Updated: Dec 6, 2022
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.
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. Take off your wet swimmers as soon as you can after getting out. Then start layering up with 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.
At this stage, your thermos of warm drink is essential to warm you from within. A bit of sweet food to spike your blood sugar is good and alcohol and caffeine aren't so great, so hot chocolate, warm squash or herbal or fruit tea with a spoonful of honey is ideal. I'm a huge fan of lemon, honey and ginger tea; the spice in the ginger is a wonderful post-swim taste. And cupping a warm drink in your hands is an important post-swim ritual.
Hold off on the shower
It's worth getting out of the cold to somewhere with a radiator or to your car heaters (try not to blast them on full heat). But don't drive until you've stopped shivering. A hot water bottle inside your clothes is also a good plan, as are those little hand warmers that click to heat up.
You should hold off getting into hot water, though. When I was new to cold water swimming, I went for a swim in a beautiful quarry that's used as a diving centre, complete with changing rooms and showers. It was here that I experienced intense itching in my feet and a deeper afterdrop including dizziness caused by getting into a hot shower immediately after swimming, like a muggle. This is because hot water can cause the cold blood at your extremities to mix too quickly with the warm blood at your core, deepening your afterdrop. So it's worth holding off the hot shower until you've warmed up.
Warm up from within
As well as your warm drink, there are other ways to get yourself warm to the core. Breathing in warm air is thought to help, which is why there is such a strong tradition of sauna and cold water, especially in Scandinavian countries. Although, again, exercise caution, especially if the sauna's really hot. A warm room is usually better.
You can also try light exercise like walking or light housework! But bear in mind that shivering uses up a lot of energy, as does swimming in cold water, so make sure your fuel your body. Getting your heart and digestive systems working will also help you warm up, and some foods are thought to generate more heat than others. So have a snack, a drink and wrap up before going for a walk.
Time for that shower
After a couple of hours, your body should have warmed up enough to enjoy that hot shower. Post-shower, I like to dry myself with my hair dryer and then get into bed to answer emails! It's quite possibly one of the nicest feelings in the whole world!
In long DryRobe cloaks and woolly hats, winter swimmers may appear to be in on some sort of magical witchcraft and wizardry. But we're not really. We're just in on the subtle art of warming up - and now you are too.