Wild swimming has boomed in popularity over the past few years. One study from Outdoor Swimmer found that three times as many people were swimming outdoors in 2021 compared to 2019. Perhaps the closure of public pools in the early days of the pandemic had something to do with kicking off the trend, but either way I'm pleased to see it's still going strong (I tried it out and loved it, but I'm not quite close enough to a swim-safe body of water to go as often as I'd like).
There is plenty of anecdotal advice surrounding the sport, but not all are 100% legit. "Swimming outdoors is not a one-size-fits-all activity," explains Keri-anne Payne – an Olympic Silver Medalist, and the founder of Straight Line Swimming (opens in new tab), a collective of open water swim experts. "We’re thrilled that people love cold swimming as much as we do, but as the sport has become more popular we’ve seen more and more unsubstantiated advice come to light."
To rectify the situation, Straight Line Swimming teamed up with cold water swimming expert and University of Portsmouth professor Dr Heather Massey, to figure out what advice is actually worth paying attention to, and what you can safely discard. Read on for three top cold water swimming myths busted.
For more advice, T3's wild swimming beginner's guide, from a seasoned cold water swimmer, has plenty more tips to help you get started. We also have roundups of the best wetsuits (to keep you warmer for longer on cold days), the best dry bags (for stashing your valuables in), and the best water shoes (so you can hop in and out of water in comfort) to help you get kitted out properly.
Myth #1. You should stay in for 1 minute per degree
One key thing to get right is how long you should stay in the water for. A rule that gets bandied about a lot is '1 minute per degree', but the guide explains this simply isn’t right. How your body responds to the cold water will be affected by a whole range of things, from how much wild swimming you've done before, to your body type, to air temperature and wind chill, and plenty more besides.
"Whilst the thought process behind this is in some ways valid (that the colder the water, the shorter the swim duration should be), quite often a time limit is treated as a goal to be attained or broken," warns the guide. "Length of time is not the answer: it’s how you feel." The experts suggest taking time to get to know your own body, and figure out your personal triggers are to getting too cold.
Myth #2. There's no point in just having a quick dip
One of the key reasons people have taken to wild swimming so enthusiatically is that swimming in cold water can give you a real hit of endorphins. Happily, the best way to achieve that post-swim high could be with a super-quick dip.
"Scientists believe (but have not yet proven), that the post-swim high occurs as a result of the initial responses to the cold water," say the experts. "So as soon as that gasp and any elevated breathing has passed, you could have a quick swim or simply get out." Making yourself endure the cold for as long as your peers, getting cold and grumpy, isn't doing anyone any favours.
Myth #3. You should get warm as quickly as possible
The danger of warming up too quickly – for instance by hopping straight into a hot shower – is that you can end up tricking your mind into thinking you're warm, when really your core is still cold. Heating up your skin at surface level can stop the shivering quickly, but when you get out again, you might well find yourself shaking again.
"It’s best to get dressed as soon as possible into lots and lots of layers, each layer trapping warm air to help aid the rewarming process," explains the guide. "Using big jackets on the top, woolly hats, thick socks and gloves will help to rewarm a swimmer in the safest way."
For loads more advice, including more in-depth explanations of each of the myths busted here, head to the full outdoor swimming advice guide (opens in new tab) from Straight Line Swimming.