There is a definite chill in the air in Newcastle at the moment, and an even chillier chill in the water! So I thought it prudent to write a post about the cold water.
From conversations I’ve had with fairly new people to outdoor swimming (and a couple who have yet to get in the water…you know who you are!) one of the main fears is the temperature of the water. If you are swimming anywhere pretty much north of Spain, the water is going to be cold. There’s no way out, you’re going to have to force yourself to deal with it. Sorry about that. However (I love a good “however”); you can buy yourself a wetsuit which will lessen the impact (as mentioned in my previous post), you can reduce your swimming to just in the summer months (when the sea up here is a balmy 15oC but it can get up to 20oC down on the south coast of England) or, if you swim regularly you WILL become acclimatised to it.
Now when I say acclimatised, I don’t mean that you won’t feel the cold. You will, but you won’t mind as much, both physically and mentally. Your body will become adjusted to going into cold water, and you won’t react as strongly. You’ll also remember how GOOD it feels when you get out, so the impetus to get in will overpower the initial scary feeling.
I’m not going to sugar coat it, it hurts. Cold water is very cold (funny that!), and it stings when you put your fragile human skin in it. You walk over the chilly sand and think, oh yes this is a bit cold, and then the surf hits your delicate toes and you start to re-evaluate your life decisions. I’m one of those weird people that actually likes the cold, I’d always rather be too cold than to hot. So on my first official foray into the world of wild swimming I kind of just got a bit hysterical, and grinned like a crazy person, knowing I was going to swim in 3oC water. I’m still struggling to understand why I decided to start in March. Mental. Anyway, you’re ankle deep, all those around you are cheering you on, so you take a few more steps. Some people don’t make it past their calves as it’s so unpleasant. You really have to keep going, I promise it’ll be worth it. Once you get to knee height you may start to hyperventilate. You know what will have to happen soon, you’ve made it this far, keep going. Then the first wave will hit you and boy howdy when that freezing water hits your hoo-ha you are totally allowed to swear! It’s even encouraged! I’m not sure how men can do it to be honest, most of them must wear two pairs of trunks. Then the next wave will catch you and ice water hits your nipples and again you will shout or scream and make weird noises. This is all totally normal. You’ll be doing this weird dance on tiptoes with your arms raised just above the water, delaying putting your hands in.
Some of the more seasoned swimmers recommend scooping up handfuls of water and splashing your chest and face to try and get used to the water. I normally bend my knees and dip myself in up to my neck at this point. My chest is already cold so I might as well. As long as you stay calm, try to control your breathing into nice long breaths, you’ll be fine. You DON’T have to throw yourself into the water, take as much time as you need. I’ve seen people just dive right into cold water and I don’t really understand it, I’m sure that’s a shock to the body, and more dangerous than easing in gently. That’s just a personal opinion, I don’t have any science to back it up. So excellent, you’re up to your neck, do a bit of treading water, awesome. It’s bloody cold, but actually, you’re feeling happy, and exhilarated, this is crazy, but fun! Stay calm, keep swimming, you’re doing it! Whoop!
Now, some people just hate getting their faces in the water, that’s totally fine by me. Do a bit of head-up breast stroke, tread water and chat to other people, all acceptable in the world of outdoor swimming. Some people will swim off to get a bit of distance in, some will do a bit of a swim then plodge around, some will go on a sea safari to find fish and crabs etc. Do what you want. There is no judgement, no pressure, as long as you’re in the water and having a good time, that’s all that matters. If you do get your head under the water be aware that in the cold temperatures you will get a kind of brain freeze sensation, like you’ve eaten too much ice cream. I thought at first my goggles were too tight, but no, it was cold pain! If you’re in for long enough your face will go numb, and you won’t feel it any more. The benefit of getting your head in is that you can swim “properly”, and you can also see all the wonderous wildlife going on under the water! Nothing beats diving under the water and following a shoal of tiny silvery fish!
For an initial foray into outdoor swimming, I wouldn’t expect you to be in the water for more than about 10 minutes. Especially if the water temp is under about 10oC. If you start to feel REALLY cold, get out, also if you start to feel warm (but you know the water is cold, and the person next to you isn’t having a sneaky wee!) get out. Hyperthermia can catch you very quickly, and it is a killer (way to put people off Corinne!) so you need to be sensible. Yes, some people might be in there for an hour, but they’re either acclimatised or mad. Also, everyone has different metabolisms so we deal with the cold differently. Personally, I can just pootle around, not doing much swimming, just treading water and watching fish for about an hour. If some of the more seasoned people did that they would be absolutely freezing, they need to move about to stay warm. So, listen to your body, do not try to compete with people, until you know yourself better!
Now we come to getting out. You will probably look like a cooked lobster. Your body is sending blood to warm the surface of your skin, so it’s really important to get out and warm as soon as possible. You need to get your core temperature up again (to avoid the dreaded H word). You probably won’t be able to feel your toes, your stomach and bum will be numb. Your hands might feel like you have arthritis or something, as they sometimes do what we call “the claw” where the fingers seize up. I sometimes get it, but only in my little finger and ring finger, like someone’s put a rubber band around them. So getting dry and putting clothes back on will be a fun challenge! This is where a swimming buddy comes in handy, they can help you get dressed! The feeling will come back to your body eventually, so get that woolly hat on, get those layers on, and get a hot cup of coffee down your neck! The worst bit for me is the itches I get once I’m dressed. I’m guessing it’s just the blood rushing to my extremities, but it’s SO ITCHY. I can’t put the heater on in the car after a swim as it makes it worse, and I can’t drive and scratch at the same time!
I am incredibly lucky with my body (never thought I'd say that!!), because I do not get the shakes! Almost all of the other people that I swim with get really shaky and shivery after cold swims. Especially some of the longer distance swimmers. It’s totally natural, and just your body getting back to normal again. They sit in the café, warming their bums and hands on the radiators, cuddling their mugs of hot drink, shaking like they’re in the arctic! It's hilarious from an outsider’s view. The only problem with that really is that you can't hold your coffee cup properly! I saw someone try and pour milk in his coffee with a little jug...I don't think any actually went in the coffee, it all went over the table. Oh how we laughed!
So I hope all this cold talk hasn’t put you off. I absolutely promise that after your first swim you will glow. You will feel such a sense of elation that a little bit of you will want to go straight back in! I’ve been lucky enough that this blog, and my Instagram account have actually connected me with people new to swimming, who have come down for a dip with me! All of them have become hooked, which is brilliant. I’m so glad I can share this with other people. I’ve been absolutely overwhelmed with the reaction to this blog, and I thank every single one of you who has been reading it!
P.S. I know that you have to “sign up” to leave comments, please accept my apologies, this is the way that this site is set up, and there is no way to make the comments section a free for all. If you want to share any reactions or suggestions etc but don’t want to sign up, please feel free to contact me on Instagram @corinneheggie I’d love to hear from you.