Cold Water Swimming: 5 Tips For Chilly Dips

A reinvigoration of all the senses, a kind of natural high. Cold water swimmers will tell you it’s a feeling that’s hard to describe, a feeling that draws you back again and again. Science tells us that swimming in cold water activates endorphins, a chemical that makes us feel good. Yet, when you’re standing on the banks or on the shore eyeing up the chilly water, you might find yourself questioning why you thought this was a good idea.

Taking the first plunge can be a daunting prospect, but once you’ve taken a dip, and felt that indescribable feeling, you’ll likely find yourself seeking that high again.

One woman who knows this better than most is Isle of Wight local and friend of Rapanui, Kate Reed. She recently completed 365 consecutive days of outdoors swimming. With no signs of stopping any time soon, we caught up with Kate to hear her cold water swimming tips.

Kate celebrates her 365 days of swimming in the night swimmer hoodie

Getting in

What’s the best way to get in? A slow walk watching the water creep up, or maybe a quick dash?

“Always go straight in,” Kate says. “You have to be careful because of that initial gasp. If you’re not used to it, that gasp can be really dangerous, because you can take in water. So really thinking about your breathing helps with this, breathing calmly in and out through your mouth. Sometimes swearing helps!” she laughs.

“There are certain types of reactions to the cold, the swearers, those who are silent. But you certainly shouldn’t dither about.”

Know your limits

Most of Kate’s swims, totalling over 400 in a year, have been at Freshwater Bay, just down the road from Rapanui HQ. It’s a beautifully wild spot. When it’s flat in summer the water is gin clear and you can see the chalk reef below. Winter storms can bring massive swells that are dangerous to swim in. Kate has seen it all and everything in between. She says knowing your skill level and the swim spot is key to staying safe.

Sunrise at Kate’s local swim spot, Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight.

“People ask me whether it’s safe, but you have to make that decision yourself. Know where you’re swimming, know what the beach is like. You can go down five days running and the beach will look completely different, the sand is different, where the seaweed is, where there’s a dip where it suddenly gets deeper. You should get to know the spot.”

“There’s no hard rule on how long to stay in. It depends on many factors, like wind, air temperature, how used to it you are. Know your limits, don’t go by someone else’s. It’s not a competition.”

The thrill that keeps cold water swimmers coming back is very powerful. Addictive, even. Sometimes it feels so good, you might not want to get out. Yet it’s important to be able to recognise possible signs of hypothermia.

Kate explains, “In winter you can go in and immediately be numb, so you’ll think it doesn’t feel cold. But if you stay in until you’re cold, that’s too long. If in winter you stay in for 10 minutes because you think it’s fine, really that’s likely to be too long. That can be dangerous and that’s when you risk hyperthermia. If when you get out you’re a bit hysterical and slightly not with it, then you need to warm up as soon as you can. I’ve always got a watch on to keep a track of the time. If I see someone in for a while, then I might suggest it’s time to get out.”

Getting warm again

“The sea can be warm, the air can be warm, but there can be a horrible wind that can affect you. So I get out, take the swimming costume off straight away and put on my Rapanui surf towel. I’ll put on lots of warm layers, a hoodie maybe, and have a hot drink. It’s important to warm the core. It can be tempting to go home and have a bath straight away. But you’ll feel that hotness on your skin, not your core.”

Check for sewage

Recently we stood alongside our community to call for action on water companies dumping sewage into our waterways, posing a threat to public health. Using the Safer Seas app by Surfers Against Sewage provides near real-time pollution information, at both coastal and inland waterways. On this post on Instagram we provided tips to avoid pollution and how to stay safe if you suspect you have swam in polluted water.

“I choose spots that are clean and free from pollution. That’s why I love Freshwater. It’s clean and you swim out and look back at the cliffs and it can feel like there’s nothing there"

Swim with others

Swimming in open water is one of the best free activities for both our physical and mental health. Participation in outdoor swimming has tripled in the last three years as more people recognise the great benefits. It can be a social occasion, a meditation, a daily ritual to connect with like-minded people and the natural world.

“I’ve met so many friends swimming. I’ve met more people down the beach than anywhere else. There are groups you can join too. It’s a lot more fun with other people, jumping over the waves, screaming with laughter,” Kate says.

Swimming with other people is safer too, having extra pairs of eyes to watch out for each other.

Connecting with the environment around us reminds us why we’re so driven to protect it. When it comes to wild swimming it’s hard to not fall into the usual cliches about how it’s an escape, a moment free from the rush of modern life. It’s hard not to mention these things because they’re all true. Yet for those who connect with the water on a daily basis, it goes beyond being an escape. It becomes a part of who they are.

“I grew up on the beach, it’s the best place to be.”

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