Winter swimming: The magic, not tragic, guide
I am always left with a feeling of intense satisfaction after plunging into frigid water
Swimmers take to icy waters during a Christmas swim in Dublin. Photograph: Kate Geraghty
The majority of my friends think I am slightly nuts. And to be honest, they’re not wrong. I have a long-standing love affair with the outdoors that has seen me take on multi-day endurance races in some pretty brutal environments. While I love the mountains and forests, nothing compares with the magic of cold water.
Whether I hop in for a dip or a longer swim I am always left with a feeling of intense satisfaction after plunging into frigid water. It leaves my body tingling all over, and my mind totally clear of any worries or anxieties.
At the time of writing this I am 36 weeks pregnant. It is October, and the water is getting colder by the day. I suffered severe sickness for the first 16 weeks of my pregnancy, and a quick plunge into the cold water was the only respite I got, both from the nausea and from the mental challenge of spending long periods bed-bound within close proximity of a bathroom.
Now as I reach the finish line I find that my daily dip is the greatest remedy for back and rib pain, and I am convinced it is the reason why I am still feeling light on my feet despite my monstrous bump!
Like me, year-round swimmers are adamant that the sea has helped to alleviate the effects of a number of physical ailments including arthritis, chronic pain, staving off the common cold and lots more. Studies have been conducted in the UK to prove the benefits but with limited success due to the relatively small number of people taking part in regular cold-water swimming.
However, one thing you will notice about cold-water swimmers is the diverse nature of the group. This activity attracts fit and healthy people in their 20s and 30s right up to those in their 80s who need the assistance of a walking stick or even a frame to get to the water’s edge.
A recent documentary on RTÉ, Vitamin Sea, followed eight year-round swimmers, all of whom had different reasons for making sea swimming an integral part of their lives. One man had used sea swimming as a way of coping with the death of his wife. Another man who is in a wheelchair described how the sea is the one place he can feel weightless.
Plunging into the cold water is as much a mental endeavour as a physical one. Many people believe that in addition to easing inflammation and other physical ailments, cold water submersion is also thought to be for mental health problems.
However, it should also be noted that swimming in sea all year around does not come without its risks. A recent tragedy at the Forty Foot, a popular bathing spot in Co Dublin, was a stark reminder of the sheer power of the sea and how one must respect it.
Here are some key things to remember if you are taking the plunge this winter.
1. Winter is not the time to take up swimming
If you are tempted by the lure of year-round swimming don’t start now. Make this a 2020 project. It is a good idea to start in the summer when the water temperature in Ireland sits somewhere between 16 and 18 degrees. As the year progresses, you will find you have acclimatised to the dropping temperatures gradually, and so are better equipped to deal with the cold. You can expect water temperatures of between 6 and 8 degrees in late winter/early spring, when the water is at its coldest.
According to Dr Heather Massey, a swimmer and a researcher at the extreme environments laboratory at the University of Portsmouth, the secret to acclimatising to cold water is to swim in it regularly. You can gradually extend the time that you stay in the water. Get out if you are not comfortable, and don’t set time goals for staying in the water.
2. Check the tides
Gerard O’Flynn of the Irish Coast Guard advises one should check the tides before heading out for a dip. “It is very easy to check the tide times these days. You should also look at the wind and weather forecasts. It is much safer to swim on a rising tide than on a falling tide. Never swim alone. Don’t swim out to sea, always swim parallel to the shore.”
3. Never swim alone
Due to the unpredictable nature of the sea, Irish Water Safety advises that you never swim alone. It is always a good idea to ask fellow swimmers about the conditions before you get in, and ask them to keep an eye on you if you are getting into the water solo. Heed the advice given by regular swimmers. If they are not getting into the water as they feel conditions are too dangerous, take that as your cue to follow suit.
4. Keep your composure if things do go wrong
O’Flynn advises that you stay calm should you get into trouble at sea. “Compose yourself and get into a comfortable floating position. Don’t waste your energy by trying to react too quickly. Hopefully you aren’t alone and someone will see you and help you. Focus primarily on staying afloat.
“If you see someone in trouble, raise the alarm. Don’t attempt to do anything dramatic on your own. Dial 112 and ask for the Coast Guard. And use any resources that are available such a lifebuoys to help you.”
5. Warm up fast
It is really important to get yourself warm as quickly as possible after a dip. Listen to your body and do not let yourself get too cold in the water. It is also important to understand that your body will react differently to the cold on different days. If you are tired or have had a few drinks the night before you might find you start to feel colder faster than usual when you are in the water. Tailor the length of your swim to how you are feeling on a given day.
Post-swim it is important to warm up as quickly as possible. Once you get out of the water you continue to cool for approximately 20-30 minutes. This means that your deep body temperature will be cooler 20-30 minutes after your swim than when you got out of the water. Get dry and dressed in warm layers as quickly as possible. Warm drinks are also a great way to warm up.