The beginners guide to cold water swimming

We’ve really seen cold water swimming take off in the last year or so here in the UK. During those months of covid restrictions people looked for new ways to get their daily exercise and help their mental health. Cold water swimming has become extremely popular, but it still should be approached with care as an extreme sport. If you’re thinking of literally dipping your toe in the water, take a look at our beginners guide to cold water swimming.


What is cold water swimming?

Cold water swimming is open water swimming in water that is less than 16c, but obviously in winter it can get a lot colder, as low as 0℃ in some places! Immersing yourself and swimming in cold water has been proven to have lots of health benefits both physically and mentally, and it has received a lot of press recently due to the vast increase of uptake during Covid restrictions. 

However, there are risks such as hypothermia, cold water shock and swim failure, which can be life threatening. Don’t let this put you off though, the euphoric feeling from cold water swimming is well worth it – be sure to do your research and don’t just dive in!

How long should you stay in for?

There is no universal answer to this question, it really depends on your body. The best thing to do is start out with small cold water dips and see how you get on. You can then extend your time in the water gradually and make it your own personal experiment. How much cold an individual can take varies based on many things, including their levels of sleep, how much they’ve eaten, stress and health. Go carefully and at your own pace – what someone else is capable of is not a guide to go off when it comes to your cold water swim.


What should I wear for cold water swimming?

You see a varied approach to cold water swimming gear, from hooded wetsuits to swimming costumes and bobble hats – it’s really your call! Keeping your head warm is a really good idea, whether it be a neoprene bonnet, swim hat or bobble hat, as 50% of your body heat is lost through your head. Neoprene gloves and boots are a wise option for beginners while you get used to the cold water.  Earplugs are also popular as cold water can affect your balance and they can help to reduce dizziness. 

The most important safety item to take with you if you’re wanting to stay in for a while is a tow float – useful if you need to ‘float to live’ as well as for visibility (read on for more about this). It is also sensible to take your phone out with you just in case you did need to call for help. 


Our handy Armband Waterproof Phone Case is a professional grade waterproof phone case with a strong armband adjustable to whatever size fits your arm. 


What’s the best way to enter cold water?

The best way to enter cold water is slowly and controlled, you will get that ‘gasp’ reflex where it feels like the cold water has punched air out of your lungs and you can’t breathe. When this happens, exhale strongly, so the next breath will come back in. 

Concentrate on a steady breathing rate and maybe dab water on yourself before getting your body fully in or start with a few head up breaststrokes. It’s wise to stay in the shallow water until you can control your breath, then you can always stand up if needed.


Acclimatising your body –  How often should you go for a cold water swim?

Acclimatisation is the process where the body is able to eventually deal with longer periods of cold water. It is recommended to swim outdoors at least once a week and to make the cold a way of life to help you acclimatise. Social cold water swimmers see the benefits of carrying on swimming from summer to autumn to get used to the gradual change in temperatures. 

It’s ok if you have a once a year dash and dip – Christmas Day & New Year’s Day are always popular! The risks to your body are higher, but as long as you’re healthy and careful it’s possible to not have to acclimatise for your annual dip.


What’s the best way to warm up afterwards? 

Thermal regulation is really important to the vital organs.  The first thing your body does when entering cold water is to start to shut down blood to the skin to conserve heat. When you get out from a cold water swim, this process reverses: blood returns to your skin and cools down in the process, this is why you’ll be at your coldest 10 minutes after you get out. 

This is called the ‘afterdrop’ – the best way to tackle this is to change immediately, pat yourself dry, don’t rub, put on lots of layers, have a warm drink to hand and put yourself in a warm place. When it comes to getting out of the water, changing robes such as the popular Dryrobe are really useful – as well as being able to get changed in them they keep you warm and are great against wind chill and rain. 

Our 25L Lightweight Waterproof Backpack is also perfect for holding all your swimming items and keeping them dry onshore.


Do your research – where is it safe to go cold water swimming?


The sea tends to stay warmer than rivers and lakes, rarely dropping below 6 degrees, but it can be prone to waves and currents which can be more challenging. A location that normally presents less risk can be different from one day to the next, so it’s best to judge at the time you’re going for your swim – know your own capabilities, experience and swimming strength. Winter-open lidos offer a more controlled environment with a shallow end to experiment in, so this could be a good place to start.


What are the dangers of cold water swimming?


You need to understand the risks and recognise signs if something is not quite right with your body, if you experience uncontrollable shivering, stiffness in your arms and legs and shallow breathing it’s time to get out and act quick! A really good piece of safety advice is learning about “Float to Live’, as it could save your life. If you find yourself getting into trouble, relax and float on your back, use your tow float to help you and raise one arm to signal you’re in trouble so someone can raise an alarm. 


Never swim alone, this is especially important in the winter as you can get into trouble quickly. Find a swim buddy or look for a local group, even better also have someone sat onshore who could raise an alarm if necessary. Whether you’re thinking about cold water swimming for the social element or for the physiological and psychological benefits, just make sure you’re enjoying yourself. 


It’s well documented that cold water swimming can increase happiness levels and reduce anxiety, so we hope this guide has helped encourage you to take the plunge!