Cold water swimming – Interesting stuff

Cold water swimming – Interesting stuff
Cold water swimming – Interesting stuff

Winter is coming fast

The days are getting shorter, the nights are now pretty long, and training is carrying on but plodding up and down a 25m chlorine pit that is heated to 26 degrees can become a bit mind – numbing (in the boring sense of the word). Cruising up and down an outdoor heated pool in the dark can be a little more entertaining , where mist rising above the water and being unable to see the end of the pool adds a certain type of ambience to the whole affair. Wondering IF the lifeguards – who are dressed for the arctic – have any chance of seeing, let alone saving anyone who might be in peril. It would take them about 5 minutes to get out of all that kit!! Luckily I have not had the need to utilize their skills whilst swimming. The right ambience and wandering thoughts can definitely help a 4 – 5km set go by pretty quickly – but it can still be a boring  task.

So how do you go about mixing it up a little and make training a bit more interesting?? WINTER SWIMMING sometimes known as ICE swimming. Let me define this mad sport. As far as I can see it is pretty self explanatory but for all intents and purposes, and more commonly for winter Galas, this involves swimming a KM  (or there abouts) in water temperatures below 6 degrees Celsius (42 Fahrenheit) with only BIOPRENE as your insulation.  There is also a growing group of ICE Milers. Also pretty self explanatory, except I think  the water has to be colder,  below 3 degrees Celsius (37.4 Fahrenheit). Over the years, I have dabbled in this by being dragged into relays at the last minute over short distances. All pretty easy, leap in, hold your breath and swim like mad for about 100m then head to the sauna – simple and doable. It’s a bit more of a problem when you have to have to swim 1000m (normally about 13 min at my fastest in a normal pool) – probably not quite doable with my current approach. I struggle to hold my breath for 3 minutes, let alone 13 minutes, and I am led to believe that you slow down in the cold. That 13 min could turn into 20 min. My usual approach needs a bit of refining I think.

sunrise over the jubilee

sunrise over the jubilee

What follows is my first foray into swimming bigger distances in colder (or single figure temperatures – if you work in Celsius) water. I have read a lot about this and the physiology of it and also watched the very funny shiver diaries of Jade Perry.

Here follows my calamitous adventure.

Wake Sunday morning at 6 am to head to the river to meet up with Sean Hayward. This is one adventure I would NOT condone trying out on your own. Jump into the car, outside temperature registering a tropical 2 degrees (I say tropical as I am now trying to convince my mind that this cannot be so bad!!!!) Arrive at the river and there is Sean sitting in his car trying to keep warm. I mention that I have no idea how long I will last. I have read that the key to this game is acclimatization; do it slowly, short stints at a time, maybe 10 minutes and then get out. Guidance? What, you want me to follow GUIDANCE – never done it in my life so why start now?? So we don our budgie smugglers, slops, hat and googles, put on our dryrobes and already the shivering is starting whilst the dread of this adventure grows. I am still TRYING to convince my mind “nah, this is not so bad!!”

I am losing the battle.

We are now at the waters edge and I fumble with my towfloat, trying to put the stuff inside it that I want to keep dry. Past anatomy classes tell me that I have dexterous fingers at the end of my hands – reality is they are just appendages that have ZERO dexterity at this point, which is backed up by kak handedness that I manage to conjure up, just enough to close my towfloat and attach it to myself.

Lose the flip flops – oh that would be the footwear currently attached to my equally non existent feet – I know they are there, but any feeling has long since evaporated. So in we go, up to the waist. I then use the lumps of meat attached to arms to splash water over my torso and shoulders – which I can still make out, but barely. Finally a deep breath before I submerge myself in the water and disappear into the river doing head up crawl. I was dreading getting my body in, but putting my head in requires a lot more fortitude. I finally put my head under and am now off. Okay, I now need to take a breath. My whole body now feels like it is on fire, with my skin screaming out, and parts of my anatomy doing their own thing to try and keep warm.

Okay, if I thought cruising up and down a heated 25m pool was “mind numbing,” I have just discovered a whole new meaning to ‘numb’; more literal, more ———-how can I put it——–of a whole body experience!!!  Now my lips, nose and eyes and ears have dissociated themselves. That dodgy ankle – that has plagued me for the last 6 weeks – well I can now vouch for the fact that cold has an amazing numbing effect. It is a good thing that I now have many things to focus on to just stay alive. Breathe slowly, keep your stoke going, keep your kick going, extend your stroke, strong pull, strong kick, “why the frikkinn hell am I doing this”, no!!!! FOCUS!!!! Keep your stoke going, keep your kick going, extend your stroke, strong pull, strong kick, look at my watch, 3 minutes. I am not dead yet???? Calm down, body still on fire. 4 min- 5 min – then something really amazing happens. I have this amazing sense of warmth permeating through my entire body. My breathing is now less laboured and more even and extended. My skin gets used to the cold and I start to feel very comfortable. I become aware that those lumps of meat attached to my shoulders and hips are actually legs, arms, hands, feet, feeling has come back to them and I am now able to concentrate on my stroke as if I was in a pool. The warm toasty feeling lingers and actually feels great. I look at my watch to see that my intervals are still pretty consistent; 10 minutes comes and I agree with Sean to press on until the bridge. I stop, have a look around, look at and move my fingers and toes. They are all still there, accounted for and working. All of a sudden we have been going for 15 minutes. I decide to turn back, still with this feeling of euphoria permeating my body – I have just done 15 minutes in this water! I have no idea how long this will last so lets not be too silly!

The trip back is going swimmingly (see what I did there), stroke still good and consistent, toes, check, feet, check, arms, check, hands, check, still breathing, check. I figure all of the above is a good thing so slow for a while and do some breast stroke and backstroke, get a bit tangled with my towfloat and take in my surroundings. I watch a buzzard above me, a heron takes off and flies over my head, where is my GoPro when I need it?? I’ve been in for 20 minutes and — I am not at the bottom of the river yet!  Again, that has to be a good thing. I press on towards where we started and swim past our entry point,  on up to the weir to make my distance up to 2km.




Okay I approach the shore and slowly touch the ground, and slowly stop swimming… I should have bloody stayed in! Pretty much immediately, my feet disappear into lumps of something at the end of my legs, seriously, you could have taken a hacksaw to my feet at this point and I would not have even registered (don’t get any ideas Slimhippo!!!) I have no feeling in them at all whilst walking the few metres over the stony shoreline to my flip flops. I can see that I am walking on a rocks but cannot even register them. I sit down and empty out my towfloat in search of a towel. About 2 minutes after I leave the water, my whole body is a blotchy red colour, like I have a rash all over. This is one part that I was not expecting – I was expecting to be very white and pale while the blood stayed away from my extremities but bright red?? If anyone can explain this then please do.

I sit and struggle to put a pair of flip flops on my lumps of meat at the ends of my legs, no feeling whatsoever and even less dexterity. Finally I have them on and now Sean arrives so it is back to the cars pronto to get into some warm clothes before Afterdrop really kicks in. This is the period after you get out of frigid water where your core temperature continues to drop till about 33 degrees (recent studies have shown). Once this starts, the shivers start. You have about 5 – 8 minutes to get dressed in warm clothes before they render your body totally useless – you’re not able to do anything, although you become very competent at spilling coffee all over yourself. Not that it matters though as your body has no clue as to the difference between cold and hot at this point.

We sit in the car drinking coffee and eating cakes and shivering for about 15 minutes. I then think I am in a good enough state to jump in my car and drive home. Bad plan. I head to my car, start it up and drive off only to have to pull over after about 1km as the shivers have returned and I am not in any state to drive. So another 15 minutes spent with the heater on full before I am able to be in control of any mechanical object.

So would I recommend it?

YES YES YES. Although I was pretty much prepared for what to expect there was a lot that took me completely by surprise, most especially the lovely warm feeling that permeated my body whilst in the water. The worst parts are not getting in and swimming, but getting out  – it was more hell than I had dreamed of. I was prepared for the after drop, I was prepared for the shivers but not for that 3 minutes between stopping swimming and getting my dryrobe on. As for my skin going the colour it did, I was not expecting that and if anyone can shed some light on this physiologically, I would love to learn more about it from the more experienced and hardened Ice Swimmers out there.

Would I recommend it doing it the way I did?


NO NO NO!!  One thing I have learnt over my life is that I am extremely blessed by having a body like I do that puts up with me throwing all sorts of things, good and bad at it.  It just keeps on going and has Never let me down yet. I WOULD NOT CONDONE my approach to Ice swimming, If you going to do it, take it easy and build yourself up over time. Never do it alone and slowly find your own limits.

I still have a VERY long way to go to be able to swim a km, or even a mile in very icy water but all in all, the first foray into the cold was both fun and enlightening although there is still a lot to learn about this mad sport.

So there you have it, if you all thought I was mad to be doing ultra distance swimming, what do you think of my newfound hobby??

For the next couple of months I will be training in both disciplines, I still have the 100 x 100m coming up next month for the Steve Wand memorial swim. Please do not forget to help our charity by donating what you can to 


Then, the month  or so after that I will hopefully be at a point where I can swim a KM in water below 6 degrees and take on at least the first challenge of 1000m at those temperatures.

I really hope that you enjoy and hopefully learn something from this.

Happy swimming to all keeping up their winter training. Bioprene or Neoprene, be confident that you are beating all those that are on the sofa.



About the author

Ameteur Endurance athlete and marathon swimmer Having taken up marathon swimmng in 2008 with the challenge of the English Channel, I then continued on to Cycle up Britain, Kayak across Scotland and run a few marathons. None of those held the draw that marathon swimming held so in 2014 I was back in the water to Swim one of Switzerlands iconic endurance swims, lake Zurich. In 2015 I opted to take on my biggest swim to date. SCAR challenge.- 4 lakes in 4 days with distances Ranging from 6 miles to 18 miles.

2 Comments on “Cold water swimming – Interesting stuff

  1. Gerry McGahan Reply

    Gumps ……..and you are scared of my Faga Moto. You are absolutely nuts What has possessed your mind? I think you have lost your senses in the last couple of months……….getting engaged (sorry Audra), swimming in cold water, swimming in Ice Water. These are temperatures that good scotch should be drunk at, not swim in

    Well done

    1. Graeme Schlachter Reply

      Who says I cannot drink Scotch AND swim in those temperatures? Hell, I could even drink – not eat your Faga Moto stuff. you should come and join me, that dodgy knee, you will not even know it is a problem. And Shivering is a form of excercise isn’t it??
      Hope to catch up soon Buddy

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