The magic of warming up

Updated: Dec 18, 2018

Like a dementor's kiss, winter swimming chills you to your core. Unless you want to shiver like a muggle, you need to perfect the subtle art of warming up...

People assume I'm good with the cold. I'm not. I dislike the winter, I hate feeling chilly, I'm a sleep-under-two-duvets kind of person. Cold water swimmers aren't rare magical creatures able to cook up a special potion that stops them from feeling the cold. But when it comes to warming up, they have perfected a subtle form of magic.

Feel the cold

The kind of cold you feel in the water is completely different to the cold you feel in the air. When you're ordinary cold, you feel it on your skin and perhaps your fingers. Warming up is simple: get moving so your body generates heat and trap the heat inside layers of clothing. But swimming in cold water cools you to your very core. Even when you get out of the water and put on layers, your core temperature continues to drop as the cold blood in your skin and extremities mixes with the warm blood at your core.

This is a really odd feeling, and if you're new to winter swimming, it's quite unlike anything you've felt before. Among a group of newbies, I always get asked if this feeling or that feeling is 'normal'. And it usually is, although the way in which individuals experience the cold does vary.

In the water, the cold feeling starts with numbness, tingling and often pain in your fingers, toes, head and face. Some people have sweet spots on the back of their necks, their sacrum and weirdly, their triceps. Ok, this might not sound pleasant, but it's actually fine and discomfort diminishes as you get used to it. If you remember that pain is your body's way of sounding an alarm that you might be in danger, you can then use your breathing to tell your body that you're ok and in control.

When you get out, your skin carries on tingling. You can feel a very deep chill in your abdomen and this is often accompanied by that lovely shiver response. It can take a couple of hours for this feeling to pass.

Warm up

Warming up becomes a part of your winter swimming ritual. The first thing to do is make sure that you're out of the water before you get too cold. If you're unsure, use the two-minute per degree of temperature rule and get out while you still feel comfortable. So that's a fourteen minute swim in water that's seven degrees centigrade. Remember to take a bit of time off if there's wind chill.

Take off your wet clothes as soon as you can after getting out. Then start layering up with the warm clothes, prioritising your body and head rather than hands and feet. Take off your swim hat and replace it immediately with a warm hat. When you get to them, it's worth warming your hands and feet before putting on thermal socks or gloves; I've found that putting cold feet into thermal socks just traps in the cold.