I step gingerly into the clear, cold seawater. It’s spring, the sun is shining but it’s not that warm on the south coast of England. Squeals, giggles and whoops of laughter fill the air. I’m determined. I’ve swum in water this cold before, I’m sure. But this time it’s different. This time, I’m part of a flock. A flock of Bluetits no less! The water is past my waist now. With a gasp, I immerse my shoulders. And I swim. I swim, bob about and chat with some of the loveliest ladies I’ve ever met. It’s glorious and just a few days later I’m back in the water again. I had heard about the benefits of cold water swimming but it wasn’t until I started swimming regularly with my local group of Bluetit Chill Swimmers, that I realised just how wonderful it could be.
Since then, I’ve swum at sunrise and sunset, under a full moon and in the rain. We’ve shared barbecues, picnics, and fish n chips on the beach and plenty of laughter too. I was warned cold water swimming would be addictive and I’m hooked!
Above: Warming up with a hot drink after a cold water swim in the English Channel
Who are the Bluetit Chill Swimmers?
The Bluetits Chill Swimmers was founded in Wales when some locals started swimming together year-round in the coastal waters of Pembrokeshire in 2014. There are now thousands of Bluetit Swimmers of all genders swimming in the ocean, lakes and rivers all over the world. Some swim year-round, while others just in the warmer months. And that’s just fine.
There’s no registration or fee to join your local group. Simply turn up, and whether you wish to swim, paddle or chat on the beach, you’ll be very welcome. I guarantee it. It isn’t just the swimming that draws the group together. It’s the social chit chat, both in and out the water, that we all love too, whether we’re huddled around a fire wrapped up in hats and dry robes or enjoying the summer sunshine topping up our tans. Cold water swimming, especially in a group of like-minded people, is extremely good for you, both physically and mentally.
Local GPs are now recommending people join our group to help manage stress and depression.
While our group is virtually all women, all are welcome. There are groups like this across the country and beyond, that enjoy coldwater swimming in our seas, rivers and lakes. You can find a list of outdoor swimming groups in the UK here or check if there is a local Bluetit group near you, wherever you are in the world.
Above: Socialising with my local group of Bluetits after a sunset dip in the sea
What’s the difference between cold water, open water and wild swimming?
With the rise in popularity of cold water, wild and open water swimming here in the UK, you may be wondering what the difference is. There’s actually a huge overlap between them.
What is cold water swimming?
Heated swimming pools, whether indoors or out, are generally around 25 to 30°C (77 to 86°F). The sea, lakes and rivers around the UK vary from about 6 to 10°C (43 to 50°F) in winter and 15 to 20°C (59 to 68°F) in summer, with the higher temperatures tending to be in the south in August and September. Cold water swimming is generally considered to be swimming in any of these unheated, natural bodies of water.
Our skin temperature is normally 32.7°C (91°F) so water below 30°C feels pleasantly cool rather than warm. Sea temperatures in the UK rarely reach above 20°C, even in the height of summer, and should always be treated with caution.
In summer, especially here in the south of England, the sea temperature may occasionally be high enough to no longer be technically cold water swimming but the cut-off point for this is a matter of opinion. Let’s face it, swimming in the sea in the UK pretty much always feels cold as you first get in!
What is ice swimming?
For your cold water swimming to be considered ice swimming the water temperature needs to be below 5°C (41°F), however, most of the seas around the UK unless you are in the far north rarely get this cold. Freshwater, however, cools down much quicker than seawater so lakes and rivers will be colder than the sea in winter. If you want to go a step further (considerably further) you could go for the Ice Mile Challenge but that is not something to be taken on lightly and you’ll need to do several years of training to prepare your body for this extreme sport.
You can check the daily sea temperatures around the UK here.
What is wild swimming?
Wild swimming is a type of cold water swimming, in the UK at least. It’s generally defined as swimming in a natural environment such as in lakes, rivers and remote, little-used beaches. So while the main town beaches with toilet facilities and restaurants to hand wouldn’t be wild swimming, swimming from a remote beach with barely another soul in sight would be.
What is open water swimming?
With both wild and cold water swimming, it doesn’t matter whether you simply bob about chatting or do some serious swimming, however, with open water swimming, it really is all about the swimming be it in a river, lake, reservoir or ocean. Open water swimmers enjoy the freedom of swimming without lanes in unheated water, in a natural setting.
You need to be a competent swimmer and build up your stamina in the pool before swimming in open water for the first time. It can be much more tiring than swimming in a pool. Conditions can vary greatly with the tides, currents, waves and water temperature. A mile in the pool is a very different prospect from a mile in open water.
To summarise, swimming in a lake or river and some coastal waters in the UK can be all of the above. Swimming from a tourist beach could be referred to as cold water and open water swimming, but it isn’t wild swimming.
If you are nervous about open water swimming or you’d like to improve your swimming technique, I can highly recommend these sea swimming lessons in Bognor Regis, Wes Sussex. Claire and Mandy are fabulous swimming instructors and have helped me no end.
My quirkiest wild swim to date has to be in the brown, tannin-tinted water of a peat bog in Latvia. We had to walk with what looked like elongated tennis racquets strapped to our feet over the floating moss to get to a suitable spot. These trees you can see below are actually rooted in a floating carpet of moss. Discover more unusual places to swim around the world.
What are the benefits of cold water swimming?
Since cold water swimming on a regular basis, I have no doubt that I feel better, look more relaxed and feel more confident.
1. The social benefits of cold water swimming
While I love swimming with one or two friends, I enjoy swimming with a larger group even more. There’s a real sense of camaraderie when you take on a challenge or share an experience as a group. I’ve met so many wonderful people through cold water swimming,
2. Cold water immersion reduces stress
Friends who I don’t swim with, have noticed how much more relaxed I am. Apparently, it shows on my face.
Studies have found that cold water swimming reduces stress. I think this is partly due to feeling part of such a wonderful community. However, scientists will tell you that as your body learns to react less to the physical stress of entering the cold water, your mind starts to react less to emotional stress too, helping you remain calm and relaxed. I’ve certainly found that to be the case.
3. Exercise helps treat depression
Any exercise can help ward off depression. Cold water swimming though is perfect for this. The shock of the cold water releases endorphins, a chemical produced by the brain to improve your mood. Studies have found that people immediately feel good after cold water swimming and that regularly swimming leads to a gradual reduction in the symptoms of depression.
What’s more, being in a natural environment such as a beach or the countryside is also known to reduce stress and help fight depression. Cold water swimming in a beautiful natural location is a win, win!
4. Cold water swimming boosts your immune system
Studies have also found that cold water swimming boosts your immune system. It is believed that the bodies reaction to the cold increases the number of infection-fighting white blood cells giving your immune system a natural boost.
5. Cold water swimming burns calories
Our bodies have to work hard to keep us warm while we swim in cold water burning up calories far more than swimming in warm water does, a bonus if, like me, you are overweight.
6. Other benefits of cold water swimming
Cold water swimming is also said to improve circulation, increase your libido, build your tolerance to cold, improve your skin and reduce inflammation… the list goes on!
Above: An early morning dip with my fellow Bluetit Chill Swimmers
What are the risks of cold water swimming?
While the benefits of cold water swimming for most people will far outweigh any risks, and there are thousands of people safely swimming regularly throughout the year, there are some risks when cold water swimming that everyone should be aware of, not just for your own safety but for those you swim with. It’s also worth noting that even experienced swimmers can run into unexpected problems they don;t always realise how cold they are getting. This article is an excellent read for everyone, beginners and hardened cold water swimmers alike: Cold-water swimming: what you can do to acclimatise to the temperature.
When I joined my local, group of cold water swimmers it was stressed that each person is responsible for their own health and safety and we are all encouraged to learn more about the pros, cons and risks of swimming in open water.
While this is by no means an extensive list, and I am not an expert on the subject, I felt I couldn’t write about the benefits of cold water swimming without raising awareness about some of these risks.
1. Cold water shock
Cold water shock according to Mike Tipton, professor of human and applied physiology at the University of Portsmouth, kills about 400 people in the UK each year.
Although some may not consider 20°C as cold water swimming it can still feel like a hell of a shock when you first get in, especially on a hot, sunny day. This cold water shock can be extremely dangerous, causing you to gasp and hyperventilate raising your blood pressure and increasing your heart rate. This is why jumping into the sea, a river or a lake is so dangerous if you haven’t allowed your body to get used to the temperature of the water first. Imagine jumping into a lake and gasping with the shock of the cold as your head goes underwater.
If you swim in cold water regularly, this reaction to the cold does become less extreme.
Cold water shock is the main cause of death when cold water swimming in the UK. Always get into the water slowly. NEVER jump straight in.
2. Cold Incapacitation
Another risk which you should be aware of is cold incapacitation. As your body gets cold, blood is directed to your core resulting in a reduced flow of blood to your arms and legs. Your limbs become weak and it becomes increasingly difficult to swim.
Normal body temperature is around 37°C (98.6°F). Hypothermia occurs as your body temperature falls below 35°C (95°F). Mild hypothermia, when a person uncontrollably shivers but is still conscious, can be treated by removing wet clothing and wrapping up warmly, drinking a hot sweet drink and eating some food as fuel for the body to warm itself up. Hypothermia can be fatal but cold water shock or cold incapacitation are more likely problems for cold water swimmers, as it takes a lot longer to become truly hypothermic.
4. After Drop
When you come out of the water you may experience a sudden drop in temperature so that you feel colder than when you were in the water and you may start to shiver. This is caused by your peripheral blood vessels opening up and warm blood from your core cooling too quickly. To help avoid this you should always get out of your wet swimming gear straight away, wrap up warmly and drink a hot drink.
Warming up too quickly by jumping straight into a hot shower, for instance, is equally not advisable.
5. Hidden objects and weeds
Weeds can wrap around swimmers legs causing them to get into difficulty, even drown. HIdden rocks and other objects beneath the water can also be dangerous so always swim in a new location with caution.
Our rivers, lakes and seas can all be affected by pollution, especially after periods of heavy rain when pesticides and manure can be washed off from agricultural land in watercourses. Sewage pollution of our seas has also been in the news a lot lately. I use the Safer Seas app from Surfers Against Sewage to get live alerts to my phone about water quality at the beaches where I regularly swim. It’s hard to believe that this is necessary but it is. It’s a subject I want to find out more about so watch this space. In the meantime, do your homework and research the places you want to swim at before you go.
Get the Safer Seas app to receive live alerts about water quality at your favourite beaches in the UK.
Above: One of my favourite local beaches
Sea swimming year-round in the UK with Raynaud’s
Please don’t let the risks put you off giving cold water swimming a try. Thousands swim year-round, every year without any bad effects. Now, in August, is the perfect time to start when our seas are at their warmest. As the year progresses and the sea temperature cools, our bodies will become acclimatised to the cold, or so I’m told.
Having started regularly cold water swimming in May, my aim is to swim throughout the year. However, I suffer quite severely from Raynaud’s, a phenomenon triggered by the cold, resulting in blood loss from your hands, and sometimes toes, which become numb and then painful. I’ll be looking into how I can manage my Raynaud’s and still swim even in winter. I’ve already learned quite a lot. I’m not making any promises to swim year-round but I hope to. Only time will tell.
Sign up for my newsletter to follow my cold water swimming journey. Why not join me and give it a go yourself? Do let me know how you get on in the comments below.
UPDATE JANUARY 2022
I’m still swimming regularly, albeit less frequently, in the sea without a wetsuit, however, I have started wearing a pair of disposable gloves under my neoprene gloves to help keep my hands warm. I keep the disposable gloves on when getting dry afterwards too and find them a great help. Find out more in my post, What to wear cold water swimming.
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