Top tips for cold water swimming

Former BBC Breakfast presenter Louise Minchin, credit: RNLI/Harrison Bates

A former TV presenter has teamed up with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) to share top tips for cold water swimming.

Former BBC Breakfast presenter Louise Minchin is a keen open water swimmer. She has joined forces with UK charity the RNLI to help educate people on the precautions they can take to stay safe and have an enjoyable time when going for a cold water dip.

Cold water shock is a very real danger for anyone entering water 15°C or below while hypothermia can also pose a risk, especially at this time of year when temperatures continue to drop. Sea temperatures around the UK and Ireland will average just 6 to 10°C around March, when they reach their coldest.

"I’m a confident swimmer, but anyone can get in trouble, and it could happen when you least expect it."

Louise Minchin

"Family legend has it that I could swim before I could talk. It's always been part of my DNA," said Minchin. "I’m a confident swimmer, but anyone can get in trouble, and it could happen when you least expect it.

"When you first get in, the water temperature can take your breath away, even on the most beautiful, calm days."

In order to help swimmers stay safe, Minchin and the RNLI have issued these top tips:

1. Wear a brightly coloured swim cap and consider using a tow float.
2. Never swim alone, always go with a friend if possible. Tell someone when you plan to be back.
3. Acclimatise slowly, never jump straight in, as this can lead to cold water shock.
4. If you get into trouble, Float To Live. Lean back in the water and extend your arms and legs.

Is cold water swimming good for you?

Cold-water swims and therapies have been practiced for centuries in many countries with colder winter climates. Some studies suggest cold water swimming may reduce inflammation and other cardiovascular risks and can have a positive impact on mental and physical health.

If you do decide to give cold-water swimming a try, experts recommend talking to your doctor first if you have a heart condition or other health concerns.

What is cold incapacitation?

The temperature of cold water can create a stress reaction in the body - the same kind of reaction we experience if we find ourselves in a scary or tense situation.

In response, the body releases the stress hormone cortisol and breathing frequency and heart rate increases. The body’s fight or flight mechanism kicks in, explaining why the natural reaction to getting into cold water is to want to get out as fast as possible. This stress usually reaction recedes as you adjust to the temperature.

However, if you stay in cold water too long, your body will lose heat, and blood flow is redirected to keep your organs warm. Muscles lose power, limbs become slow and heavy, and swimming becomes increasingly difficult. Swimming becomes slower, ragged and short distances can take a long time to cover. This is known as cold incapacitation and it can all-too-easily lead to drowning.

Nick Ayers, RNLI Water Safety Lead said, "It’s great to have an experienced swimmer like Louise working with us and sharing her own experiences and best practices on how to stay safe when heading into cold water for a swim or dip. Already this winter we’ve seen swimmers get into difficulty requiring our RNLI lifeboats to launch to their assistance."

If you’re in any doubt, stay out of the water, and always take a means of calling for help with you. If you or anyone else gets into trouble at the coast in the UK, call 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard.