Cold-water swimming: Feel the fear (part 1)

The burning, hyperventilation and hands becoming claws. Lou Walker on the experience of UK sea swimming in November


‘Feel the fear, do it anyway’ is one of my favourite sayings and it’s got me through many challenges. But when I’m walking towards the sea on a cold morning knowing I’ve got to get in, it doesn’t sound so gung ho and takes on a more literal meaning.


Actually, perhaps it’s not fear I feel. It might be more about summoning the strength – or stupidity – to ignore what my brain’s saying. Logical brain says it’s cold, the next 10mins will be hideous, you don’t have to do this, it’s insane, it’s not safe, get dressed and find hot chocolate. Swimming brain says get in or you won’t acclimatise for long swims in the spring; look at your friends wading in without making a fuss. Don’t be such a wuss. Swimming brain wins.

It really hurts. Thank goodness for the motivational power of laughing, swearing and encouraging friends.

Up to the knees is okay but after that the cold grips my thighs and I can’t help gasping. I splash water on my face, shoulders, arms and down my back and keep walking forward. By the time I’m up to my chest it’s just a final dose of cojones to dunk the shoulders and start swimming (although not sure you could call huffing, puffing, head up freestyle ‘swimming’).

Ironically, what you feel at first is heat. Your skin’s pain receptors are jangling and it feels like burning – for me across my neck, back chest and arms. I try to swim fast to generate some real heat, except I’m hyperventilating so swimming fast doesn’t last long. The hyperventilation is natural but I’ve learned I can start to control it by making a conscious effort to slow down enough to get into my normal three-strokes-breathe rhythm. Once I can do that I’m over the worst and can start to think more clearly. This stage is getting longer as the temperature drops but is five to 10mins. It’s just a case of toughing it out.

Up until a month ago I’d now be fine, having a lovely swim with lovely friends. The endorphins have kicked in and I’ve felt euphorically invincible seeing people in hats and coats on the beach when little old me is heroically in the sea. But in the last couple of weeks the burning hasn’t really subsided and the feeling my muscles won’t work properly arrives sooner. Muscles and nerves become incapacitated: your body wants to preserve your core temperature to protect your brain and vital organs so it isn’t going to send too much precious warm blood to your muscles and skin surface to get cooled by the water.

I love being in the sea and by this stage (25-30mins) I’m almost enjoying it and want to stay in. But when I can’t close my fingers and my hands become claws (signalling early loss of fine motor control), I tell someone I’m getting out. Except my face doesn’t work so it’s definitely time to call it a day.

Once out you have about five minutes to get as warm as you can before the ‘after drop’ happens and getting dressed becomes complicated. What’s the after drop? That’s for the next blog!


Mother-of-two Lou Walker, 50, is a sports massage therapist with three iron-distance tris and half a dozen marathons under her belt. She’s an endurance coach at Winchester & District AC. You can follow her on Twitter: @LouArtfulHen or at