Ten Common Myths of Cold Water Swimming

You know how one can reliably tell that summer is certainly over? I start writing about cold water.


coldLet’s kick the winter swimming season off, shall we? Okay, I know the water is still warm, but it’s often this time of the year that people stop or get close to stopping open water swimming until spring. It’s the best time to think about extending your summer winter season into cooling water as it’ll be months before the water is really cold and maybe this year you will go that little bit colder.

Cold water is the subject that just keeps on giving. There will be a follow up to this post of Ten More Common Myths of Cold Water Swimming.


1. You have to be really fat

While fat is a good insulator and increases the amount of time people can spend in cold, the prerequisite of being really fat or overweight is probably the most common myth about cold water swimming. Almost anyone can swim in cold water regardless of body fat. There are some physiological restrictions but there are more to do with cardiac or circulatory issues. You do not have be fat to swim in cold water.

2. Alcohol is good (before, during or after)

Alcohol should never ever be taken before during or immediately after a cold water swim. More people realise this now, but I feel this dangerous will never fully die.

3. Cold water swimmers never get cold

For very short swims the body’s core temperature isn’t affected for almost everyone but even very experienced cold water swimmers do get cold if they spend sufficient time in cold water.

4. Cold water swimmers never feel the pain

Even the most experienced cold water swimmer will feel the pain of cold water. What they have learned is that it’s temporary and reduces with experience but never disappears.

5. Cold water swimming develops muscles

Cold water does not grant any special muscle building capacity. Swimming as a general exercise isn’t particularly good for muscle building without ancillary exercises.

6. Cold water swimmers are healthier

Anecdotal and scientific evidence does indicate that open water swimmers are less prone to illness.

7. It’s better to dive into cold water and get the shock over quickly

This very common myth is one reason people die. Diving into cold water carries multiple risks: Sudden impact with a subsurface rock, aspiration of water during cold shock and cardiac arrest. Instead, splash water on your face and neck and enter carefully.

8. It’s good to have a cold shower or get cold beforehand

This myth occasionally arises as people think by being cold beforehand they will be more comfortable in the water. In fact it’s best to hold onto body heat as long as possible to maximise your time or comfort in the water. Stay dressed and warm as close to swimming as possible.

9. It’s good to have a hot shower or stay really warm beforehand

The opposite myth to number eight, this one is true. While having a hot shower beforehand might be overkill or impractical, you should retain or maximise heat before entering cold water. Stayed dressed or in a warm location.

10. Water that is covered by ice in colder

This one is a bit complicated. Fresh still water freezes at zero degrees Celsius. Sea water freezes somewhere around -1.7 degrees to 2.0 degrees, depending on movement and salinity. Water that has a layer of ice above it may increase the water slightly in temperature due to the ice above acting as a barrier. On the other hand water close to ice may also be very cold. Other factors such as water movement and depth affect this also. Lake water that’s covered in ice will be coldest at the surface, ice-covered sea water may not be,


In the next part we’ll look at Ten More Myths of Cold Water Swimming


19 thoughts on “Ten Common Myths of Cold Water Swimming

  1. Pingback: Cold Town | LoneSwimmer

  2. I could disagree with the myth that winter swimmers have more muscles. Cold water makes our body release more testosterone, and not only in the cold water, nut generally. This hormone helps regulate muscle mass, and for older people, having more of this results in more muscles mass build-up, but in most cases you have to work the muscles too (workout).


  3. I am finding your writing really helpful. It’s my first year of swimming all year, and I really needed your technical descriptions of what happens and why. It’s a huge relief to know the physical and mental responses are standard ones with reasons. I couldn’t figure out why it felt good, but you have explained why. And I don’t feel quite so wierd for loving swimming in the cold. Thank you.


      • I found your articles very helpful and useful for me as it’s been my very 1st season of swimming in Winter in Ireland. Currently water temperature is around 8 Celsius Degree (my husband is checking it for me using his fish tank thermometer) and I love it so much. A year ago I hated water and never get into water, no matter if it’s Ireland (in Summer 16-17 Celsius Degree) or warmer sea with 20 Celsius Degree. I started last summer in May/ June and since the first moment I finally get into water I knew I won’t stop, but I thought I’ll stop when summer finishes. Now I know I will be swimming or plunging into cold water (depends on the weather circumstances) all year around. I live 50 meters from Atlantic Ocean (the beach is around the corner, so convenient!) and I try to get in every day- especially in the morning, also when it’s very cold and frosty outside -no need for coffee any more! The feeling is so gorgeous and I did not expect that my body will cope so good in cold water. I do not have a short breath, I get in very slowly and put some water on my face, chest, arms and I enjoy every moment of it. I always was very cold person wrapped in many layers and putting heating on 20 in house. Now I can sleep at 14 Celsius Degree and I feel great!


  4. No6 – stated differently. It might be that cold water swimmers tend to be more healthy people generally – and therefore are less ill than those who don’t. There’s some evidence (and I can’t quote a source) that the mere fact of spending time outdoors is better for your immune system and your ability to resist becoming incapacitated by illness. And thus, compared to their non-cold water swimming peers, outdoor swimmers get less colds etc. But as this is a little researched area, the jury is out.


    • Thanks Carl, yes that’s possible. I guess we saw the same Horizon documentary also? Prof. Fergal Shanahan in UCC in Cork as I recall? I’ve plan to return to that I’ve got a very early stage draft on it and hope to dig out more sources, as it’s certainly a common thought amongst practitioners.


  5. Pingback: Ten More Common Myths of Cold Water Swimming | LoneSwimmer

  6. Pingback: Ten Common Myths of Cold Water Swimming | Wanaka Lake Swimmers

  7. I plan on doing some confirmatory testing of some of these this year (although with minimum sea temps where I live of about 10C there’ll be no checking of number 10). I am curious about the alcohol one though, no alcohol before seems fine, but none after? A small beer with my swimming mates is almost a given during the warmer months (and we are talking one small continental beer). I understand the vasodilation effects of spirits (and alcohol in general) but is this a case of being very cautious, or something which is informed by experience, and if so, what was that experience… juicy details please.


    • I guess I have a few reasons:

      1. Caution. Like drinking and driving I don’t see there really being a safe amount. Opinions differ on this.
      2. Caution. Yep, I wrote it twice. I don’t think water and alcohol mix except in a glass.
      3. Post Rescue collapse. Not enough is understood about why it happens. Why increase the risk with a substance that is known to cause to cause difficulty with cold? Same for post swim arrhythmias.
      4. Eastern Europeans, particularly the Russians, no strangers to alcohol, & Czechs, all stereotyping aside are the world expert on winter swimming & officially recommend avoiding alcohol before, during & after.


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