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How to swim in winter

You may have watched Wim Hof on TV or seen people getting into cold water at the lake. So, why do people swim in cold water and how can you do it safely?

Getting into cold water has become very popular in the last couple of years. Said to be good for your health and well-being, many people swim through the winter at Clevedon Marine Lake. But dipping in cold water can be dangerous. We asked Clevedon Marine Lake coach and winter swimmer, Rowan Clarke, for her tips on swimming in the winter.

"Cold water swimming has amazing benefits for your physical and mental health," she says. "I'm about to swim through my seventh winter and I've been coaching winter swimmers for four years - I have seen what it does for people. But I do worry about people who don't know how to do it safely. I have seen winter swimmers get into trouble and become ill - even to the point of being taken to hospital. Winter swimming is a great thing to do - but only if you do it right."

Tip #1 - Pack the right kit

Prep is everything. Pack a waterproof bag (a bag for life is fine) with lots of layers and a flask of warm drink for afterwards. You don't need any special kit for your swim - normal swimwear is fine. A hat is essential in the water to help you stay warm and visible to other people in and on the lake.

Must haves:

  • Swimwear

  • Hat (swim hat or bobble hat)

  • Towel

  • Warm layers

  • Warm drink

  • Windproof/waterproof coat

Good to have:

  • Wetsuit

  • Wetsuit booties and gloves

  • Changing robe

  • Something to stand on while you change

Tip #2 - Get clued up

It helps to understand what happens to your body when you get into cold water. When your skin feels the cold water, the blood vessels in your hands, feet and skin constrict and the warm blood goes to your core. This makes your breathing rate, heart rate and blood pressure go up. It's called cold water shock and it lasts 60-90 seconds. When you get out, those blood vessels dilate and the cold blood in your extremities mixes with the warm blood at your core, and you carry on cooling down for around 30 minutes after you get out. This is called the afterdrop.

"You carry on cooling down for around 30 minutes after you get out"

Tip #3 - Get in slowly

Cold water shock is the biggest killer of people in cold water. You can make it less dangerous by getting in slowly and steadily using the steps around the lake, taking time to settle your breath. After 60-90 seconds, you will have stopped hyperventilating and will be ready to swim. Whatever you do, do NOT jump or dive into cold water.

Tip #4 - Enjoy a brief dip

The mental health benefits come from calming down the stress response that is cold water shock. The theory is that by calming down your stress response when you get into cold water, you will get better at coping with stress in the rest of your life. That means that you get all the amazing benefits in the first 2-3 minutes of being in the water and you don't need to stay in for longer than that. Stay close to the side so that you can get out when you need to, and stay safe if you get cramp or your muscles seize up from the cold (cold water incapacitation).

Tip #5 - Get out while you're comfortable

There's no formula for how long to stay in - it depends on your body, your experience, how acclimatised you are, how you feel that day and what the weather's like.

To avoid becoming hypothermic, get out while you're comfortable. Remember, your core temperature will keep on dropping for around half an hour after you get out. Hypothermia happens when your core temperature gets below 35 degrees centigrade, so if you get too cold in the water, you could get into trouble afterwards.

Tip #6 - Take warming up seriously

Steer clear of hypothermia and leave yourself wanting to swim again next week by:

  • Taking off your wet stuff and putting on warm layers as soon as you get out

  • Wearing a hat

  • Wearing a windproof coat

  • Drinking a warm drink

  • Going somewhere warm like a cafe or your car

  • Going for a gentle walk

  • Eating something


  • Driving or cycling until you've warmed up

  • Standing around in your wet kit

  • Getting into a hot bath or shower until you've properly warmed up

  • Drinking alcohol

Stay safe, have fun

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