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.