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7 ways to get more from cold water swimming

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Earlier this month, Emily was interviewed by Muddy Stilettos about her journey and passion with cold water swimming. Here's how it turned out!

As little as just two minutes in the water can bring massive benefits to your health, wellbeing and emotional resilience, says The Living Project’s Emily Graves.

Whether you’re thinking about taking the plunge or are a seasoned cold water swimmer, you’re bound to have heard of the benefits to mental and physical health.

It can reduce muscle pain and inflammation, improve circulation, increase metabolism, boost your immune system and your wellbeing – and even give your skin and hair an enviable glow.

But it also comes with risks and it’s not for the faint-hearted. In winter, the sea temperature is an average 7° Celsius – compared to 16° Celsius in late summer and that’s cold!

Emily Graves (above) is one of The Living Project’s leaders, a passionate wild swimmer herself, as well as a fully qualified lowland leader, yoga teacher, mindfulness and breath-work coach and outdoor first aid trained.

Emily started wild swimming four years ago and used it to help navigate a tough period of her life, when her mother was dying from a brain tumour. She’s written a beautiful blog about it: How the Ocean Kept Me Afloat.

Emily knows wild swimming from both sides, so if you want to follow those daredevil mermaids in to the salty brine, you’ll be in super-safe hands.

1. Join a group

If you’ve never done it before, don’t go in on your own. Join a group for support. They will have a regular place or places they swim, which they know really well, both the terrain and the tides. The temperature of the sea, rivers, lakes and reservoirs vary (seas tend to be warmer, rivers colder) and they will help you know what to expect.

Facebook is a great place to find a local group, or sign up for a weekend with The Living Project, such as our Wild Women Weekend in May when we’ll be swimming in a beautiful river on Dartmoor.

2. Be prepared

There’s no need to rush into it – think of it as a journey. Maybe start by acclimating yourself to the cold by splashing your face with cold water in the mornings or turning the shower to cold before you get out.

What you wear is up to you, but for winter swimming, I would recommend investing in a pair of neoprene gloves and boots because they feel the cold first. If you’re not putting your head under, a brightly coloured hat is good as it keeps you warm and visible, as does a tow float. Anything that lets other people know you are in the water is a good idea.

If you’re curious about water temperature, buy a thermometer and check the temperature first. It’s a great way to map your progress.

3. Be mindful before you go in

Swimming outdoors gives you a chance to get outside of what you’re thinking about, to be mindful and connect with Nature. When I was grieving, it helped me to feel held and supported by the water. It felt quite primal, the sense of being part of something elemental, something much larger than myself and my grief.

Take a moment before you go in to notice where you are and enjoy it: whether it’s the wildlife, the elements, what the weather’s like or the season, and take a moment of gratitude.

"If you go back to the same spot time after time, you come to have an exquisite connection with it all."

4. Use your breath to keep you calm

Don’t rush in! Remember, you’re putting your body into shock. Take it step by step and acclimatise each part – knees, thighs, belly – and take a couple of breaths at each point.

Move forward on an out-breath to prevent taking those sharp intakes of breath which can put your into panic mode.

Keep focussing on your breath.

Long slow exhales.

Breathing will keep you calm.

5. Two minutes is all you need

Research has shown you get all the physical and mental benefits in just two minutes. I don’t stay in long at all in the winter, just a few strokes is enough – it’s more ‘wild bobbing’ than swimming!

Also, your core body temperature keeps cooling down for up to 20 minutes after you exit the water so it’s important to get dry, dressed and warm yourself up as soon as soon as you’re out.

Have a warm bobble-hat and a flask of tea ready and waiting. Don’t worry if you shiver – that’s normal – and do star jumps to warm up.

6. Enjoy the 360° benefits

Yes, there’s the immediate feel-good factor but cold water swimming also builds up resilience beyond just the physical. Taking yourself beyond your comfort zone physically empowers you in your emotional life too. My experience is that cold water swimming has dialled up other areas, even at work. If I know I’m facing a difficult conversation or a tricky work meeting later, a cold swim boosts my courage.

"Have a mantra which will support feelings of fear or resistance: ‘I can do hard things’ is a great one. In an age when we actively avoid risk and discomfort, it reveals what we’re capable of."

7. Treat it like training for a marathon

March is the coldest time of the year water-wise, so you might be better off waiting until late-summer or autumn when the sea is at its warmest and then try and carry it on into the winter once you’re acclimatised. Think of it like training for a marathon. You wouldn’t run 10 miles on your first training run.

"Most of all - enjoy the journey!"

Whether you're at the beginning of your journey with cold water, or a seasoned wild swimmer - all our adventures cater for every type of intrepid water baby. And if you have any questions or you'd like to share your experience of cold water - we'd LOVE to hear from you.

For more information about cold water swimming safety, you can also check out The Outdoor Swimming Society.

Until then...



(And stay safe) :) x

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