Man entering water surrounded by ice

Why winter swimming should be your post-Christmas hobby

Find out why a bracing swim could be the best thing you do between Christmas and New Year, and how to start safely.

Rebecca Duncan


It’s that time of year again; those funny days between Christmas and New Year where no-one knows what to with themselves. It’s tempting to spend every day flopped on the sofa, only moving to get another tin of chocolate from the cupboard, and you probably deserve the rest. But why not join the growing wave of outdoor swimmers instead, blasting the cobwebs and starting a new hobby to take you into January?

What’s all the fuss about?

Any kind of swimming brings a raft of benefits. It’s a non-weight bearing activity which works all areas of the body, and is far gentler on bones and joints than other cardio such as running.

When faced with the inevitable comment of “You must be mad!”, any keen outdoor swimmer will talk about the euphoric rush they get during and after a cold swim. Many will also say that it improves their mental wellbeing in general, and they’re right. The anecdotal stories of improved mental health through cold water swimming, are grounded in science.

When the body is exposed to cold water, it is sent into fight or flight mode. The cold water and increased heart rate induces a stress response, including the release of the protein Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which protects and repairs memory neurons. This, combined with endorphins, blocks the discomfort of exercise and leads to that euphoric feeling.

In the longer term, cold water swimming improves general wellbeing and stress levels thanks to the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for slowing the heart rate and increasing intestinal and gland activity. Cold water immersion stimulates that system and helps the body to relax more quickly after stress. The cold water also has an anti-inflammatory effect to counter the body’s inflammatory response to stress or threat. This means that other stresses in daily life affect us less; we are physically better equipped to deal with them.

Okay, I’m sold. But how can I get started safely?

When swimming outdoors, safety is absolutely paramount, especially in winter. There are a lot of different points to consider before, during, and after your icy dip. Remember, too much exposure to the cold can be deadly. Start slowly, with very short periods of immersion and make sure you are properly geared up to reheat.

  • Know the risks: When choosing an outdoor swimming spot there are a number of key considerations including river flow patterns and pollution. Our Wild Swimming page has lots of guidance on this.
  • Don’t go it alone: It’s really important not to go swimming in cold water alone, especially if you’re a beginner. With a quick internet search you can find lots of friendly swimming groups out there. Alternatively, go with a trusted person who will be able to recognise and act if you get into any trouble.
  • Gear up for the challenge: Whether to wear a wetsuit or swimsuit (or ‘skins’ to those in the know) is an important decision for outdoor swimmers. A wetsuit, along with matching gloves and booties, offers more insulation against the cold and gives extra buoyancy, whereas skins feels more natural an, can increase that euphoric feeling due to the extra skin exposure. Beginners, therefore, might feel more comfortable in a wetsuit, although it might not be affordable for everyone. Other key things are a swim cap and earplugs to protect your head from the cold, and a tow float to help others see you.
  • Take it slowly and breathe: Whether you choose to swim in a wetsuit or not, it’s vital to enter cold water slowly to give your body time to adapt. Focusing on taking deep, steady breaths will help you to pass the peak of the ‘cold water shock’ and make sure your breathing is stabilised before swimming.
  • Know when to stop: It’s completely normal for a winter swim not to last very long. Even for people who have acclimatised to it, a swim will often only last 10-15 minutes, or even fewer if wearing skins. As soon as you feel any muscle tiredness, loss of feeling in feet and hands, or light headedness, it’s time to get out.
  • Reheat: Once you’re done with your swim, change out of your wet gear and into dry gear as quickly as possible. Lots of people like to buy a dry robe for changing, but it’s not essential – just make sure you have a good towel and plenty of layers. Stabilising the core body temperature is crucial, which can be done by carrying a hot water bottle or having a hot drink, and having some sugary snacks can be helpful too for restoring blood sugar.

Time to give it a go!

Now you have all this information at your fingertips, you can get started on your outdoor swimming journey. If you’d like to find more information, our friends at Outdoor Swimmer Magazine and Henley Swim Festival have lots of useful articles and resources. If you really take to it like a duck to water, maybe we’ll even see you at the 2022 Henley Swim Festival!

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