also good to wear a brightly coloured swim hat (and a tow-float if you’re in flat water) so that you’re visible. Studies on visual contrast show bright orange is the best colour to be seen in the water.
Wear lots of loose layers so it’s easy to get dressed quickly when you get out the water. I love my dryrobe, and a wooly hat and socks do the world of good. Don’t underestimate how chilly you might be after swimming, even in the summer.
What to expect
We, humans, are basically tropical animals that want to be near-naked in a 28°C air temperature, so plunging into water that is 14°C or below puts very severe stress on the body.
The normal reaction is ‘cold shock’ – where the breathing and heart rate increases dramatically on entering the water. Hyperventilating in water can be dangerous so it’s really important to enter the water slowly and get control of your breathing. Focus on slow, steady breathing and long exhales. This will help to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and keep you calm – the cold shock will pass in a minute or so.
The good news is that humans can acclimatise to cold water by going for regular short dips. As little as five or six two-minute immersions can half your cold shock response, so you will find it easier and easier to get into the cold water. That said, don’t stay in too long. The amount of time you spend in there will depend on how experienced you are, the water temperature and the weather conditions. However experienced you get, the time you have in the water before you are physically incapacitated doesn’t change, and if you stay in too long you may feel your arms and legs start to get heavy and tired.
Less really is more in terms of cold exposure. Research shows that the stress of a short cold-water dip may prime the immune system to deal with a threat, and thus be beneficial, but that an excess of cold exposure could lead to immunosuppression. Just two minutes in winter is plenty!
When you get out of the water you will experience the ‘after-drop’ – where the body’s core temperature continues to drop after exiting cold water. Because of this, get warm and dry and put on all your layers as soon as you exit the water. Don’t be lured into thinking you’re fine, you’ll probably feel your coldest 10-15 minutes after getting out. Now is the time to grab a hot drink, a bit of cake and appreciate what you’ve just achieved.
Tips For Getting Started & Safety Info
The thing about wild swimming is it’s, err, wild. This means it can be deadly if you’re not prepared. Below are some safety tips to consider before you jump in.
- It’s worth getting a medical check-up if you’re new to cold water immersion as it can be a very stressful environment for the body. This is especially important for anyone with any heart or lung conditions.
- Not only is swimming much safer with a friend, but it’s also much more fun. Swim with a club, other experienced swimmers or in supervised locations. Check out The Outdoor Swimming Society‘s website for established groups. If you’re not a confident swimmer, it’s never too late to learn. You can usually get adult swimming lessons and coaching at your local pool or lido for around a fiver. Check out the Swim England website. And children aged 7–14 in the UK can take advantage of the free Swim Safe sessions from the RNLI and Swim England.
- Don’t ever feel pressurised to go in.
- Every wild swimming spot is different. Check the weather and tides before going. Ask local lifeguards, your swim group or other water users to make sure you understand the tides, currents, waves and local marine life.
- Stay within your depth, and/or near to the entrance and exit points.
- Don’t trust how you feel if you feel ok – as your cold-shock response reduces, so will your shivering response, however, your body temperature will still be dropping. It is possible to swim to unconsciousness! Limit yourself to 10 mins max in summer and 5 mins max in winter.
- Rewarm thoroughly before doing anything else (e.g. driving)
- The RNLI advice is Float to Live – I keep a whistle attached to my tow float for emergencies
- If someone’s in trouble, call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard.
Keep safe, enjoy it and you’ll be raving about the benefits in no time.
(1) Knechtle B, Waśkiewicz Z, Sousa CV, Hill L, Nikolaidis PT. Cold Water Swimming—Benefits and Risks: A Narrative Review. International journal of environmental research and public health. 2020 Jan;17(23):8984
(2) Tipton MJ, Collier N, Massey H, Corbett J, Harper M. Cold water immersion: kill or cure?. Experimental physiology. 2017 Nov 1;102(11):1335-55.