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Home / Blog / Why it’s perfectly logical to sea swim during the winter

Why it’s perfectly logical to sea swim during the winter

Introducing our new blogger, multiple Ironman finisher Lou Walker, as she braves the winter open water in preparation for a 2013 Channel relay attempt

It’s autumn and the tri season has finished. Open-water swimming lakes have shut and forum threads are full of ‘How do I store my wetsuit over the winter’ questions.

So how come I’m standing on the beach wearing only a swimsuit, hat and goggles? In October?

Well, after Outlaw, my third – and final – iron-distance tri back in July I wanted to do some swimming for fun. I love open-water swimming but hankered after the freedom of the sea rather than the weedy confines of a lake.

With a bit of Facebooking I found the Seabrook Seals, a group of brilliant people who swim from Southbourne beach in Bournemouth, and joined them for a few warm swims in the only hot weather we had this year. The next thing I knew I was signed up to do a Channel relay in September 2013.

I initially thought, “How hard can a Channel relay be?” We’re a team of six so it’ll probably be a max of three one-hour stints with five hours’ recovery – not scary if you’re used to ironman training. It turns out the tough bit is cold water acclimatisation. Channel Swimming Association rules decree that relay swimmers must complete a two-hour qualifying swim in water less than 16°C. In the south of England this means doing it by end of June-ish. No wetsuits are allowed, and only one hat.

A two-hour swim isn’t a problem, but the cold water is. Consider lying in a nice warm bath – about 45°C would be average. It’ll only be ten minutes before it’s cooled a bit, to 42°C perhaps, and we’re reaching for the hot tap. So two hours at 15°C is tricky, even when generating heat from swimming. Also, although I could never be described as being svelt of thigh or devoid of bingo wing, I don’t have a massive layer of insulating fat. And I’m used to my lovely wetsuit so I’m not acclimatised At All.

Instead of swimming through the winter I could just start from scratch in February, but from what I’ve experienced so far, it’s bad enough getting in each week when the temperature has only dropped half a degree. I daren’t contemplate what it would be like when you’ve not swum in the sea for months, there’s frost on the ground and it’s 12°C colder than your last dip.

Will I wear a wetsuit when it gets really cold? Don’t know. The downside is, if I do, when the non-wetsuit gang is starting to notice a temperature rise, I’ll have to take the wettie off and it’ll feel colder not warmer. In theory it’s better to struggle through without it. Then there’ll be a glorious day in April when I charge in and say, “Wow, isn’t it warm?” and swim for an hour. In theory.

Meanwhile, now that the water temperature’s down to 11°C and the air temperature’s dropping, the true horror of what I’ve let myself in for is starting to bite. This is going to be much tougher than Ironman training.

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 www.louwalker.com.

Profile image of Matt Baird Matt Baird Editor of Cycling Plus magazine


Matt is a regular contributor to 220 Triathlon, having joined the magazine in 2008. He’s raced everything from super-sprint to Ironman, duathlons and off-road triathlons, and can regularly be seen on the roads and trails around Bristol. Matt is the author of Triathlon! from Aurum Press and is now the editor of Cycling Plus magazine.