Many very experienced open water swimmer endorse regular immersion in very cold water throughout the Winter as a means of acclimatising to the cold. I have also met many first-time swimmers who incorporated not only cold water swimming into their winter training, but also took cold showers / baths, kept the heating down or off in the house, slept with the windows open etc. A lot of swimmers I have spoken to endorse these practices very strongly, arguing that they provide both psychological preparation as well as physical adaptation. Personally, I have never been convinced by this as an effective training strategy, not least because the body's reaction to water close to freezing and the reaction at 10+ degrees is so different. Consequently, in both seasons, I waited until May and then began the building up of time in the (gradually warming) water.
However, aside from the training side of things, there are, of course, many people who swim in very cold water throughout the winter for the pleasure of it. This, also, had always escaped me, and I had always felt very sceptical of the claims about the invigorating and health-giving properties of cold water swimming. But now I think I may have to think again, because yesterday, I had my first Winter swim and LOVED it.
I was arranging to meet Sarah Taylor (who swam the Channel this year too) for a research interview, and she suggested that we meet at Parliament Hill lido for a swim first. I agreed immediately, mostly because, having never swum in any of the lidos, I was assuming the PH lido was heated....why else would anyone suggest meeting for a swim there in December? And then I checked. Hmm. And as the day approached, Britain sank into an icy cold snap, just to add to my anxieties.
And so, yesterday morning, we met at the lido on the most wintery of days.
Just in case we didn't realise it was a cold day, the electronic sign at the entrance warned us what was to come....
Sarah is an old hand at this business and slipped in quickly (plus she'd cleverly brought an old pair of trainers for walking from the changing room to the pool steps - the mark of experience). I, on the other hand, picked my way barefoot through the snow and lingered tentatively until I realised that my feet were freezing anyway, and that the rest of me was soon to follow as a cold wind licked around me. I reassured myself with the thought that it might be like night swimming, where the water is warmer than the air, and therefore quite comforting . I went down the steps and walked in quickly up to my waste, gasping with the shock of sensation, and then off we went.
For those who do this kind of swimming regularly, this account will not seem the slightest bit remarkable, but as someone doing this for the first time, I was genuinely astonished by the experience. Firstly, it's quite painful to be in water so cold. My hands and feet went numb almost immediately, accompanied by sharp pains; my back prickled as if it were burning; it was hard to control my breathing. I kept my head up, although the water splashed onto my face, numbing my lips and chin. We swam across the width (25 metres) and back, and I was heading for the steps when Sarah suggested another two. Peer pressure won the day and off we went again. I was very chilled by now, but had recovered from the initial shock of immersion and enjoyed these two more. I noticed that small droplets of waters, splashed up by our swimming, were actually freezing in the air and colliding with other frozen droplets, making a soft tinkling sound; my body was experiencing a combination of numbness and intense sensation. When we finally got to the steps to get out, I realised that not only could I not feel my hands, but that I had no dexterity at all and could barely pick up my towel and bag; my hands felt like big, thick sausages. We scurried inside and stood under warm showers which quickly restored sensation to our extremities. It's not the same as the experience of warming up after a two hour swim in May when you get chilled to your core and you warm up slowly after a prolonged period of shivering. Instead, the recovery (like the immersion and physiological response to it) was much faster, and by the time we were out of the showers and dressed back up in our mountains of sweaters, hats, coats and scarves, I was perfectly fine...although I had the most bizarre tingling sensations down my back, arms and legs for several minutes afterwards.
So - my first Winter swim. I have to confess that I had been absolutely dreading it, but the reality of it was quite astounding - I hadn't anticipated the intensity of the sensation, and the rapidity of it. It was painful, but also extraordinary, exciting and enervating; afterwards, I felt full of beans. Perhaps it was because it was my first experience of it, but I found it quite thrilling and invigorating. I still am not convinced by its value as a training activity, although can see how it would have psychological value for those who are worried about the cold. But as an activity in itself, I thought it was fabulous (albeit in a slightly perverse way).
And in this spirit, have also signed up for the cold water swimming championships at Tooting Bec Lido in January (just the 30m freestyle....nothing too ambitious).