A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO SAFE SeA SWIMMING
For those on the coast, sea-swimming became a lifeline for many people throughout lockdown. It took Brighton and Hove by storm, with a sharp increase in the number of people joining local swimming groups and wandering around in DryRobes. The best part of sea-swimming regularly, they’ll tell you, is how much it helps their mental health.
Sounds great right? But, before you dive in if you’re planning on starting sea-swimming in the Winter months, make sure you’re prepared. Open swimming in the winter can quite literally take your breath away if you’re not careful. We’ve put together some tips for newbies looking to take a dip on Brighton beach over the next few months.
Currently, there isn’t a huge amount of scientific evidence definitively proving the benefits of cold swimming, but the anecdotal evidence is huge. Most sea-swimmers speak of an almost euphoric feeling from cold swimming unlike anything else.
And there is some evidence to back this up. The seemingly superhuman Wim Hof has been championing this form of exercise for years (we’ll be learning his technique later), claiming that the shock of the cold can help jolt our cardiovascular system and improve our immune system.
Any form of exercise boosts endorphins, but it seems that there’s something a little extra when it comes to cold open-swimming. Science is becoming more interested in exploring the health benefits.
Health & Place discovered that people experience a greater surge of ‘happy hormones’ from exercising outdoors compared to indoors. Another study conducted showed that swimming in water at 14 degrees increases dopamine levels by 250%. A study by Dr Chris van Tulleken-Massey and the Outdoor Swimming Society is being currently conducted to find out if cold water can be used as a treatment for depression.
While some experienced outdoor swimmers opt out of wearing a wetsuit, it’s probably best that you don’t do the same when you’re starting out. Find yourself a wetsuit, it’ll help protect you from the initial shock.
If you’d rather ‘skin swim’ then make sure you’re wrapped up in other ways and have a good recovery plan (we’ll cover this too). Local Brighton swimming group the Salty Seabirds have put together a handy list of what you’ll need to get started. They also advise you to wear a brightly coloured hat to keep yourself identifiable in the water. The RLSS and RNLI recommend orange or pink as the best colours to wear.
The initial shock (and pain) of getting into freezing cold water can overwhelm the body if it’s not used to it. Winter is a dangerous time to start outdoor swimming if you haven’t prepared. Taking the time to introduce your body to cold temperatures is the way to go before you dive straight in.
Take advantage of the natural cooling of the weather and water temperature during Autumn to build some resilience. Start by challenging yourself to stay in for one minute then keep building it up. You can also take cold showers in the mornings to imitate the feeling.
It’s also advised that you wade into the water slowly, but make sure you keep moving. You may get a bit breathless at first, but don’t panic, it’ll subside after a while. Concentrate on your breathing and dip your face in the water a few times before submerging yourself.
Don’t force yourself to stay in the water if your body has had enough. It’s important to listen to your body and be honest with yourself on how long you can handle it. And don’t worry if at first, you’re only able to stay in for a minute or two, that’s normal!
If you want to build up your resilience, lots of swimmers find using the Wim Hof method really helpful. He talks about three pillars when it comes to open water swimming; the power of a cold shower, the power of your mind and the power of breathing. You can watch this short video where he talks about the three pillars to help you get started.
Winter brings unpredictable weather, and with that, dangerous waters. Never underestimate how quickly the conditions can change, and always put your safety first. Before you swim, make sure to check the forecast first. Magic Seaweed is a great resource for checking the surf and swell of the local beaches, updating itself hourly.
The Seabirds have also put together a handy guide on how to read and understand Magic Seaweed so you can keep yourself safe.
Sea-swimming is hard, and sometimes the camaraderie of doing it with other people can help to take the edge off. Not only is joining a sea-swimming group a great way to meet new people but it helps you to stay safe.
Groups are usually made up of swimmers of all experience levels, so the more seasoned swimmers can help out beginners. There are plenty of different groups in Brighton & Hove to suit the needs of any swimmer. Check out this blog by the SeaLanes for a rundown of a few of them.
Right, so, you’ve joined your club, you’ve got all the right gear and you’ve been taking cold showers for a couple of weeks. Feeling ready to take the plunge?
As we’ve mentioned already, don’t just dive in. When you’re first getting in, slowly wade through or lower yourself gently into the water. The main thing to remember once you’re in is to make sure to keep moving. If you stay still you run the risk of experiencing cold shock. If you ever get into a tight spot while swimming, remember RNLI’s Float to Live advice – read more about that here.
After you’ve come out of the water, you may experience an ‘after-drop’ as your body temperature continues to fall for around 30 minutes, so it’s very important to take care of yourself during this time. First things first, change into a set of dry, warm clothes and a hat (anything that covers your extremities!).
You might think a hot water bottle would help, but it can actually trick the brain into thinking it doesn’t need to warm itself up. Instead, you could invest in a core warmer to help aid your recovery. Try to keep moving for a while after you get out to help keep the blood pumping and have a warm drink and a slice of cake. The sugar will help you recuperate, plus, cake!
You did it! It definitely wasn’t easy but we hope you’re beginning to feel the benefits. You’ll have used a lot of mental and physical strength just to get in, so you should be really proud of yourself for persevering!
If you’re not quite ready to brave the winter swims, then take a look at our Beginners Guide to Safe Sea-Swimming for the warmer months ahead.