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5 cold-water swimming tips for thriving in winter

I originally submitted this for the Kenzie's Gift charity Winter Swim Challenge, but these are some great tips that I share with any budding cold-water swimmers:

Winter is one of my favourite times of year for swimming. For many, it is seen as something of a period of hibernation; a forced break from the ocean before the good times and warm waters of summer roll back around. My dream is that more people experience the amazing benefits of cold-water swimming for themselves. Here are 5 tips to help you get going.

Warming up after another glorious cold-water swim!

Enter slow and steady

When entering the water, submerge your body to shoulder depth and take a moment (I generally take about one minute) to allow your body to respond to the initial shock. If you are new to cold-water swimming, this sensation can be quite intense – you may notice an increase in your breathing and a marked increase in your heart rate. Once you are submerged up to your shoulders, slow your breathing through a few deep breaths in and out. When your breathing is under control, you can bob your face underwater to complete the routine. You’re now ready to get going.

Look out for the “ice-cream headache”

As you start swimming and your head becomes fully immersed, expect that you may experience some form of “ice-cream headache”. This is a headache-like sensation, brought on from prolonged contact of your head with the cold water. This sensation tends to last a minute or so at the beginning of the swim, with the intensity dependent on your previous exposure to cold-water. You can mitigate this sensation through the use of a thermal neoprene swim cap or using two silicone swim caps. Over time, you will notice that this sensation dissipates as your body adapts. As I near a cold-water swimming challenge (for example, an ice swim), I like to use this response to my advantage, swimming “bare-headed” without any form of swim cap to force adaptation.

The cold is what you make it

Cold water can get a bad rap because it feels like it’s not natural. Our bodies naturally prefer warmer temperatures. Often, it’s as much a mental game as it is physical. When you’re in cold water, you have two choices – you can hope and pray that it finishes as soon as possible, or you can embrace the experience and be thankful for the mental and physical health benefits that you are about to enjoy. It is your choice how you frame the experience!

Warm from the inside-out

Once your cold-water swim is done and dusted, make sure to have some warm kit on hand and a hot drink to deal with the “afterdrop” – a rapid cooling of the body once you exit the water, as the cool blood from your extremities circulates back into your core. The key to deal with the afterdrop, which is worst about 10 minutes after exiting the water, is to warm from the inside-out rather than outside-in. Pouring hot water over your body at the end of a swim may offer a brief respite, but it will not bring you back to temperature in a sustainable way. As soon as you exit the water, get into some warm clothing, including a beanie, slippers, and mittens if you feel the need! I personally like to drink copious amounts of hot water as soon as I am dressed. This approach can lead to a trip or two to the bathroom, but it will reduce the afterdrop effect considerably. If you follow this tip, you’ll end up having the last laugh – I tend to be the one chuckling away as my swimming buddies lose half their post-swim coffee on the way up to their mouth on account of their shivering hands!

Stick at it!

Most importantly, keep at it. The more time you spend in the cold-water, the quicker your body will adapt. Once you build the adaptation, you’ll be able to hold it across winter seasons and build on it year to year. When I first started, a 60-minute winter swim was painfully difficult and the afterdrop especially intense. Now, I can stay in the cold water for hours on end with very limited adverse reaction, during and after.

Good luck for the winter ahead!

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