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(The Gear Loop) - Cold water immersion is very in-Vogue and as winter looms you might be considering dipping a toe into the popular movement. Everything from cold water showers to ice baths and open water swims have been covered across the media with anecdotal claims of improvement to mental and physical health.

Earlier this year a group of celebrities plunged into icy waters on national television with guidance from Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof, who promises that cold water exposure can give you more energy, less stress and a stronger immune system. But is it fad or fact? Why would you immerse into icy water this winter?

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Research by Outdoor Swimmer magazine revealed that 65 per cent of its female swimming audience and 44 per cent of male readers are now swimming outdoors at least once a week in the winter months.

Open water venue provider NOWCA has reported a 450 per cent increase in winter swims since 2020. "Cold water swimmers report an overall improvement in both their physical and mental health," says cold water expert Dr Mark Harper.

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"This includes reductions in blood pressure, inflammation, and chronic pain levels, as well as weight loss, better sleep and a more engaged and optimistic outlook." In his new book, Chill: The Cold Water Cure, Dr Harper outlines the science behind cold water immersion and encourages people to plunge, "for maximum benefit and minimum discomfort".

When to start

If you are not already a regular outdoor swimmer, autumn is a good time to prepare for winter swimming. Despite air temperatures dropping, water can hold its warmth a little longer, especially the sea.

At this time of year, the sea in northern hemisphere and around the UK is at its warmest. Bigger bodies of water and rivers can also stay warmer for longer depending on the weather, after the first series of ground frosts the water will cool significantly.

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While you should pay attention to the temperatures from a preparation point of view, it is important not to get fixated on the numbers on the thermometer.

What is important is that the colder it gets, the more you need to plan and consider the time in the water. Ensure you are swim fit, which means you can swim at least 25 meters without putting your feet down, you can float on your back and tread water.

Remember, at any time of year the water will be cooler than your body temperature and your body will respond to that. At this time of year, with cooler air temperature and more wild weather, it is going to feel uncomfortable, and your first cold season dip will be the hardest. It’s on the other side of the discomfort where the sweet spot is, so remind yourself of that when it feels like needles against your skin and your breath is stolen away as you immerse.

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Where to swim

Unless you are in the Outer Hebrides it is unlikely that water near you in the UK will get that cold, that quickly. The sea will stay around 9 or 10°C until January or February if the weather is mild.

Rivers and lakes will cool quicker and on average hover around 6 or 7°C in the South and a degree or two cooler in northern parts of the country.

This is very general, but unless we see significant periods of low air temperatures, extended frosts or snow fall, bodies of water simply don’t get as cold as many winter swimmers hope.

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To officially class as an ice swim, the temperature needs to drop below 5°C which in recent years hasn't happened as much or for extended periods of time.

What is worth remembering is that anything under 18°C will feel very cold to most people and will have a huge impact on your body. Water temperature under 10ºc will be extreme for many and so short, quick dips will be enough.

Due to the higher risks at these temperatures, it is worth finding a lifeguarded venue, many lidos across the UK offer cold water sessions, turning their heating off in the winter and benefiting from the extra revenue.

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There are also a number of open water lakes that offer supported sessions, a quick search online for winter open water swimming in your area should flag a few places to try.

If you can’t find a supported venue, there are several groups like the Bluetits across the country, which can offer support and advice in your area. It is even more essential in winter to swim with others, often you can spot the signs of hypothermia in others but not yourself.

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What to wear in the water

Despite what "skins" swimmers tell you; you can still get the benefit of cold-water swimming by wearing a wetsuit.

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Wearing neoprene on your body will just lessen the effect and if you find it more enjoyable by wearing a wetsuit – wear it! But if you want to see bigger impacts on your body and in effect, your health, bare skin in the water will benefit you more.

It means you really don't need much kit. A decent swimsuit/shorts, swim hat and goggles is enough. Where you need more kit is when you get out of the water, where a warming change robe is ideal for post-swim warmth and privacy. As is a flask of something warm and comforting.

That said, neoprene accessories can make a huge difference to the comfort when cold water swimming. Our hands and feet have very little fat, so hurt and feel more uncomfortable in the cold. Neoprene gloves and booties make a huge difference to the enjoyment and time in the water. If you want to avoid brain freeze, a neoprene bonnet is the next step, but many winter swimmers don't bother putting their faces in and choose instead to wear a decent bobble hat.

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Is it safe?

Like anything in the Great Outdoors, there are risks, but risks you can mitigate. A lot of the safety issues are all in your control. It is worth looking into and understanding actual physiological issues like cold water shock, hypothermia and after drop. It is always good to go to the water with knowledge and a plan. There are some simple rules to consider:

  • Once you have decided where to swim, ask yourself – how will I get out and is my warm kit ready to put on?
  • Ensure your body is warm before you get in – you want the blood flooding into your core to be warm not already cool
  • Get in slowly, but consistently. Don’t stand around with your hands in the air. Breathe normally and calmly while in your depth and regulate your breath before launching into your swim
  • Start with short swims and build yourself up to longer exposure. Learn about your own body. What feels good and what doesn’t. It is better to leave the water wanting more than not leaving the water ever again
  • Get out, get dry and get dressed! Warm yourself with layers, hot drink and movement - even if that is running on the spot
  • Swim with others, educated yourself on cold-water risks

Little and often

You don’t need to swim or immerse in cold water every day or for long periods of time to reap the rewards. "Remember, not that long, not that cold and not that often," says Dr Harper.

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You don’t even really need to swim, just being immersed is enough, but moving your body with a swim will be better for you overall. Like any exercise, swimming will aid both physical and mental health at whatever temperature.

Swimming once a week in a regular spot with the same group is the best way to get to know yourself, understand the water you swim in and learn about other people’s response to the cold and allow others to learn about you. Often it is a swim pal who will be aware that something isn’t right with you before you notice you are not yourself.

Writing by Ella Foote. Editing by Leon Poultney.