10 tips to tackle the open water

The sea is starting to warm up and the open-water season is round the corner. Here are Lou’s proven tips for dealing with the early season cold water


Hooray! The sea’s warming up. Actually warming up. Shall I say that again? The sea was warmer this weekend. Summer is on its way.


This weekend I should’ve been running the Brighton Marathon but my dodgy knee cartilage finally gave up two weeks ago and running is, for the time being, right out. The only way to banish the Brighton blues has been to swim my arms off. I’m marathon-fit and upset, so have managed to smash my swim PBs while using a pull buoy and no legs.

Anyway, on Sunday I trotted down to the beach as the gun 80 miles along the coast in Brighton would’ve been going off. The sea was in a boisterous mood but it was a perfect way to get my mind off not running the race I’ve spent four months training for. Also, the usual stinging coldness was absent and I did 21mins – twice as long as the week before.

The water was 7.9°C. This time last year there was no way I was going to get in the lake until it was over 15°C.

Many lakes are delaying their opening dates this year but that means it’s even more important to get cracking when they do open, especially if you have races looming. Here are ten things I’ve learnt this winter that I wish I’d known when I first started open-water swimming…

1. Two hats are better than one and silicone is warmer than latex. Consider a neoprene or insulated hat for extra warmth.

2. If you’re a cold feet/hands person, neoprene gloves or socks may help for training – but most races don’t allow them.

3. Stay warm for as long as possible before you get in.

4. Stay calm before you get in. Anxiety can raise cold discomfort levels in non-wetsuit swimmers.  This really does make a difference.

5. Get in slowly. Lower yourself in gradually off the side, or if you can walk in, do so slowly and splash your face with water. Both things help prepare your body for the temperature change.

4. Read about ‘cold shock response’ – it’ll help you understand what’s happening so you don’t panic. In brief, it’s normal to gasp when you first get in and normal to hyperventilate for a minute or so after that. Go with it and aim to stay calm until it passes.

5. Aim to steady your breathing as soon as you can, but you might breathe more frequently for a while until you settle down. If you can’t steady your breathing, stay calm and swim head up breaststroke or backstroke before trying again. 

6. You may experience ‘ice cream head’ but it’ll pass within a few minutes.

7. Above all, try to relax. Think calm, relaxed thoughts. Talk to yourself into a gentle rhythm. For me, this means getting into bilateral breathing every three strokes ASAP. It calms me and stops me fighting the water. 

8. Build up your time in the cold water over a few weeks. Start with less time than you think you can cope with. The more you swim in open water, the more ‘normal’ it’ll become – obvious, I know, but important when race day adrenaline can turn a bit of hyperventilation into something more race-limiting.

9. Get dressed quickly afterwards and have a warm drink.

10. Stay safe, don’t swim alone but remember to enjoy it!


Lou is training for a Channel relay attempt in September 2013, raising money for three charities. You can donate via her fundraising site http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/LouWalker and follow her on Twitter: @LouArtfulHen or at www.louwalker.com/blog.