Everyone who has tried cold-water swimming agrees there is nothing quite like it. Exhilarating, challenging, energising and addictive – those are just a few of the words used to describe the feeling of chilly water on your skin. Some Lido regulars even believe it boosts their immune system.
Subjecting your body to the shock of such low temperatures is not everybody’s idea of fun. But if you’re tempted to try Tooting Bec Lido in winter, here are some tips to help you get the most out of the experience and avoid the risks.
The SLSC does not support or encourage swimming distances in very cold water (under 8º C) without proper training and medical support. If you are training for a cold water swimming event speak to the lifeguards and follow their advice. If the lifeguards ask you to get out of the water because they think you are at risk, please do so without complaint.
• CONSULT your GP before swimming if you
are pregnant or you have any medical issues,
especially asthma or heart or lung problems.
• TELL the lifeguards if it’s your first time in the cold water.
• WEAR a cap (or two!) It will really help to keep you warm.
• ACCLIMATISE. Swim regularly through the autumn rather than having your first dip in icy January. Reduce the amount you swim as the water temperature falls. Widths are better than lengths when it gets very cold.
• REGULATE your breathing when you get in the water. Even Lido regulars will gasp when the cold hits them, so take a few moments to get your breath back, exhale and then push off from the side.
• WATCH OUT for other swimmers and tell the lifeguards if you are worried about anyone, either in the water or out.
• ASK FOR HELP if you feel cold, unwell or disoriented at any time. There is no shame in letting a lifeguard or other club member know you might need help.
• GET DRESSED as soon as possible after you get out of the water. Wear sandals or stand on a mat while you get changed.
• DRINK something warm straightaway – perhaps bring a flask with you. It’s one of the best ways to warm up. Eating something sugary will help too.
• DON’T IGNORE sniffles and other signs that you
are coming down with a bug. If you don’t feel
100%, just have a few days off swimming – it’s
not the end of the world.
• DON’T DRINK ANY ALCOHOL at all before you swim.
• DON’T JUMP STRAIGHT IN. Lower yourself into the water bit by bit so the cold is less of a shock.
• DON’T OVERDO IT by staying in too long. You may not feel all that cold while you are in the water, but you will carry on getting colder after you get out.
• DON’T STAY in the sauna or the shower too long after your swim. They may feel nice but they can interfere with your body’s natural mechanisms for warming your core up.
• DON’T USE THE SAUNA TO EXTEND YOUR SWIMS Swim only for as long as you can warm up naturally.
• DON’T ASSUME that someone else will help a person who seems to be in difficulty. We all need to look out for each other.
• DON’T DRIVE or ride a bike till you have warmed up after your swim. Shivering isn’t good for your steering!
Any physical activity involves risks. When you
cross a road, ride a bike or run a marathon,
you weigh up the risks and manage them
against the pleasures and the benefits you
will gain. It’s the same when you swim a
width or two in a chilly lido.
So, here are a few of things you need to consider if you fancy giving cold-water swimming a try.
The gasp reflex
The shock of the cold water will make you gasp and feel breathless when you get in the water. Lower yourself into the water gradually. Don’t panic when your body becomes aware of the cold. Calm down, stay still for a few seconds and only start swimming when you feel confident that you will be able to breathe comfortably.
Check with your doctor if you have any worries about your heart. Getting into cold water is a shock to the system – the heart has to work harder and your blood pressure will go up. Even young and apparently healthy people may have heart conditions that could get them into difficulty in cold water.
Asthma affects people differently. Some may find that swimming helps, but don’t swim if you find it makes your condition worse. Consult your GP if are thinking of swimming in the cold and always have your inhaler with you.
A muscle may go into spasm if you are tired or dehydrated. This can happen in warm water as well as cold. You should get out of the water so you can stretch the muscle properly. Don’t be embarrassed about asking a lifeguard for help getting out.
In some cases, cold can make your muscles go rigid. You may also notice mental impairment and a loss of manual dexterity. Do not ignore these signs. If you’re still in the water, get straight out. Warm up as soon as possible, by putting plenty of clothes on and having a hot drink. In this state, it is better to stay still than to move around.
Hypothermia is a dangerous condition that occurs when the temperature of your ‘core’ – your vital internal organs – drops below 35°C. Because hypothermia affects the way your brain works, you may not notice it is happening. You may not even feel cold. You will carry on getting colder after you leave the water (see ‘afterdrop’) so always err on the side of caution when deciding how much to swim. And reduce the length of time you swim for as the water gets colder. If you ever start to feel warm or unusually happy when you are in the water, get out immediately.
You will carry on getting colder after you get out of the water. This happens because the cold blood from your extremities moves back towards your core. It is the reason you may start shivering 10 or 15 minutes after you get out of the water (or even later), rather than while you are swimming. In severe cases, your core temperature can drop by several degrees – if this happens you may feel disoriented or you may faint, which exposes you to the extra risk of injuries from falling.
It is important not to stay in the water too long. And as the water gets colder through the winter, reduce the amount you swim. If you want a hot shower or a sauna after your swim, don’t stay in too long – most people who faint do so after a shower or sauna. Remember that it is best to warm up slowly and gradually. Put on plenty of clothes, including a hat and thick socks, as soon as you can, and have a hot drink and something sugary to eat.
Shivering is part of your body’s natural way of warming up and isn’t necessarily anything to worry about. If it goes on too long, or makes you uncomfortable, don’t stay in the water so long next time.
Cold urticarial or cold ‘hives’ is like an allergy to cold water. It usually affects the hands and feet and makes them very itchy and red. The size of the affected area will vary from person to person and there may also be some swelling. The discomfort should fade after a while. Your pharmacist may be able to give you something to help with the itching.