Cold Water Swimming – A Beginners Diary
Day 1, Tahuna Beach Nelson
The sky was peach-grey at 6.30 am in early September, on the sixth day of spring. The lights of the port flickered in the distance. I strode down the soft sand and my breath billowed in a cloud around me. “Shit, it’s cold”. It was just off a frost last night, and I’d guess the air temperature at around three degrees Celcius. There was one other person on the beach. I stripped down to my togs, folded my clothes neatly on the driftwood log and walked with a slow purpose to the water. Thank goodness it was calm today.
My walk slowed a little as my toes hit the water. No going back now. Up to my knees. I dipped my hands in. Yep. Pretty cold – roughly 12.8 degrees Celcius Google told me. I continued walking, wincing as the small waves broke gently and splashed up my thighs. Wet togs… “Gonna have to take the plunge soon, just a few more steps”.
“Just do it”
“it’s so cold!! Cold, cold, cold, cold cold!
“just do it – do it now” … I’m in!!
I can’t remember if I made any involuntary animal noises with the plunge, but I expect probably so. I performed a silly, rapid, head-up breaststroke accompanied initially by shallow, fast, uncontrollable breaths – the ‘cold water shock’. It was EVERYTHING. I tried to slow it all down and get a grip. For some reason, it helped to count my breaths and the strokes. Ten became thirty, which became a slower-paced sixty. “Start again”. I felt the cold as a prickling sensation all over my skin. I noticed the sensation in my feet, my hands, at my neck – and without even realising it, I had achieved exactly what I set out to do. To take my mind and body to a completely different place.
I took in the scene. The lone chap sitting down there, the young couple who just ran onto the beach, how the sunrise was changing the light over the island. It occurred to me that this wasn’t actually as bad as I thought it would be. I lasted for about two and a half minutes. Walking out of the water I realised I had a beaming great smile on my face. Day one. Done!
Cold Water Swimming
I checked out some online resources before summoning up the courage to cold water swim. There are too many great sites and blogs to mention, but I particularly enjoyed the Outdoor Swimming Society. I would advise doing your own research if you’re keen, need an extra push, want to swim in lower temperatures (apparently twelve degrees isn’t actually that cold) and/or want to make sure you’re doing it safely. Clearly, I’m no expert, but the takeaways for me were:
- Cold water swimming is really good for your mental and physical well-being
- You can use a wetsuit or not – whatever works for you
- Start small and work up to a longer time in the water. Just a couple of minutes is OK in winter
- If you have any health issues, check with your doctor beforehand
- It is normal to hyperventilate a bit (with the shock) at first, but you can read up on techniques to minimise it, and you’ll learn to handle it over time
- Be safe and stay shallow. Even if you think you’re doing OK, the effects of the cold can creep up on you. It’s a good idea to be able to stand immediately if you need to exit the water quickly
- Bring lots of clothing layers for afterwards, and have them lined up and ready to change into straight away
- Bring a hot drink to warm yourself up afterwards. I took a hot choc and a hot water bottle and sat in the car with the heater on before driving home
- Warm up slowly – don’t jump into a hot shower immediately afterwards
- Keep at it.. it will be difficult at first, but it will get easier.
Day 2 Nelson (fail) Nelson Cold Water Swimming
I woke to a storm this morning and there was no way I was going to go down to the beach. I told myself it was because I don’t want to splash around in the water with Nelson’s stormwater flooding off the streets straight into the sea. It’s actually because it’s only day two, and I’m weak. Instead, I opted for a two-minute cold shower.
I hate cold showers, but I knew I would seriously beat myself up if I completely failed on day two. I cranked up the heater in the bathroom for my exit, then stepped in. Like yesterday, the cold water literally took my breath away. I started to count the slow seconds in my mind as I turned around to splash my face. After thirty seconds it actually wasn’t too bad. I mean, it wasn’t pleasant or anything but it was just a bit of cold water and in two
long short minutes, it would all be over.
The bathroom was lovely and warm when I got out, and I felt like a bit of a sissy for not staying past a couple of minutes. It’s early days though, and this was the first time I had voluntarily jumped into a cold shower in spring.
Day 3, Nelson (fail)
Busy day today, and now the tide is too low in the early morning to swim (or so I told myself!). The day passed and I went for my afternoon walk. I’d almost forgotten all about my new hobby, but when I got back for my shower I realised that it was day three and I had to try to stick with it. The internet doesn’t have a definitive answer on how long it takes to form a habit. Twenty-one days is floated around quite a bit. In his excellent book Atomic Habits, James Clear doesn’t recommend a number of days, but rather repetition, repetition, repetition. I set my phone alarm for four and a half minutes (five seemed like too many) and hopped in. Yikes!!! The uncontrollable breathing kicked in again, which I tried my best to work through.
It seemed like a very long time to be standing in a cold shower, but I kept visualising how happy I would be in five minutes’ time. I turned this way and that, pretending I was enjoying it, making sure any parts that warmed up out of the water got another go underneath. At around three minutes I popped out quickly to check I hadn’t missed my alarm – nope! Still a minute and a half to go.. bugger!! And then, finally, it was over. I felt wonderful and realised the nagging headache I’d developed during the day had completely gone. Awesome!
Day 4, Tahuna Beach Nelson
Today was calm, and the sun peeped in and out from behind fluffy clouds. I decided to go for it. I checked the sea temperature again. It hadn’t got any warmer since Monday, but something about the sun shining gave me some inner strength as I walked down to the shore. Today I wore my little neoprene water shoes too. Not a great look, but one of the worst parts of Monday’s swim was walking up the cold sandy beach in bare feet afterwards.
I took my time walking in today, to see if standing around in the water for a bit would reduce the initial shock. I think it did, or otherwise, I’m getting more used to it. When I finally took the plunge I seemed to be able to calm my breathing much quicker than before. It didn’t seem nearly so bad today, and I actually enjoyed the swimming and relaxed into it. When my hands started to get pretty cold I got out. Ten minutes!!! Woooo!!!
Day 5, Tahuna Beach Nelson
I missed a day yesterday (complete fail). I haven’t been feeling that flash recently. But after a day on the sofa yesterday with a terrible headache, today I went for a lovely tramp, followed by a dip – for me – and support duties for my partner, who hung around at the waters’ edge for seven very cold minutes to ensure I had a fluffy towel to walk straight into upon my exit.
Day 6, Tahuna Beach Nelson
As early Spring goes, today was a stunner! After a bit of morning gardening, I took myself off to the beach for a perfect lunchtime swim. The sun was out, the air temperature was a balmy 15 degrees, and I walked straight into the sea without any hesitation or hyperventilating. I enjoyed a delightful 15-minute wallow and decided that it’s probably time to get into some proper swimming rather than milling about with the breaststroke. I might dust off the swim cap tomorrow, get my head under and get some decent exercise in the water.
Day 7, Tahuna Beach Nelson cold water swimming
It was a stormy day again today, but the thought of a cold shower was so unappealing that I decided to check out the beach between rainstorms. The dark grey sky was reflected in the water, it was blowing a gale, and the waves were lumpy. “Why not?” I thought. I got some funny looks from the few hardy folk on the beach, hoods up, squeezing in a quick walk; but I had a great time jumping around in the waves. There wasn’t a lot of possibility for much serious swimming as the waves and undercurrent were throwing me around a bit.
And just like that, 7 days of cold water ‘something’ was done! I am hopefully on the way to forming a new habit. As weird as it sounds, despite the fact that it’s a bit of an effort and of course, pretty cold, I am enjoying it.
Day 25 (ish) Totaranui Beach – Abel Tasman National Park
Over the month, I missed a couple of days due to one thing or another, but I’m pleased to say that swimming is now definitely a ‘habit’. In almost all weathers I try to squeeze a plunge or swim into my day. I have started tacking it onto the end of a run or a weekend tramp, which makes it easier – I’m already out there and it’s a great way to finish. The most spectacular of which was a swim at the end of the Abel Tasman Inland Track (more on that adventure to come..)
At the time of writing (19th October) I’m still at it, and the good news is that apparently, the sea temperature is now a balmy 14.5 degrees! Woop woop!