fitness · swimming

Wild swimming? Cold water swimming? Whatever you call it, Sam is tempted to try it

Here on the blog we’re having lots of thoughts about cold water!

Catherine dipped her toes in and is thinking about more. Blog regular Diane Harper wrote about winter swimming back when she was a guest poster. Another regular guest Lynette Reid has been tempting me in with her beautiful Nova Scotia winter swimming pictures. She blogged about it here. And I’m officially on record, along with Catherine, as intrigued and tempted. See also here.

We’re also, as a group, reviewing Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui. We usually do it chapter by chapter, book club style, so readers can join in. Details to follow later this week! (And yes, in the interests of transparency, that’s an Amazon affiliate link. We don’t make much from them but they do cover the costs of an ad-free WordPress blog.)

The cover of Why We Swim

Here’s the back of the book blurb: “An immersive, unforgettable, and eye-opening perspective on swimming—and on human behavior itself. We swim in freezing Arctic waters and piranha-infested rivers to test our limits. We swim for pleasure, for exercise, for healing. But humans, unlike other animals that are drawn to water, are not natural-born swimmers. We must be taught. Our evolutionary ancestors learned for survival; now, in the twenty-first century, swimming is one of the most popular activities in the world. Why We Swim is propelled by stories of Olympic champions, a Baghdad swim club that meets n Saddam Hussein’s palace pool, modern-day Japanese samurai swimmers, and even an Icelandic fisherman who improbably survives a wintry six-hour swim after a shipwreck. New York Times contributor Bonnie Tsui, a swimmer herself, dives into the deep, from the San Francisco Bay to the South China Sea, investigating what about water—despite its dangers—seduces us and why we come back to it again and again.”

What’s ‘wild swimming’? As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in the Guardian notes we used to just call it ‘swimming’ or ‘outdoor swimming.’ It’s like ‘forest bathing’ which used to just be called ‘hiking in the woods.’ What’s new is an emphasis on the physical and mental health benefits. And wild swimming often involves swimming off season–not just in the hot summer months, but fall and spring, and for some of the braver souls like Diane and Lynette, wintertime too. I don’t think the term has quite taken off here in Canada like it has in the UK.

Why am I tempted at all? Here’s my two main reasons:

  • Fond childhood memories of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. On the east coast of Canada the beaches always meant cold water swimming even in July and August. Mostly kids went in while adults huddled on shore. I want to recapture some childhood feels. Biking does that. Maybe cold water swimming will too?
  • I love swimming outside but I can’t seem to get into pool swimming. I like indoor rowing (hi erg!) and outdoor rowing. I love indoor biking (hey Zwift!) and outdoor riding. But swimming? Nope. No matter how much I try it’s never taken. But I love being in the water outdoors.
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This picture always makes me laugh. It’s in PEI in August first of all. Also, my kids are frolicking in the outdoor swimming pool on family vacation. Me? I’ve become one of those adults huddled on shore, wearing Jeff’s polar fleece jacket, drinking Tim Hortons coffee, while the kids play and have fun in the water. What happened to me?

Okay how do I move from ‘feeling intrigued’ to ‘giving it a go’? I asked some of my winter swimming friends for advice. Should I wait until summer? Start now?

Albert Nerenberg, a friend from my undergrad student newspaper days, writes, “You can really start any time because the two key components are the breathing and the cold showers. You can get most of the benefits from cold immersion from those two practices. But people naturally escalate to outdoor swimming. Cold exposure doesn’t have to be long. 3-5 minutes for benefits. So anytime is good because the breath warm up can be done with even warmer water and you’re still in the process.”

Brrr!

Albert is an advocate of the health benefits of both cold water swimming and laughing. He combines them in this video.

Here’s the specific breathing technique Albert recommends.

Lynette’s words of wisdom? “One piece of advice people give is to acclimatize over a few years and extend the season rather than starting early. But last year I started early because who wants to hear that in April? Go in slowly (walk I don’t dive) and monitor your breathing so you start to notice when you involuntarily hold your breath or take a breath in and re-establish it before going in farther. Wind is a worse enemy than temperature.”

What about special gear? Do I need any?

“You can put neoprene gloves booties and a cap on. Or wetsuits or whatever versions of wetsuits triathletes wear which have greater mobility. Or your bathing suit. At the beginning you just get in and out. Dip. Swim later. Never push yourself with goals and expectations in cold water swimming. Get warm after,” says Lynette.

Also, research safety tips before you go. Here’s cold water tips from Outdoor Swimmer magazine and more tips from the outdoor swimming society.

Here’s Lynette, photos from her earlier post.

Diane also recommended safety first. (We’re like that here on the blog!)

She writes, “I would start with Nadine’s website, which has lots of info based on years of training for cold swimming. My advice would be to listen to your body and don’t ever push beyond your comfort zone. Everyone is different and some very experienced long-distance open water swimmers can’t get in, while other people find it relatively easy. Some use wetsuits, others don’t (I don’t because I worry about struggling to change out of a wetsuit when I’m cold). Personally, I found that just extending my season in the fall was the best way to do it. But when I was swimming today, I saw a man, a kid and a dog all in the water, so now is also manageable.”

The colder it is, the more you need to be concerned about safety.

“In cold weather, wind and precipitation can be brutal, both physically and psychologically. The usual water safety rules apply more than ever – swim with buddies, have a plan, know your swim area, wear a float for visibility, especially if there are boats or windsurfers in the area. Bring snacks for when you get out as you will be hungry – cake is traditional,” says Diane.

I wondered if most people actually swim in the water or if it’s more ‘get in, get out’ like the polar bear dip.

Diane says she actually swims.

“I actually swim, but there is usually some time spent getting acclimatized. Sometimes it’s all head’s up breaststroke because putting my face in is too hard. Today it was about 350 m I think, and I was in for a little over 20 minutes. I would have stayed in longer but my swimming buddy is new to it and she was starting to get cold. The colder it is, the harder it is, obviously. I have trained for an ice mile (bathing suit and one cap, not gloves or socks, in water under 5C). I will never do one because I’m just not fast enough to complete that distance in under about 40 minutes, which is extreme. But a day like today, with water at or above 10C, 45 minutes is easy now.”

Here’s Diane and her friend Nadine making the cold water look as welcoming as a hot tub.

What’s next? Well, I promise to give swimming outside this spring, earlier than usual, a go. And I’ll report back. If Catherine lived closer–damn you geography and borders–I’d give her a call and we’d go swimming together.

I also want to write about British swimmer Kate Steele who has done not one, not two, but EIGHT ice miles! What’s an ice mile? “Find a body of water that is below 5C, and swim one mile under supervision wearing only your swimming costume, a pair of goggles and one silicone swimming hat.”

And stay tuned for our group book review of Why We Swim.

10 thoughts on “Wild swimming? Cold water swimming? Whatever you call it, Sam is tempted to try it

  1. I did a double dip yesterday—lake and ocean, top and bottom of waterfall. This year the cold water feels more like refreshing cold water does on the throat—you don’t really notice ice water as shocking to the body when you drink it , but as refreshing.

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