How to warm up after a cold swim
It’s mid-November and the days of throwing on a summer dress over my damp bikini and sauntering back to my car in flip-flops are far behind me. The shoulder months of September and October pass with the need for little more than a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and a cashmere jumper. Looming high on the horizon though is the shiver season, five long, gloomy months where what I wear out of the pond becomes as important as what I wear in it.
I’m now in my second year of winter swimming and I’m pretty well acclimatised to the cold. I’ve logged one hundred and fifty swims since I started counting and over the past sixteen months I’ve learned how to warm myself up safely and quickly.
To understand why warming yourself up properly after a cold swim is so important, you first need to know what afterdrop is. Here is an explanation from the Outdoor Swimming Society:
Afterdrop happens because when you swim, your body shuts down circulation to your skin, pooling warm blood in your core. This process helps you stay in the water longer: with reduced circulation to your peripheries skin and sub-cutaneous fat is turned into a thermal layer, similar to a natural wetsuit – hence the wild swimmers’ term bioprene for fat.
But as you start to warm up, this process reverses: blood starts to recirculate in your extremities and peripheral blood vessels, cooling as it travels. You can lose up to 4.5°C from your core temperature (according to Golden and Tipton, Essentials of Sea Survival), bringing on shivering, hypothermia, or feeling faint and unwell.
The key to warming up and staying well is to warm up slowly and gradually. If you attempt to rush it by, for example, having a warm shower or bath, you will draw the warm blood that has pooled in your core to the skin at speed, leading to rapid cooling. You will quite likely faint as your temperature plummets along with your blood pressure.
As long as you know how to warm yourself up safely, the severity of the often inevitable afterdrop is minimised and can even become an enjoyable sensation. For me, it tends to hit around ten minutes after leaving the water, more of less at the same point the euphoria kicks in. It’s an odd feeling of being warm on the outside and cold on the inside, it feels a a bit like being a human Baked Alaska. It’s sometimes accompanied by cold flushes that course through my body like power surges, making me feel almost super human. Sitting in my car with the heater on and a hot chocolate means the feelings disappear almost as soon as they arrive.
It's really important to understand why afterdrop happens and know how to prevent it or reduce its impact. Here are my tips to warm up safely and enjoyably after a cold swim.
Because of the dangers of afterdrop, I never, ever have a hot shower after a swim once the temperature in the pond has dropped below around 12 degrees. I do often have a really quick cold shower after a swim as it’s probably good to not go about your day smelling ‘pondy’ (even though I secretly quite like that smell). I keep a little bottle of our body wash in my swimming bag for this purpose so I don’t have to remember to take it with me. You might think having a cold shower would be unpleasant but actually after being in the pond it feels warm.
After a cold rinse I put my feet in a bowl of warm water to help them come back to life whilst I dress. it’s a wonderfully pleasant sensation, like climbing into a freshly made, warm bed and it’s one of my favourite parts of the whole experience.
At the pond there is an indoor changing room so I use a normal bath towel and have no need for a drying robe.
There are two basic guidelines for getting dressed safely and efficiently after swimming:
Get your swimming costume off as quickly as you can
Get your clothes on as quickly as you can
These instructions may sound trite and they may sound obvious, but choosing the right items of clothing and getting dressed the right way makes the whole thing easier and more enjoyable.
It was around this time last year that I discovered that taking my tankini costume off after a very cold swim actually hurt. My skin was burning with the cold and it felt like the fabric was scraping over my poor, sore lobster-pink skin. In addition to this unpleasantness, I found trying to wrangle the crop top over my head was difficult with stiff hands and it really slowed me down getting dressed.
I now have a bright red bikini by Davy J which I LOVE. It undoes at the front so the top just drops off and it’s made from really soft material so it doesn’t scratch your hypersensitive post-swim skin when you take the bottoms off.
There is an art to dressing after winter swimming, and there is an order. It's a good idea to hang your clothes up in the reverse order that you will need to put them back on, so that the item you need to put on first is on top. This helps you get dressed faster and also stops you dropping your clothes on the wet floor (I’m speaking from experience here).
First you need to dry and dress your torso and ideally put a hat on. Then dry your lower half and get dressed. For me the order goes: thermal top, woolly jumper, thermal leggings, jogging bottoms, socks, shoes, coat and, finally, hat. Once I’ve dried myself I put my towel around the back of my neck while I’m finishing dressing as that part of me definitely feels the chill when damp.
For me, dressing after swimming is a ritualistic and mindful activity. It takes concentration and focus. Over the last year and a bit I have assembled items that are precious to me and imbued with meaning because of what they represent and, most of all, make dressing a pleasure. It’s as much part of the experience as dropping into the cold water in the first place.
In terms of choosing what to wear, needless to say, layers are the answer. In addition to this I’ve learnt to only choose items that don’t have buttons, laces, zips or other fastenings. If you’ve ever tried trying your shoelaces when you can’t feel your fingers you’ll know why.
Where possible I only wear natural fibres. They keep you warm and cosy and feel really nice against the skin. I wear a lot of wool, and for reasons of animal welfare try to only buy woollen products from companies who use British wool or who can trace their wool back to the point of origin. I wear woollen-mix thermals and a woollen jumper and don't wear a t-shirt in between as putting cotton between layers of wool affects the thermal properties of the woollen items.
Once dressed and bundled up I usually jog back to the car which definitely helps to warm me up a little faster. Once there I whack the heater up to high and by then I'm pretty toasty.
CARRYING MY KIT
I carry my kit in my Bleak House tote. It has fairly long handles and it hangs on the hook underneath my clothes. I can throw everything in the capacious interior and not worry about zips or buckles with frozen fingers, and, because it’s waterproof, I also don't have to worry about taking time to roll up my towel or costume properly - I can just throw everything in. It also has zipped pockets for car key and phone and the generous straps go over my shoulder even when I’m wearing a padded coat.
GETTING WARM ON THE INSIDE
Two words: hot chocolate. This has become a staple part of my diet in the last two years as it just seems to hit the spot in a way that coffee doesn’t. I guess it’s the sugar and the extra calories. But you don’t need to worry about those calories as you’ve totally earned them and will burn them off easily as your body returns to it's normal state.
I’ve done some exhaustive research and my two favourite ones are from Rococo and The Chocolate Society (which annoyingly doesn't come in a tin). I either have my hot chocolate back home by the fire in my Welsh Breakfast mug or occasionally sat on a bench by the pond with a friend in which case I take my brilliant Zojirushi flask. A lot of cold-water swimmers also swear by flapjacks and cake but I never seem to have those close to hand.