Time and timing
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
How frequently should you winter swim, and how long should you stay in?
The stages of cold water immersion go like this:
fear and dread
trying not to think as you get in
cold water shock
absolutely loving it
Steps 1-4 are necessary and add to the afterglow because you feel super-human for having conquered a fear. Steps 5-7 are the stages that your body goes through, and how it becomes adapted to cold water. Steps 8-10 are to be avoided by getting out before you get there.
How long is too long?
It sounds ridiculous to say 'get out when you start to feel really cold'. As you become an experienced winter swimmer, you do get to know when you've had enough. By the time you reach the end of your first winter, you'll probably know your body's tells - and you may have learnt from a bad experience! But when you start out, try to keep those first few dips short and sweet. After six or seven dips, your cold water shock response will lessen and you might feel that you can swim a little longer.
Some winter swimmers talk about a one-minute rule. This was devised by someone somewhere and has become a thing that people say. It's not a terrible guide for beginners because it does convey the sense that your swims become shorter as the temperature drops. But while most people will be fine and have a good recovery at one minute per degree, for some it'll be too long while other, more experienced swimmers may well be able to stay in longer. But the important thing is to work on is changing your mindset. While you may be swimming for a time or distance in the summer, winter swimming is about the experience of immersing yourself in cold water and NOT about distances and times. Be aware of how your body feels and learn what feels right and what doesn't.
But I feel amazing!
Getting out when you're still at step seven, so still absolutely loving it, is ideal. This is because your body will continue to cool after you get out of the water. Known as the afterdrop, as you warm up after getting out of cold water, the cooler blood in your skin and extremities starts to mix with the warm blood that your body has cleverly shunted to your core. That means that your core temperature drops, usually triggering a shiver response deep inside you.
If you stay in for too long, the afterdrop is deeper. Considering that your normal body temperature is around 37 degrees and hypothermia happens when your core temperature is 35 degrees, you don't actually have much room for error.
Of course, some incredible humans can swim an ice-mile. That's a mile in water measuring under five degrees centigrade. The fastest ice mile was swum by Rostislav Vitek from the Czech Republic in just over 20 minutes, but most of the current 408 ice-milers took 30-40 minutes. To stay in for this long, these swimmers don't just train several times a week, they slowly build tolerance over several winter seasons.
So, swimming in cold water regularly does help you adapt. Adaptation simply means that those perfectly normal stress reactions including the cold water shock response and pain in your fingers and toes gets less extreme. It also means that you cope better with stress. Just bear in mind that your body can't tell the difference between the stress you feel about doing your tax return, the stress of having a cold or auto-immune condition and the deliciously brilliant stress of immersing in cold water, getting better at responding to one stress makes you less stressed, depressed, anxious, ill etc.
How often should I swim?
So, the more frequently you winter dip, the better for you. As a minimum, dip once a week when the water's in single digits if you can. If you're dipping less often than that, you'll need to 'micro-dip' by keeping those swims as short as possible.