I can’t run with a thread like this without mentioning the all-important topic of safety. In the UK a lot of us have grown up with the message to not swim in lakes, quarries, reservoirs etc. It’s dangerous, it’s cold, you might drown. The message is there for good reason, people do lose their lives in outside water bodies every year. However, those drownings usually occur due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of how to be safe in and around water. The vast majority of drownings don’t even relate to “swimming” activities but are often the result of accidentally falling in whilst walking, running or fishing.
Despite my attempt to err away from swimming in open water as a cause for drownings, it’s a fact that people do drown every year swimming outside. If you don’t understand the risks that come with swimming in an uncontrolled environment, which can be cold and exposed, you are likely to get into danger.
So, how and why do we do it over winter when the risks, particularly the cold, are even more heightened?
The Short One and I have been swimming outside together for a few years now. We’ve swum in different places, at varying temperatures and with varying levels of risk. We’ve learned a heck of a lot on the way, both by reading everything we can but also through experience and experimentation. We know what our bodies can handle in terms of cold exposure. By swimming continually throughout the year our bodies are acclimatised to the cold water (yes, you can train your body to cope with the cold). We understand the effects of cold water shock, cold water incapacitation and afterdrop (more on those another day). Most importantly we continually risk assess. I’m not talking some formal, written down process. Just in our heads. Identifying risks, working out their magnitude and, if we do take that risk, what are we going to do if something goes wrong. Sometimes it’s just a case of shortening a swim if we think it really is too cold, other times it may be completely halting our plans and calling it quits.
We both have the same mindset towards this. We both love an adventure but equally we both have families and friends for whom a silly error on our part could be catastrophic. I think it’s why we feel so comfortable swimming together, we trust each other’s judgement implicitly.
So what am I trying to get at here? Open water swimming is amazing but it does have risks. If you want to give it a go then go for it. But go in gently, start in the summer when it’s warmer, learn what you can and can’t do, find a group, organised session or even better an introductory course to go on. Definitely, definitely don’t throw yourself straight in a freezing cold lake if you’ve never swum outside before. Bad things will happen!
If you want to read up on some of the risks these sites are a good start: