ACTIVE | Cold Water Winter ‘Polar’ Swimming – What’s It Really Like?

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🕒 4 minute read

Inspired by the winter wild swimmers I’ve been following and talking to on Instagram, I did something that at the start of 2020, I’d never have dreamt I’d be doing and booked myself onto a cold ‘polar’ winter open water swim. Read on to find out what a polar swim is really like for a novice.

Boundary Water Park in Cheshire
5.1° at Boundary Water Park in Cheshire

My first ever polar swim was due to take place at Boundary Water Park near where I live in Cheshire on Sunday 6th December 2020. Swimming outdoors in December both intrigued me and seemed like utter madness at the same time. Shortly after booking, with the water temperature dropping day by day, I started to wonder if I hadn’t gone slightly mad.

If you’d have told me 6 months ago I’d be swimming outside in December I simply wouldn’t have believed it.

The day before my swim I received an email warning me that the water was considered “very cold” (which turned out to be 5.1° on the day) and I’ll be honest, I was super worried It would be too cold for me. The coldest water I’d swum in at that point was 10° before the second lockdown and I found that tough.

Despite my nerves ramping up in the hours before my swim, I was determined not to back out, so I told myself I’d give it a try. If I only went in up to my waist and had to come straight back out again, at least I’d given it a good go and I’d know my personal limits.

Boundary water park in Winter
The cold and dark day certainly didn’t make getting in any easier!

I genuinely had no idea whether I’d be able to do it and suspected I’d be straight in and out!

My Fiancé came with me to offer moral support and to help me get out of my wetsuit quickly after my swim and the Uswim team were also on hand with friendly words of encouragement.

As I prepared to enter the water a group of ladies started chatting and we ended up entering the water together – hearing they’d never swum in water so cold either and cheering each other on really did help. That’s one of the things I’ve come to love about the open water swimming community. Everyone is so chatty and friendly and we encourage each other, which really does give you a confidence boost.

Just out of the water and beaming!

After my previous swim a few weeks ago, I’d invested in gloves (turns out they were too big, as suspected, but better than nothing!) and my wetsuit boots and 4/3 wetsuit (albeit a surf rather than open water specific suit) did a decent job of insulating me. I spent a good length of time bobbing in and out of the water when I first got in, getting used to the temperature before we set off to do the short course.

My fingers fared worst and remained very, very cold throughout, painfully so for the first 10 minutes, but the rest of me didn’t feel too bad which surprised me hugely. I still have no clue how people can go in without a wetsuit though, I feel like they must be superhuman!

My first polar swim felt like a huge personal achievement having overcome both physical and mental barriers to do it.

The smile says it all!
The smile says it all!

After doing the short course, we decided we’d have a crack at the full course and it was so lovely to be swimming with company, as I usually don’t have anyone to swim with and I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to have a crack at it on my own.

We certainly didn’t break any speed records, but I think it’s fair to say for all of us, upon finishing the bigger course, we surprised ourselves and it felt like a massive accomplishment.

Black open water cold swimmer
All dry and warmed up after my first polar swim

How does a cold swim really feel?

Everyone is different, but for me, wearing a wetsuit, socks and gloves, I find getting into cold water is fine, at least initially! I go in very slowly and allow my body to get used to the cold water gradually – it’s the best way to ensure you don’t go into cold shock.

Autumn cold water swim at Alderford Lake
Slowly entering the water during a November swim at Alderford Lake

I then tend to bob up and down a fair bit to get the blood flowing and to get used to water coming further and further up my body. I move my arms, wiggle my fingers and toes and bounce around until I’m submerged up to my shoulders and when I’m sure I’m OK and my breathing feels more even, I start swimming.

Some folks prefer a quick dip and then to get out, but I find it takes me about 10 minutes to really get warmed up and moving, until then my body can feel quite tight and sluggish in very cold water.

Once I loosen up, I then swim fairly strongly, but nowhere near as fast as I swim in warmer water, and then I generally swim for anything from 30 to about 45 minutes.

After a winter open water swim at Alderford Lake Shropshire
After a late autumn open water swim at Alderford Lake Shropshire

Getting out, I strip my wetsuit off as quickly as I can and get my changing robe on. At this point, my body feels hot and prickly from the cold. I lose a bit of dexterity in my fingers but always try and get my feet dry first so I can get thick socks on whilst I start drying off the rest of me under the changing robe.

I pop on layers and a wooly hat and then as soon as possible after a swim, I will have a hot drink. I don’t find it very easy to regulate my body temperature and although I don’t feel overly cold once dressed, I do tend to feel quite chilly for a good few hours after a cold swim, so I always make sure I’ve got a hot water bottle and blanket not far away!

The positive effects of cold water swimming are well documented and I love the endorphin high it gives me. The heightened sense of wellbeing can stay with me for a good 24 hours too and I think you can see the elation in my post-swim face.

I’m not going to say there isn’t physical discomfort and that it doesn’t take a bit of mental effort, but I absolutely love it!

Zone3 XL open water swimming wetsuit
10.5° autumn swim at Alderford Lake, November 2021

Open Water Swimming Update

Over a year on and I’m still swimming outdoors in all seasons. I’ve since invested in an open water swimming specific wetsuit from Zone 3 and am a regular at Alderford Lake in Shropshire.

The coldest water I’ve swum in so far is 4.5° and honestly, I’m not sure I’m keen to go any colder than that! Cold water swimming is something I well and truly love and I really haven’t looked back since conquering my early open water swimming fears with the help of the fabulous team at Uswim, back near the start of the 2020 Coronavirus lockdown.

Inspired to swim?

Find out more about Uswim open water and read about my very first experience of open water swimming here.

Take a look at what the Black Swimming Association are doing or have a look at Mental Health Swims, a community of wild swimmers who do group swims all over the UK in all seasons.

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Shell Robshaw-Bryan
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