Winter swimming – what’s all the fuss about?

This is my first year of trying to keep swimming all throughout winter in cold water, without a wetsuit. ‘WHY?’ is a question I’m regularly asked when I talk about my dips in chilly lidos and ponds. Here are my top seven reasons for taking the plunge.

1. The chance to be in nature.

 

I live in London, and as a city-dweller I crave moments where I can feel like I’m connected to nature, where I can see the seasons changing around me. It was at the Hampstead Ladies Pond in North London, where I swim regularly, that I saw my first ever kingfisher. I was swimming my usual lap when a friend pointed out a flash of turquoise and orange at the far end of the pond. We trod water for a while and watched as the kingfisher darted about by the bank. It felt truly magical, and a moment I would never have experienced if I’d stayed at home that day.

At the Ladies Pond you regularly see herons and cormorants swooping low or fishing as you swim quietly in the water. You get to see them up close, truly noticing the patterns of their feathers. And if you swim in winter at a lido you can watch birds and planes flying overhead and notice the shifting patterns of the clouds. I find it incredibly peaceful and humbling, a reminder of my place within the wider scheme of things.

2. The post-swim rush.

As I pull myself up the ladder at the end of a swim my skin glows bright pink and I feel so full of life that I could tilt my head back to the sky and roar. There really is nothing like the rush you get after a swim in cold water. It’s a euphoric high that can become quite addictive. When I swim in a pond or lido in the morning it energises me for the whole day.

3. The community.

When you swim through the winter you get chatting to other swimmers in the changing rooms or on the banks of the pond or river. Immediately you have a shared connection, something to talk about and to bring you together. There is such a wonderful sense of comradery. I have also made great friends through outdoor swimming. I am now part of a WhatsApp group called ‘Pond Ladies’, friends with whom I try to swim twice a week. On a grey day when I don’t feel much like climbing into cold water, they spur me on. I go to the pond to see them just as much as I go to swim. Afterwards, we sit on benches watching the other swimmers, drinking hot tea and sharing biscuits. They are some of the happiest moments in my week.

4. To discover the beauty in winter.

Winter has always been my least-favourite season. I usually sink into something of a slump from October to March struggling with the lack of sunlight and the long, cold nights. I look ahead to spring with a sense of desperation, wishing each winter’s day to go by so the sunnier seasons can get closer. But this year, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the season because of my cold-water swims. In the water I take the time to watch the trees and sky and find that actually, winter can look pretty wonderful.

5. Because it makes me feel good about my body.

After a swim in the Ladies Pond I have a (cold) shower, totally naked, standing in front of a floor to ceiling window looking out on the water. In those moments I feel totally unselfconscious, thinking only about what my body has just achieved and how it felt to be in the water. For a moment I feel free of any worries about the way I look and realise actually, it really doesn’t matter.

6. It’s a way to get out of my head.

When you’re in really cold water all you can think about are the sensations in your body, which can be a huge relief it you’re feeling low, anxious or generally stuck in your thoughts. I find cold water swimming incredibly freeing for exactly this reason – it’s a time when I don’t worry, when all I think about is what I’m doing. You leave everything on dry land when you slip into the water.

7. It makes me feel brave.

I’ve never considered myself a particularly brave person. But the fact that I swim in cold water in the middle of winter makes me feel fearless. If I can do this, I can do anything.

Want to try cold water swimming?

  • Take your time. If you’ve never swum in cold water before it’s not a good idea to suddenly give it a go in mid-January. Instead, start swimming outdoors in the summer and keep going through the autumn, sticking at it for as long as you feel comfortable. Over time you should acclimatise, particularly if you go regularly (at least twice a week).
  • Get some gear. When I swim I wear a swimming costume, a thin neoprene rash vest with short sleeves, neoprene gloves and socks and a woolly hat. The gloves, socks and hat make all the difference in my opinion. I love feeling the water against my skin but there is no shame in wearing a wetsuit, especially to begin with. Up until this year I always wore a wetsuit, but gradually started getting used to not wearing one, by doing a short swim in the suit then taking it off and going back in for a very quick dip.
  • Bring lots of layers for after. And when I say lots I mean LOTS. When I pack my bag to go for a winter swim I bring as many layers as feels ridiculous. And then I pack another one. When I’m dry and warm I can’t imagine needing quite that many jumpers, but when I’m shivering after my swim I am so grateful I brought them!
  • A hot drink afterwards really helps to warm you up from the inside – I always bring a flask of tea with me when I winter swim.
  • Don’t jump in – as it can be quite a shock to the system. When I swim outdoors I ease myself in slowly, splashing water over my shoulders as I go to get myself used to the temperature. When you’re in, don’t forget to breathe. Take long, slow, calm breaths as you adjust to the temperature.
  • Check out more tips from the Outdoor Swimming Society here: https://outdoorswimmer.com/blogs/6-tips-for-cold-water-swimming

Winter swimming in Stoke Newington West Resevoir

On Saturday mornings most people prefer a lie in. But this Saturday I chose to wake early and head for an outdoor swim instead, despite the air temperature being a bitter 4 degrees.

As I changed into my wetsuit at Stoke Newington West Resevoir I wondered if I was completely mad. But there were a few of us in the changing room, so it made me feel at least less alone in my madness. We chatted – as outdoor swimmers always do. You already share a bond which brings you together and in turn separates you from others (your friends and colleagues tell you that you are crazy).

Once I was zipped up it was time to head outside onto the decking. I jumped up and down for a while to warm up and raise my heart rate, making myself laugh at how strange my neoprene self must have looked. Then I slowly stepped down the ramp until I was knee deep in cold. I looked out over the grey expanse of water as the chill seeped in through my wetsuit. Buoys marked the distance I would swim and looked further away than normal on this grey morning. Life guards sat in kayaks in the middle of the water, plump in their coats, life jackets and scarves. On the other side of the reservoir tall blocks of flats reminded me I was in the city, making stepping out into the calm water even more surreal.

I ducked to fill my wetsuit with water, making sure it ran all the way through, swearing loudly as the cold spread over my body.

Somehow I found my courage inside me and pulled it over me like a warm blanket, shielding me from the shock of the water as I launched off and started a quick breast stroke. My wetsuit socks kept my feet warm so it was only my hands and face as I ducked under that felt bitterly cold. The water gripped my cheeks and forehead and squeezed.

Beneath me the water was inky blue and all I could see were my pale hands and an occasional autumn leaf. It made me feel brave that the unknown beneath me doesn’t worry me any more. I have grown to accept that beneath is beneath, and I am above, pulling myself along the surface. Whatever is down there is down there, but the unknown doesn’t have to scare you if you don’t let it.

I swam to the first buoy, then the next, a mix of breast stroke (watching the sky, the buildings beyond and the surface of the water) and front crawl (seeing the body of one of the few other swimmers as they overtook me, black neoprene body and glowing bright white feet and hands).

Half-way round a lifeguard shouted from his kayak to one of the swimmers ahead of me, “How are you? Still got your fingers and toes?”

“Let me check,” said the swimmer, reaching under the water for his toes, “Yes, still got my toes.”

He waved his hands, treading water, “Yes, still got my fingers!”

As I swam I slowly warmed up, feeling invigorated. It was the latest in the season I have ever swum, and there were only a few of us in the quiet water. When I clambered out after completing the loop I felt like I had conquered the morning. While others lay warm in their beds I was dripping wet and cold, but felt like I had discovered a secret – something that everyone tucked up inside was missing. The cold water shook me awake and made me think, “this is what it means to be alive.”