Cold Water Swimming – Does it tingle your toes, float your boat?

Have you felt the tingle of cold water exhilaration yet?

Wild swimming has exploded in popularity in recent years – with many people drawn to it for the mental health benefits, have you felt the tingle yet?

As an Open Water Swim Coach there is nothing more satisfying than seeing, close up, the thrill and accomplishment on a swimmer’s face when they have experienced the open, and often cold, water in its natural environment.  Swimmers of all abilities, ages, body shapes, walks of life and ethnicities are continuing to enjoy getting into the wild and cold stuff – the aim is to make it that way every time. Here are a few tips ...

The aims of every swim session should include…

Cold water in the UK, is classed as any water below 15 degrees Celsius and in the UK that is probably most months except the hight of summer! Open water, and especially cold open water, needs to be enjoyed with care and caution.  As an experienced, international river leader and year-round Open Water Swim Coach there are just a couple of basic objectives that every swim session should achieve.

  • Have a safe and largely calm swim experience, and
  • Have fun and probably a good laugh, getting out wanting to do it again…. Did you know that most people who tried wild swimming liked it more than they expected!  Will you?

How to do it safely

Here are my eleven safety tips on making sure your swim delivers on these for you, presented in logical order relating to a swim or dip. Each one is based on years of experience and science.  A word of caution, cold water swimming is classed as an extreme sport – which surprises many, failing to follow or at least consider these will increase the risks you take and can lead to an unpleasant, frightening experience or even a more serious accident. Seek advice and guidance if in any doubt, and follow these tips for that happy fun safe swim……

  • Be fit, well & prepared for your swim or dip. Including prepared for your post swim rewarming
  • Swim within your known openwater comfort zone in terms of time in the water and distance and route. If new and no previous experience to draw from don’t be too ambitious to start with.
  • Use a known suitable and safe location for the conditions on the day of your swim.
  • There is safety in numbers. As an absolute minimum, ‘less than three, there should never be’. Swim with at least one ‘buddy’ even when in a group – look after each other from preparation to swim to dressing and beyond – look after your buddy.
  • Once at your chosen swim spot, check the conditions and before entering the water meticulously prep and probably ‘lay out’, in order, your towel, kit and clothes for changing into once out ready for a speedy getting dressed afterwards.
  • Get in slowly, your body will experience cold water shock, calm and steady your breathing before moving away from the side, bank or beach. This is quite normal, but ‘listen to your body’, your heart will be racing and your breathing should calm from hyperventilating to a more steady pace within a couple of minutes.  If it doesn’t feel right – follow your instinct and get out, there is always another day to venture a little further.
  • Be safe be seen. A tiny swimmer’s head is almost invisible to all but the very attentive water user. Help make yourself visible and at times speak or call or shout to alert other water users of your position.  We want other swimmers, boats, SUPs and even those fishing to see us early and see us easily to avoid surprise and potential collision.  Wear a bright hat and tow a bright float to be seen.

  • Enjoy the swim. And breathe….. don’t let me put you off, whilst there is plenty to be careful about, there is plenty to love as well.  Feel the water on your skin, your face, breath in the air, look around you, the waterscape looks different with your eyes just centimetres above the surface – or even below the surface.  Float on your back, even in the cold water – just for a few moments, watch the clouds, or the stars even, are they in a hurry today?
  • Don’t stay in too long. Get out before you feel cold – you’ll need some considerable energy and dexterity to get undressed, especially if in a tight wetsuit with gloves and socks, get dry and redressed as quickly as possible.  There is NO rule for duration in the water!  Despite what they may say on Facebook!  We are all different, different shapes and sizes and will get cold at different rates – start with short swims before you think about making them longer.
  • Get out carefully. Not slowly, but purposefully, some-times you may be slightly off balance so be careful not to stumble.  Immediately quickly get dryish and get your clothes on efficiently and at pace!  Now is not the time for photo’s, chatting or any other dilly-dalli-ing around.
  • After-drop. In the UK, for most of the year and more so in winter, your body will keep cooling even though you are out of the water, you will get colder before you warm up. You may start to shiver and hands may shake, for some very considerably.  This can be an indicator that you have stayed in too long.  Layer, layer, layer, lots of clothes, coats, jackets, changing robes etc. Clothing suitable for wearing in ‘a blizzard’, even in the summer is a good approach.  Have a warm non caffeinated drink and eat something sweet – cake is ideal.  This is the time for slow movement, chatting and those photos I made you not take earlier.  It is also a great time to chat with your swim group and generally enjoy the environment.  Only drive once fully rewarmed.

  • I thought you said 11 tips? Not a tip at all, but a final safety point to remember. If in doubt call for help. No-one wants to be a burden on our emergency services, however, dangerous drops in core body temperature can be serious.  If you are properly worried about your buddy, they aren’t as responsive as expected, perhaps find it difficult to remember their name, that’s time to call for help.

Where to look for help

There are plenty of places to seek good advice and help on open water and wild swimming as well as groups to join and swim with.  Open Water Swimming Coaches will strive to upskill and impart knowledge to their clients to help them be confident in the water, with the knowledge and understanding of how to do it safely – ‘don’t be the weakest link’ in your swim group.


Paul Mackenzie – Paul has a passion for outdoor adventures and expedition trail blazing all over the world.  He is an experienced wild swimmer, Open Water Swim Coach and Lifeguard. Insta: @adventureswims FB @adventureswimspaul

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