Spring is here, the weather's warm and the water's calling you. Whether you've swum over winter or taken a break, here's how to swim safely in spring.
Outdoor swimming is universally wonderful. More and more people are waking up to its benefits for mind, body and spirit, which are there for everyone pretty much without exception. Whether you've been enjoying the thrill of the chill or waiting for the sun to warm your bones, spring is an exciting time for new starts, new hobbies and new adventures, so you might be ready to take the plunge or to swim a little further.
As with all outdoor swimming, whether you're a beginner or emerging from the winter season, it's worth being aware of a few precautions - precautions that are particularly important in the spring.
Warm sun, cold water
When you swim outdoors, you really get to know the weather. When you swim outdoors in the UK, having a grip of what different weather means for your swim is extra important. Being a tiny island our weather is very variable. In the spring, that means that we can have a warm, calm, sunny day followed swiftly by torrential rain or cold winds.
In a way, winter swimming is easier because we expect cold, inclement weather and dress accordingly. But changeable spring can catch us out, so don't forget to check the forecast and pack extra layers accordingly. Remember to factor in wind chill and chop and bear in mind that heavy rain can affect river flow and water quality. Remember too that spring tides can change the way the sea behaves, so look at tide times, swell and sea conditions too.
There's something else that it's easy to forget on a warm, spring day that catches out even the most experienced winter swimmers. Lulled into a false sense of security by the warm sunshine, we stay in for too long and push ourselves too far, exposing ourselves to cold incapacitation. "Just being used to cold water swimming confers no immunity to its effects," posted an experienced winter swimmer. "Today the water was relatively* warm at 7C and it was a sunny day. I went in and it felt colder than when I have swum at 3C or colder. However, I got going and felt OK. I swam 1k (20mins) but as I turned for the last leg at Clevedon marine lake I felt slightly unreal had tinnitus and was slightly concerned."
After getting out, this swimmer started shivering as usual and did everything he should to warm up - got dressed quickly and drank warm tea. But he then stopped shivering and felt a reduction in his consciousness. "Never assume serious hypothermia will not happen, always ensure you swim with someone and limit your swim if you don't feel right," he said.
*Temperature perception is relative! If you've been swimming all winter 5-6C or below, 7-10C will feel comfortable, especially in the warm sun. But please don't forget that this water temperature is still very cold!
It's the water temperature that matters
As always, it's the water temperature that really matters. After a dip, the sunshine will help you warm up, but it won't counter the effect of staying in the cold water for too long.
When you get into cold water, the blood vessels in your skin and extremities constrict. Warm blood goes to your core and the rest cools. When you get out again and start to warm up, the constricted blood vessels open up again and the cold blood mixes with the warm blood causing your overall core temperature to drop. This triggers the shiver response and is known as the after drop.
If you've got very cold in the water and then stimulate your blood vessels to open too quickly, it can deepen your after drop causing your core temperature to drop too fast and too low, which is why some people get taken ill after a cold water swim. You can help prevent this by warming yourself gently - warm clothes, a warm drink. And by not staying in for too long in the first place.
Stay safe in the warm weather
So, even when the weather is gorgeous, bear in mind that the water hasn't had time to warm up. Cold water shock is a huge factor. If you're new to swimming outdoors, make sure that you get in slowly thinking about long, gentle exhalations. Once in, listen to your body and get out while you still feel comfortable and before you get really cold. Think about your exit before you get in, and don't swim too far from it so that you can get out easily.
Wear your swim hat, wear your gloves and booties. Be aware of the water temperature and how you feel all the time that you're swimming. If you've swum through the winter, start building your time and distance gradually, paying attention to how you're doing all the time. Take warming up seriously: stand in the sun, wrap up, put on your warm hat and cradle your cup of tea. Don't enter the water by jumping or diving in (you can swim and then jump in once you're used to it).
Most of all, watch out for other swimmers and don't swim alone. It's a beautiful time of the year for swimming, so let's all do it safely so that we get the most from our spring dips.