Open Water Swimming In Winter: 6 Tips To Help You Take The Plunge

Sea swimming may be on the rise but it’s never easy in the cold, winter months. Here’s some tips to help you get in the water all year round.

Why Open Water Swimming?

It’s been a year of running injuries for me. Literally one thing after another. Given that I can’t run, I decided to return to my first sporting love, swimming. 

Aside from swimming for my home town as a child, I’ve only returned to the pool when running wasn’t an option. For several years I’ve been toying with the idea of open water swimming but there was always a reason not to. Before Christmas, armed with a new wetsuit, I joined the MadHatter group for their Saturday social swim, and have been going ever since.

Starting open water swimming can seem like a big step. If you can take the plunge in winter, the rest of the year will inevitably be easier. I found I had to overcome some challenges to start outdoor swimming though. With that in mind, here are some pointers to help you dip your toe into open water swimming during winter time.

The Roseland Cornwall Carne beach Nare Head

Go With Others

I’m very lucky. I started swimming with the Madhatters straight away and what a lovely bunch they are. Other than meeting some fab people, it makes open water swimming sociable and fun. There’s usually a bit of chat when we reach the halfway bouy or the stack at Charlestown (that’s the big rock, in case you were wondering). A post swim coffee is pretty much mandatory and we all look forward to cramming into Short and Strong for a caffeine fix. I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t have the gusto to try open water swimming on my own. Going with others guarantees that you’ll actually go in. Plus there’s the whole safety in numbers thing too. 

Feel The Swimming Fear and Do It Anyway

My first open water swim took place in November. It was cold but calm.

While I was excited about finally venturing into the sea for a proper swim, I was quite nervous. Despite being with a number of experienced sea swimmers, I couldn’t help feeling anxious. Aside from continuing to think of the film, Jaws, I really dislike swimming over, or around, seaweed. I’ve previously got totally squeamish about it, and didn’t want to freak out in front of about 10 other people. Logically, I know there’s nothing scary underneath but still.

I’m not crazy about seaweed now but I’ll be damned if it’s going to stop me getting in the sea and swimming. Besides, there really is nothing out there once you’re too deep to stand.

Woman swimmer in the sea

It’s Going To Be Cold

I know this is stating the obvious because it’s winter in the UK but much like running, there’s something about just going for it when it comes to open water swimming in winter.

There’s quite a bit of mind over matter, because once you’re in, it’s actually ok. Admittedly nothing quite prepares you for the initial shock of ice cold sea water. First, there’s the feel of it hitting your neck and slinking it’s way down the inside of your wetsuit. Secondly, and more bracing, is the cold water on your face as you take the first plunge and start swimming. But once you’re in, you’ve done the toughest bit.

Believe it or not, you get used to it. 


When it comes to open water swimming in winter, it takes time to acclimatise. You don’t have to wear a wetsuit. Plenty of people swim in just their skins all year round, I’m just not that brave (yet). Whatever you do, I’d suggest building up your time in the water. For me this continues to be about confidence, but also allowing my body get used to the cold water (we’re talking about 10° in November in Cornwall) for more than a few minutes.

After about 20 minutes into my first sea swim I felt dizzy, lightheaded and a little disorientated. As I approached the shore, my legs were wobbly and I had to grip the rail as I went up the harbour steps. It passed as I walked back to my car but I wasn’t expecting it. It’s happened a few times since, but the more open water swimming I do, the less frequent it is. I’ve since managed a good hour in the sea which I was totally chuffed with. 

Towards Pendower Beach sea foam

No Changing Room

Swimming in the sea means changing by, or in, your car, unless of course you have a fabulous camper van. Four social swims in and I can confirm that I’m a fumbler and take ages.

I’m usually one of the last to the coffee shop.

So far, I’ve learnt to take my wetsuit off outside my car (obviously), and dry myself off as much as possible in my swimsuit. Once in my car I have loads of towels and get dressed as quickly as possible, hopefully without getting arrested. You can sew a couple of towels together, leaving room for your head to make a long shawl. Maybe I need to do this?

When it comes to changing, my advice is wear as many layers as possible, including thermals and a woolly hat. It takes me a long time to truly warm up, about 3-4 hours in total but I’m cold most of the time anyway. I’m not sure how that compares to others. Have lots of hot drinks and a decent amount of food too. Cake and bacon butties seem popular. 

That Post Swim Euphoria

Like most sports, once it’s done, you’ll feel pretty good. Not many people venture into the sea this time of year, so every time I do I feel a sense of achievement. I can’t help smiling afterwards either. I may be numb with cold but with that comes with a dose exhilaration and happiness, knowing I’ve challenged myself physically and mentally. This was certainly the case after my first open water swim, I felt like I’d broken through a personal barrier. I guess I knew I’d started something that would become a regular part of my life.

I only wish I’d done it sooner. 

If you’re interested in joining in with the Saturday Social Swim coordinated by MadHatter Sports, you can find their Facebook page here, and their Twitter feed here.

I sometimes make videos for Instagram. You can find one of my swimming focused mini films here.

Author: plbedford

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