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Keep swimming through winter – Part 1

  • 3 min read

Why would you want to swim through winter!?

Written by Chloe Rafferty, Director of Love SwimRun and STA Open Water Swimming Coach.

Early in November I went to visit a friend in Scotland for some van camping adventures. We were mainly intending to cycle, but we ended up swimming everyday, including some long sea swims. Usually by this time of year I’d be knocking back on my open water distance and just enjoy some cold water dips without a wetsuit, but I enjoyed our swims in the Firth of Forth so much I decided to keep on going.... and going! By the time I’d driven back to Wales I’d given myself the challenge to keep swimming, or at least dipping, every day until the end of January. I set a distance goal of 70km then as well, which in the summer or indoors would not be hard, but outdoors in sub 9 degree temperatures (and getting cooler), it was going to be hard.

I’ve been swimming through the winter for 10 years now but this is the first time I’ve given myself a challenge like this. I’m not exactly built for cold water challenges being quite tall and slim! Even in the summer I struggle with getting cold during longer open water swims.

I’d been wearing a Zone3 Vanquish, which is an amazing wetsuit but it wasn’t much help keeping me warm! I reached out to Zone3 for help and they agreed to send me their Thermal Aspire wetsuit. The suit, based on their award winning Aspire wetsuit, is designed with a Heat-Tech Fleece lining to keep you warmer for longer in cooler water. The thicker insulating panels maintain body heat around the key muscles and organs and it also features a higher neck line and longer arms and legs to increase warmth.

The Thermal Aspire has made a huge difference to my comfort levels and I’m really impressed with the performance and flexibility of the suit. With the addition of some other insulating accessories, this has been a game changer for my winter swimming and I now feel that I stand a good chance of achieving my distance goal!

Try it yourself

In case you fancy taking on a similar winter swimming challenge, or just want to get out and try some dips over New Year, I’ve put together some information, advice and a bit more detail about what I do myself to get you started safely.

‘Why would I want to torture myself in cold water?’ you may well ask! Well, there are a number of benefits to swimming through the winter.

The effects of cold swimming on mental health, anxiety and depression are well-documented and the opportunity to be outdoors and in nature throughout the whole year are worth the effort. Swimming, like all exercise, prompts your brain to release natural feel-good hormones called endorphins. Your nervous system produces endorphins to help you deal with stress, and these compounds can alleviate pain, increase positivity, and bring about a sense of wellbeing and happiness. Combine these feel-good endorphins with the restorative qualities of being in the nature and you can double the wellbeing effect. Research suggests that immersing yourself in natural water in the open air is particularly good for positive mental wellbeing.

There have been a number of studies of the effects of cold water on the immune system. These studies have shown successfully that cold water helps to boost the white blood cell count  (the cells of the immune system that are involved in protecting the body against both infection and disease) because the body is forced to react to changing conditions. Over time, your body becomes better at activating it’s defences. This means that taking cold dips could help build up resistance to illnesses like colds and the flu.

For triathletes and open water swimmers, there can be a great technical and tactical advantage to keep swimming outdoors through the winter. Not only does it give you extra opportunity to train but if you can arrive at your first early race of the season feeling very comfortable about the temperature of the water (in fact you’ll probably be thinking that it’s pretty warm if you’ve swam all winter), then you will have an advantage over all the other participants who have only been swimming in a pool. You will be able to focus purely on the swimming instead of the temperature.

Read part 2 - Acclimatising and understanding cold water.