Winter swimming myth-busting
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
With more swimmers than ever getting a thrill from the chill this autumn, there is also more bad advice out there! Here a few myths busted for you.
"You just need to dive straight in," we heard a swimmer tell her friends. On further enquiry, we found out that she'd read this in an article. As regular winter swimmers, we put her right, but this kind of poor advice is terrifying because it can be so dangerous.
All the following myths have been heard or read:
Myth #1: You should jump or dive straight in
You shouldn't dither, but you shouldn't get in quickly either. It takes 60-90 seconds for cold water shock to pass, and if you get in incrementally you could spend your entire swim time getting used. But cold water shock includes a gasp reflex and you don't want to submerge your head while this is happening. Instead, walk in steadily up to your shoulders, spend a couple of minutes standing or treading water and then start your swim.
Myth #2: You have to swim for half-an-hour to get hypothermia
There is some truth around it taking 30 minutes to become hypothermic, but what many people don't realise is that your body temperature continues to drop AFTER you get out of the water. Hypothermia is when your core body temperature falls under 35 degrees centigrade. When you swim in cold water, your core temperature drops. But when you get out and get dressed, it carries on dropping as the cold blood near your skin and in your extremities mixes with the warmer blood at your core. This is called the afterdrop. So, for example, you could swim for 15 minutes and carry on cooling for 20 minutes and still get hypothermia.
Myth #3: You should stay in for one minute per degree of temperature
One of the hardest things about winter swimming is knowing when to get out. You get the cold water shock, then you have a phase of feeling comfortable, maybe even warm (you're not warm, your body's confused!). But, if you stay in too long, you could end up being unwell. The art of winter swimming is to not try and stay in for a defined length of time or try to swim a certain distance. Instead, keep your dips short, get out when you're still feeling comfortable and get to know how your body reacts. One minute per degree came from some research into swimming at 13-15C and it doesn't really translate to colder water. Five minutes at five degrees centigrade may be easy for some swimmers, but it'll make others ill. They key is remembering that you get all the benefits in the first couple of minutes and you don't get any prizes for staying in for longer.
Myth #4: A shower will warm me up
Actually, this is true, a shower will warm you up... but it'll warm you up too fast! A hot bath, shower or hot tub will cause the blood vessels in your hands, feet and at the surface of your skin to open too fast. This can cause chilblains and also make your afterdrop faster and deeper. Winter swimmers have been known to faint in hot showers. Wait until you’ve warmed up again before showering.
Myth #5: You should be cold before you get in so that you don't get a shock
Your body temperature hovers around 37 degrees centigrade. Hypothermia is when your body temperature falls below 35 degrees centigrade, so you've not got a lot of room for manoeuvre. Therefore, you need to make sure that you have as much warmth in your core as possible before you swim. Arrive in warm clothing, jump around before your strip off, take a sip of a warm drink before you swim as well as afterwards, and keep warm layers on until the last minute before you swim.
Myth #6: Skinny people can't swim in the winter!
Studies have shown that fat gives insulation against cold water. This is an halleluiah moment for every chunky dunker out there: finally, a sport where being plump is an advantage! But that doesn't mean that our lean friends can't enjoy the cold water, too. If you have low body fat, you may feel the cold more acutely. But, winter is for dipping, and every single swimmer whatever their build needs to work out their own tolerance. Start with brief dips, pay attention to warming up well, and enjoy the wonderful benefits.
Myth #7: Winter swimming is for white folk
Unlike ideas around fat vs lean winter swimmers, there is no truth or scientific reason that ethnicity has an impact on one's ability to tolerate the cold. There are many reasons why people of colour don't swim, but they are all based on social constructs and not on science. Equally, having 'Viking blood' doesn't mean you'll have better tolerance for the cold. Every single body can acclimatise to the cold water and enjoy the many benefits of winter swimming.
Myth #8: You need an expensive swimming wetsuit
A wetsuit will help you stay in the water for longer. But this isn't an advantage in winter swimming. The health and wellness benefits come in the first few minutes of your cold water dip, so staying in longer has absolutely no advantage. Plus, it's really hard to take off a wetsuit when you're cold. If wearing a wetsuit is the difference between getting in or not, then go for it. Otherwise, a neoprene hat, gloves and booties are a good option.