Suggestions based on nothing other than Sian’s personal experience and online articles provided by The Outdoor Swimming Society.
Alone or in company?
It’s fun to swim with other people. Friends in the water can lighten the mood, provide laughter-inducing moments, and can often suppress any fears you may have about being in open water.
It is also useful to have other people around you should you get into difficulty. They can offer advice, help calm you down or assist you out of the water if needed, give you assistance on dry land and contact the emergency services should a situation arise that calls for that. It’s always your choice, but the company of others provides many social and safety benefits.
Weather conditions play a huge part in open water swimming. If you don’t like the idea of getting into the water you see in front of you on a planned swim because of the waves, the wind, the rain, the snow/ice etc then don’t get in! Make your decision based on how you feel about the conditions you are presented with. Sod everyone else and what they decide to do. It’s your call and no-one can or should make it for you.
Some like to know the temperature, some don’t. If you are training for a cold water event then it’s an essential part of your training but if you’re not then just take it easy and allow your body and mind to acclimatise to the cold gradually. The first thing that happens when you enter cold water is a cold shock response which can cause involuntary gasping, panic, and hyperventilation. It takes 60-90 seconds for the effects of the cold water shock to pass so it’s a good idea to enter the water gradually, get your shoulders under, shout and swear all you like, and wait for the moment your body acclimatises and your breathing calms. The more you shout, swear, or sing the less time you have to gasp. Some like to stand on the shore for ages, some stride in boldly and pop right in.
What’s important to your safety is how you personally respond to cold water. Give yourself time to work out your way of getting in. The best way to acclimatise to cold water is to swim in it and gradually extend the time you stay in. Get out when you are not comfortable and don’t set time goals for being in there. Some days you feel amazing and some days you don’t. Don’t stay in just because you managed 20 minutes the last time you were swimming in such and such degrees and today you feel cold after 10 minutes and it’s gone up a degree.
Going into cold water can cause numbness and pain, particularly in the extremities, such as the hands and feet. This is quite usual in water under 10 degrees. If you don’t like that feeling try wearing neoprene socks and gloves.
Once you exit the water your body continues to cool for 20-30 minutes. That means that your deep body temperature will be cooler 20-30 minutes after your swim than when you initially got out of the water. So warming up immediately after your swim is essential. It’s a good plan to lay all your clothing out before you go into the water in readiness for dressing when you get out. Trying to sort out sleeves from inside a jumper with cold hands is no fun! Have loose-fitting clothes that you know you can pull on using numb hands with thumbs that refuse to work. Big fleecy pyjama bottoms, a wooly hat, mittens/big gloves, oversized jumpers are all a good plan.
A warm drink is also good to have and very lovely to hold onto whilst you are shivering and enjoying each others company after a swim. You will probably shiver, this is quite normal. Shivering is stimulated to increase deep body temperature when a reduction in deep body temperature occurs. It works by involuntary contraction of the muscles to generate heat. By going into cold water regularly you will get to know your own body and soon determine when its time to get out and what you need to do to recover safely afterwards.
Tow floats, wetsuits, rash vests, booties, swim shoes, gloves, fins, goggles, ear plugs, silicone hats, bobble hats etc
Tow floats are a great visual aid that enables other water users to see you. They are also great to lean on when you are chatting or need a breather. Some also have pockets for a phone and keys and the bigger tow bags can accommodate all your clothing. You can also put a torch inside the tow bags to give you a glowing float when night swimming.
Wetsuits and all the above are used by swimmers for reasons personal to them. If you want to use any of the above then use them. Swimming is a great sport and if using any or all of the above aids to your enjoyment of it then all the better.
Not essential, but very useful. There are many kinds on the market and some provide a big waterproof cover that allow you to dress under, but not many of us have ever successfully managed this without feeling like a disorientated rat in a sack. Great to pop on over your clothes and walk home in however as they are long and therefore keep the elements away from a large proportion of your chilly body. They are also very roomy so can accommodate many layers of clothing underneath.
A final word from Sian
“There is much advice out there on the internet about cold water swimming, the ‘rules’, how long one should stay in the water depending on the temperature, what you should wear, at what temperature it becomes too dangerous to swim, etc. You will also get lots of opinions on cold water swimming from people who have never swum in cold water. I’ve heard it all from ‘You’re going to get a heart attack’ to ‘You’re a menace to the people who will have to save you if you get into trouble!’
I’m often asked about the length of time one should stay in the water, what happens if you get hypothermia, what are the rules about swimming in a rough sea etc. I completely understand why I am asked these questions as it’s perfectly acceptable for someone to be interested and inquisitive about a sport that intrigues or even horrifies them. Often swim conversations with me lead to the poor sod who has initiated them being persuaded to join me in the water so I welcome the interaction with onlookers (usually).
However, my advice to you is to take time to enjoy the process of becoming in tune with your body. Listen to the advice from swimmers who are a little or well seasoned, they have experienced many things and will have tips to share with you. Some ideas will click with you and you will find them useful, some not so. Make your own decisions based on how you are feeling in the here and now. Swim at your own risk and blame no-one for the decisions you make. Get weather and tide apps and learn how to read them. Know if the tide is coming in or going out, don’t expect anyone else to do that for you. Learn how your body responds to certain foods and eat them before and/or after a swim if they help you feel better or recover quicker.
Join a group and make friends, laugh, and enjoy the all-encompassing joy being with likeminded people brings. Ride those waves if you want to and revel in the rush of adrenalin coursing through your veins or paddle on the shore and appreciate the beauty of your surroundings. Bluetit swimming is all about enjoying the open water throughout the year with people who want to share that joy with you. No rules, no club fees, no-one to blame for anything, and no pressure to be anything you don’t want to be. Just laughter, swearing, shared food, the highs and lows of life mulled over in a convivial environment and the sheer thrill that being immersed in cold water with a flock of Bluetits can bring.”