We all respond differently to cold water and if you’re new to cold water swimming, it’s good to read around the many articles and get informed because there’s a lot to be aware of. If you’re an old hand, it’s interesting to compare notes. Here’s our contribution – not offering advice but sharing some experiences in the hope it helps you decide how you’re going to approach swimming safely and happily in the winter months.


Our regular spot is in the Thames and the Thames in spate is a foul-mouthed creature that rushes a torrent of abuse at swimmers: fast waters containing run-off from farms and raw sewage, also branches and other debris, mostly hidden below the surface. This can be true in the summer but is obviously more common in the winter.

Last autumn and winter, the floods seemed to last several months and we kept ourselves to one sheltered corner in front of the lock. Once the water drops below about 10 degrees, the accepted rule of thumb for skins swimmers is to stay in one minute for every degree. Even when we went longer than that, we didn’t swim far and our little corner was enough to enjoy the energising effect of cold water.

We took our risk with pollutants – although thoroughly covered any cuts (which we do anyway). As a group, we watched out for each other and knew well our different reactions and tolerances to the cold. We understood that submerged branches might reach us but, rightly or wrongly, felt that, where we swam, we were in a position to handle the situation if anyone was struck. Luckily, we didn’t have to test our confidence on this. Meeting a fast-moving log head-on when swimming doesn’t bear thinking about.

Winter skin-swims don’t get us fit but the experience is beyond exhilarating and provides a great sense of achievement. Right now, we all need all the support we can find to keep emotionally strong and cold water swimming is a great boost to our mental health.

WOSB articles on the joys of cold-water swimming - Cold water swimming: the logical choice A personal justification for cold-water swimming - The benefits of cold water swimming: the facts A light look at the scientific reasons why cold-water swimming is good for mental health - Clawing back to warmth A memory of post-swim changing one particularly cold, wet day

If nothing else, by keeping acclimatised to cool waters, we’ll be ready to pick up the training early in the spring. But what of our swim training? Is there somewhere we can do this?


Ordinarily, pool-swimming a couple of times a week keeps us swim fit. This year, to keep socially distant, especially indoors, we’re choosing not to use pools. To train, we’re using a ‘performance lake’; it’s more local to us than our closest (much bigger and much more beautiful) NOWCA venue and has heaps more time scheduled for swimming. It’s not a place to feed our love of meandering banks with spectacular views and an abundance of wildlife but we will live off the memories of those swims and look forward to more next year.

WOSB articles appreciating the blue-green world - Wild swim and wildlife Observations of nature from the river - A river ramble A late spring swim upstream

The performance lake is clean and safe – there’s even a lifeguard. The water feels clean enough that if we forget to rinse down the neoprene afterwards, it’s probably not a problem. There are changing rooms and showers. It’s very, very civilised and not an ideal spot for wild swimmers but it’s a brilliant compromise – and fantastic for anyone just starting out on cold-water swimming who might be a little less keen. We’ll lose a little less swim-fitness if we do this once a week. And anyway, our favourite events don’t begin until July so there’s time to pick up the fitness next year.

WOSB articles on one of SwimOxford’s events: The swim-run - The Lock-to-lock swim run (A serious competitor enjoys the event) - The Oxford Swim-run: A half-stumper’s experience (A less serious competitor enjoys the views and the cake) - A local swim-run adventure (another serious competitor is thrilled to race safely during the pandemic)

To train in the winter, we dig out the neoprene: wetsuits, hats, booties and gloves. It was 12 degrees in the lake last week and we did 1200 metres. For three of us, this was fine; we were warm and would have stayed longer if work wasn’t waiting. But for one swimmer, it was enough; she was cold. We’re all different so what kit do you personally need?


It just keeps getting colder in January so if you’re not kitted up before Christmas, here are some thoughts on what you could to add to your list. No reviews – we don’t test different brands – but there are heaps of reviews elsewhere so these are just ideas of what to look up.

For people who struggle with dizziness and sickness in cold water, a great piece of kit is a neoprene cap. Not everyone seems to need this – and it’s not necessary if you don’t put your head in the water. Caps with chin straps protect ears a little too (but a downside: it’s probably impossible to look good in a photo when you’re wearing one of these).

As it gets cooler, ear plugs (a handy stocking filler) are a good idea.

Wetsuit. This choice will depend on how cold you get, what you can afford, and what room you have room to store kit. Ideally, try a few – order a bundle if a company will take returns, or find a swim location that does try before you buy. There’s a huge choice of suits these days and the ideal would be to have a suit for every occasion: a triathlon wetsuit, a swim-run suit, a thermal suit and, if you can find the right location, a birthday suit... Old wetsuits can be patched up to keep going a little longer with Black witch (another stocking filler).

Booties/socks and gloves – do read the reviews; you get what you pay for and it’s probably only worth getting these, particularly gloves, if you’re prepared to pay. The gloves that have come top in a couple of reviews were pricey but have not disappointed.

Those big robe things. The most critical action after a cold dip is to change into warm clothes as fast as possible. Often, changing under a cheap towelling robe and piling on multiple layers fast, finishing with a down coat is fine – no robe required. On the coldest and/or rainiest of days, the big robe goes on top of all of that. For most of our swims, we can survive without a robe – although we fantasise about more rugged swims when we might be pleased of one. Note that they are expensive and can be bulky to carry around or store.

Fins. Why not? To push you through those currents if you feel that’s safe. It might mean you can go a bit further than you would manage without so that you can have a longer swim and a change of view.

WOSB article on fins - Fun with fins (The merits of different designs of fin)

A few weeks ago, a boater commented that he’d seen our tow floats long before he saw us so when we’re out on the river with boats around, they’re a must for visibility. In the winter, when we’re not swimming so far and the boaters aren’t out in force, tow floats might not seem as important for visibility but they’re no bad thing to have for safety – and if you’re a little nervous, are great for reassurance. Suddenly, there are many different designs available. You may as well have one you can put some kit in – just car keys and phone; unless you’re planning a walk and a swim (towing your walking clothes), which is a nice way to vary the views a bit.

Once you’re on land, you might want to make sure you’ve got yourself a good flask for hot drinks. Also layers and layers of clothes that are easy to pull on. No buttons (or hook-and-eye devices that do up at the back – impossible!). And warm socks and boots; feet seem to take ages to warm up. And gloves. And a hat.

So you’ve got the gear; is it really a good idea?


You’ve heard about the various health benefits associated with cold water swimming (including the latest research that suggests it might delay dementia) and you need to weigh all these up against the many hazards. Do people who understand the risks as well as the benefits actually do it? Some do:

Tricia Greenhalgh, Professor of primary healthcare at the University of Oxford and a practising general practitioner. A key figure in getting us all to wear masks (and not even for swimming) and a regular Thames-swimmer (Oxford branch): ‘Water temperature plummeting but with thermal gloves and booties I’m OK for a few more weeks.’


Dr Chris van Tulleken, Member of the Royal College of Physicians, Honorary Associate Professor in the Division of Infection at UCL and an infectious diseases doctor at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases and University College Hospital, London. A leading BBC science presenter: ‘The only time I feel totally calm is swimming in the sea in winter.’


Our top tips come down to this:

Get informed.

Get prepared.

Get in.


  • Darrin Roles

The internal journey one feels whilst in cold water can be described as very dramatic. And yet the idea is to be completely calm with yourself and the surroundings. In this state of heightened emotional and sensory awareness, from internal and external stimuluses. Each having a profound impact on your state of being. This in itself is a unique position to start any journey.

The colder the water, the more intense the multitude of perceptions, and sensations become. Swirling and spiralling, ebbing and flowing like the very viscous fluid we submerge ourselves in. Ever changing.

Two questions;

What makes you start, cold-water swimming, dipping, or just cold exposure?

Why do you continue?

“And suddenly it’s time to start something new, and trust the magic of beginnings”. Anon

Let’s face it, cold water is not pleasant, to start with. Cold showers are not the number 1 choice of the masses. For a good reason. Its uncomfortable. Listen to that for a second, uncomfortable.

Somehow in our experience in the conditioned path from our forefathers, the selected virtues of comfort echo. We try to make a child comfortable, a patient comfortable, member of the community, anybody really, and for good reason. We respond well when feeling comfortable.

The paradox enters with the mysteries of unknown origins. Finding comfort in discomfort.

Thinking truly about the passage of life, rarely is it all comfortable. When it is so comfortable, we lose our edge, become complacent. Possibly slightly detached.

Comfort is by no means the enemy, neither is discomfort. The idea; Why limit your challenges in this life, you might want to challenge your limits , this makes me feel uncomfortable already.

“There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy” F. Nietzsche

With a huge growing body of research looking at the effects of cold-water exposure, one wonders why it has taken so long to learn these ancient practices. It is not like a secret, only a few thousand years old.

Lowering the body temperature has been a restorative medical practise for some time. Cryogenics is a process of preserving living tissue for long periods of time and cryotherapy is a treatment aimed at inflammation and tissue repairs.

The ultra-cold temperatures in whole-body cryotherapy can cause physiological hormonal responses. This includes the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and endorphins. This can have a positive effect on those experiencing mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

With the recent news article on cold water-swimming…

Cold water swimming may protect the brain from degenerative diseases like dementia, researchers from Cambridge University have discovered.

In a world first, a "cold-shock" protein has been found in the blood of regular winter swimmers. The protein has been shown to slow the onset of dementia and even repair some of the damage it causes in mice.

BBC News 2020 October.

This makes the winters swimmers feel so much better knowing that science has some good news to offer, of course we knew this all along… this is why we continue to expose our minds and bodies to the cold waters.

On an anecdotal level we all say , we feel better for it!! Simple. Since I have been in a group of encouraging humans from vast diverse backgrounds, with the intention of helping each other overcome the cold water and our fears, we all feel different, better. More able to cope with stuff. Leave it all on the banks, and be in the cold water, just as long as you wish, but no longer.

“To succeed in something , first you have to deal with the resistance and difficulty.” C J Jung

Having witnessed transformations in other winter swimmers, and feeling the transformative power to change oneself is deeply moving. To overcome some of your fears and help others move through theirs.

“There is no illusion greater than fear” Lao Tzu

The reason I started cold water winter swimming was to face the unknowable. Both in myself and in the physiology of the body. Mind and body. The reason I continue cold water winter swimming is to face the mind and body, every time. It never ceases to amaze me the restorative benefits of being comfortable in discomfort, also knowing your dear swim pod is going through the same, supporting you or being supported by you. This deeply humbling experience has fortified my compassion, knowing how fragile we all are, but how resilient the true nature of our souls can be.

  • Darrin Roles

Updated: 6 days ago

My Fear

by Darrin Roles

“But man is not only made by history — history is made by man” Eric Fromme

Considering the sometimes-unbelievable realizations, that our emotions don’t resemble the truth, objective truth, or reality. This can be a difficult pill to swallow. Especially when it comes to fear! However, there are a growing number of people who argue that there is no such thing as objective reality, everything is subjective. Too far for me to go, beyond this post.

Fear is real, I know; trust me. But is it? My guts don’t lie…. The gut feeling is real, right?

Yes, the gut response might be real, you may perceive danger. (A protective historical stress response for safety.) Please remember your emotional feelings feed into your immune response and the physiology is inseparable. Thus fear, elicits a stress response, creating hormonal changes in the body, the nervous system engages, a host of electrical and chemical changes prepare the body for the event, real or perceived. Fight or flight. This may be from a previous event, and unrelated to the present moment.

“When the soul suffers too much, it can develop a taste for misfortune”. Albert Camus

The words ‘I shit myself’ may be just one of those bodily changes that can happen, maybe?

Early on Sunday morning in April a group of complete novice open water swimmers prepare themselves for a cold-water mass start into a lake. “This will resemble what the triathlon swim start is like,” announces the instructor. The instructions are: After 3-2-1 go, run as fast as you can and get in the water and swim out to that buoy and back. About 50 meters. Short distance, for beginners.

3-2-1 Go….. running towards the lake, nervous, yes!

Hit the water, cold shock smashes into my face. I didn’t expect this to have such a strong impact on me mentally. Gasp reflex, as cold water, 12c washes over my face and body. I did have a wet suit on. Trying to prepare yourself for the unprepared is tricky. I managed to get out to the buoy and back with arms whirling. Now once again on dry land. Home, safe.

“Ok let’s try again, those at the back now go to the front, you need to know what it’s like when swimmers swim over the top of you.”

I heard the words, yep. Not sure I liked the sound of them though.

3-2-1 GO…… run. Hitting the water with the anxiety knowing all the group is behind you, and will come crashing over you any second now. Makes you swim faster for sure. Avoidance of danger. Or you panic and get caught in the melee, rumpus, commotion.

After several episodes it does become manageable, knowing you can find some inner something, that keeps you from panic, usually it comes down to CALM DOWN. Relax. Breath……. The lack, or over breathing in itself causes panic, anxiety and fear.

The weekly sessions on Sunday mornings are aimed at preparing you for an open water swim in a triathlon scenario, combined with an introduction to open-water swimming.

Week 1 the start… done. Phew.

Week 2 the swim.

“Sadly, the temperature has dropped”, reports the instructor. “We thought of cancelling but what do you think , as a group”?

Murmurs, mumbles, groans, and grunts… “well we might as well, as we are all hear” anonymous.

“Ok, right let’s go”.

Single file into the lake 10c the new lower temperature. Only 2degrees different, what can that do?

Swimmers set of off on the 400m and 750-meter swim loops, out to the buoys, turn and follow the course. Clear Sunday morning skies. Cold air temperature. It all seemed so pleasant in the car on the way over.

Anxiety building as my turn approached for lake entry, the other swimmers have set off towards the first buoy, just in sight not far. Some were already making their way to the far buoys 200m out in the lake. Splash and in, “off you go”…. The water Temp of 10c was unbelievably cold, harsh. So much colder than 12c. The 2-degree’s difference is indescribable.

Approaching the first buoy, the closest one, was a struggle . My head was numb really cold and my face felt like stinging from needles or something that causes pain. The hands suffer my fingertips being to complain. This is not fun at all!!! The added impact of all the other swimmers have passed me, leaving me last in the group with a long swim in front , long for me at the time.

Anxiety building and fear showing its ugly head. I can’t do this, I will never make it. Thrashing around in cold water in a lake unable to breath properly caused me to say, “that’s it, I have to go back to shore”. “No, no, you’re alright”, replied the swim safety. I am dizzy, feeling sick, can’t breathe, it’s too cold, I have got to get out now!!! I am going back.

After much gggg gooott to geeeettt out now, frrreeeezzz, - in, dizzy, sick. Can’t.

The open water swim safety was so great, he listens to me , let me panic, screech, squeal, wriggle and moan. I am to embarrassed to say how long this routine when on….

Eventually I was persuaded to swim just a little further and assured I would feel fine, hang on for a moment more, swim towards that buoy, instructions came. Just a little more?

I couldn’t help thinking, this safety swimmer was obviously not listening to me, for he couldn’t see how scared I was and panic stations were at hand, in the water, not a place to panic.

Somehow this made me think, he is no use to me, I will have to calm down, just keep calm, for two breaths… just two breaths. I can honestly say when people say to you, just calm down, it definitely does not help. Did not help me!!!

At a glacial pace I swim towards the very distant buoy; every face plant in the cold -water was painful, disorienting and something I have never faced before. A new experience, no prior history, unable to evaluate or compare with any similar exposures.

As the blue skies gave the lustre of promise and the morning light lest not lose the purity of innocence. My arms came over me one by one, turning to breath and catching sight of the splendid open skies and sunbeams gave me a sight to hold me like never before. For as my skyward eyes search for hope to push away the fear, I caught sight of two spiralling buzzards hovering over-head.

The majestic dance, with outstretched wing tips, feathered touch so soft and light.

As soon as I witnessed this above me , here in the cold, cold lake, I instantly felt reassured and completely safe, with no fear for what lay ahead. It was like a miraculous sign from a symbolic place.

Without a single concern I swam all the way round the swim loop, and safely back to shore. Transformed by my experience.

Making my way to the swim safety,” Please can I say. Thank you for your support”.

His smiling face, greeted me warmly. “No problem. What happened to you out there? You looked as if you saw something, and then completely changed and swam off.”

I responded, by saying I met two friends in the sky.

My Fear: Cold Water

By Fiona Undrill

The thought of swimming in water below 15 degrees used to scare me. Much as I loved swimming in open water, I stopped in September every year. Fear is a closed door. Then one autumn, the door was nudged open for me; I was invited cold-water swimming.

It was a bleak and windy late October day when I first I went along; just to watch, this time, although I took my wetsuit in case my spirits grew more courageous. And my spirits, riding a flow of conversation and laughter, tricked me into tugging on the neoprene. Now committed, the mischievous spirits abandoned me and every cell in my body rattled with fear.

I anxiously followed the others down to the cold grey water and lowered myself in, inch by shocking inch, knowing that I would be out within a minute. But encouraged to push through my gasping breaths and to defeat the searing pain in my hands, I found that my heart was no longer heavy with dread and fear; it was light, like a child’s. I was alert and alive, swimming in cold water. The following week, I went back to try it again.

Two years on, the group has grown and we’ve celebrated two winter solstices in the river (the second in skins and Santa hats). This week, after a week of cold nights and heavy rains, four of us got into the river upstream and floated down on the strong current – then we climbed out, trotted back up along the bank, and jumped in to ride the current again. The door that was my fear is flung wide open and I am loving what I found when I dared to step through it: new friends, new joys and new directions.

I’ve still not quite swum below 5 degrees – an ice swim. I will do, though. But I’ll never swim an ice mile. Never – far too terrifying…

My Fear: Sharks

By Kath Fotheringham

The landscape of my youth was not land but water, a blue suburban pool exploring the coral reefs of my imaginings – an endless summer where I swam before breakfast, then after, then the neighbours kids would come over, back in the pool endless diving-exploring-games till our hands were crinkly and we were starving.  

Then my brother saw Jaws. I was too young to see it, but I got the gist of it from his description, he did not have to say too much. 

Thereafter when I was alone in that small suburban pool, I was alone in a vast ocean with a Great White poised to enter via the filtration system. Late afternoon sun on the water, long shadows morphing on the pool floor, and a wild swim of terror from the jaws of the shark to the steps of safety.

Sharks were all too prevalent in our consciousness. People talked of the Tiger Shark roaming the Natal coastline, also the Bull or Zambezi Shark that moves up rivers too, don’t wade or swim in lagoons – you were mad to go too far out, madder with no shark nets, mad surfers, mad, mad edgy shark-infested ocean world.

Later I moved to Cape Town, and a fellow aquarian friend took me snorkelling in the kelp forest near where the wild Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. I loved his sea adventures - spear fishing, diving for lobster, exploring wrecks and close encounters with sharks! But his spirit of fearlessness did not infect me. Under the swaying surface he handed me a small shark that had curved itself into a defensive circle – it was extraordinary to hold a baby shark – but what kind? Are there more, bigger ones? My anxiety in that environment hit chronic heights, what lurked in the swaying kelp forest and could a mother of a Great White roam here? I did not return to snorkelling, or even the ocean, even though Great Whites are thought not to hang around kelp forest, they have their pathways, their channels, their preference for seals.

When swimming in beautiful English rivers and lakes, the deeper waters of my unconscious did first recall – with great clarity – the terror of being trailed by a fin of the imagination. The first time in Queensford lake was a surprisingly fragile experience, gripped by panic the whole way, but I made it round, survived and felt very alive! Like all first experiences in the water, the fear is primal but the exhilaration pulls you back, the love of the sheer otherness yet deep down familiar, always different and the same, slowly taming and calming the mind.

The shadow of the shark is no longer following me here…. but it follows me in the sea, so that is where I must go and back into the swaying water, under and over the kelp to find it.

© 2020 by Kath

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