Swimming In Cold Water (What to expect as a beginner)


a swimmer suffers from cold water shock

Swimming in cold water can be an exhilarating and addictive experience. However, it can be very difficult at first and great caution is needed to prepare for and enter the cold.

If you typically swim in a heated pool and want to try swimming in cold water for the first time, it is important to know what to expect to keep the experience safe and enjoyable, so you will return.

As a general rule, you should treat any body of water with a temperature of less than 21°C (70°F) with caution. Temperatures below 15°C (60°F) are classified as dangerously cold and you will need to prepare and know what to expect to experience any temperature that is less than 21°C (70°F) safely.

In this article I want to share my experience of swimming in cold water, covering:

  • What does swimming in cold water feel like?
  • What to expect from your first cold water swim?
  • Does it hurt to swim in cold water?
  • Is it harder to swim in cold water?
  • How to be safe in cold water

What Does Swimming In Cold Water Feel Like?

If you regularly swim in a heated pool, you may never think about cold water and how it can affect your swimming.

According to the National Centre For Cold Water Safety, you should treat any body of water with a temperature of less than 21°C (70°F) with caution. [source]

You might think that 21°C (70°F) is warm, but if you have never experienced water colder than this, take great care.

Your first time swimming in cold water will be uncomfortable. It needs to be done in a safe environment, in water that is not too cold, for example above 20°C (68°F), with lifeguards and friends around to support you.

The cold water will make your muscles feel tight and heavy and your breathing will be affected, as the cold water can make you gasp. Approach it carefully and slowly with great caution.

What To Expect From Your First Cold Water Swim? (My Cold Water Experience)

I regularly swim in a heated pool that is around 26°C (78°F), so when I went swimming in an unheated outdoor pool of 15°C (41°F) I had an unpleasant shock.

Outdoor pools look wonderful, especially on a hot summer’s day and I had an image of myself doing lap after lap in the glorious sunshine. The reality of the experience was very different.

Having not swum in cold water in over a year, I was not acclimatised to the cold water and it was painful.

I tentatively entered the pool, trying to control my breathing, taking things slowly as I waited for the first few minutes to pass and the cold water shock to subside.

When I felt more comfortable, I figured I would do a few sprint laps to warm up, but the cold water affected my breathing, so I could not regulate my breath underwater. The best I could manage was a gentle, head-above-water breaststroke.

In the end, I settled for a swim session that comprised a light jog to the midway point of the pool, mixed in with some gentle breaststroke as I dare not enter the deep end since my muscles felt too heavy.

Towards the end of the session, I could do some front crawl, but this was not fluid and felt like hard work as I found it far too difficult to regulate my breathing in the cold water. This was a sign that it was time to get out.

I know this may sound like a miserable session, but oddly, I felt invigorated afterwards and eager to return.

Here’s what you can expect from your first cold water swimming experience.

1. It Will Feel Shockingly Cold

If you have not swum in water that is less than 20°C (68°F), it will surprise you at how cold it actually is.

You must know the signs of cold water shock when you first get into cold water.

Your heart rate will increase and your blood pressure will increase. This is one reason cold water shock can cause heart attacks for so many people. [source]

You will gasp as your breathing increases. Ensure you stay in the shallows to be safe until you have more control.

2. You Breathing Will Be Affected

It is important to enter cold water in a slow and careful way, as cold water has a powerful effect on our bodies.

One of the first things you will notice is that you might gasp, as this is an involuntary reaction induced by cold water shock.

Your breathing will be more panicked and rapid.

Even if you settle into the cold water, your breathing can still be at a fast rate.

Again, take your time and do not leave the safety of the shore or poolside until you feel more in control.

A good indicator that you are fit to swim is if you can talk in full sentences clearly. This will be a sign that you have your breathing under control. [source]

3. Your Muscles Will Feel Heavy

Normally we can feel buoyant and almost as if we are weightlessly flying in warm water, but the opposite is true in cold water.

Once the cold water hits your skin, your nerves and body tissue will cool. This will make your muscles feel fatigued, stiff, and heavy.

This has a dramatic impact on your swim stroke, so do not expect to break into a fluid swimming stroke as you might do in a heated pool.

It is really important to pay attention to your muscles as, if the water is cold enough, it is possible for your muscles to become so fatigued they will be uncoordinated. This can cause a strained swim where you are struggling to keep your head above water.

4. You May Have To Change Swim Styles

If you are not used to cold water or if it is your first time, it is advisable to keep your head above water.

Therefore, if you typically swim the front crawl at full pelt or a swim stroke where your head is submerged, adapt your swim style to keep your head over water.

When I first got into cold water, after I felt comfortable, I thought I would try a breaststroke where I dip my head under the water. I instantly came up gasping as the cold water submersion triggered my reflex gasp response.

Thankfully, I was in shallow water so I could just stand up, but lesson learned.

Don’t assume that you will swim normally, even if you are an experienced swimmer, until you have had more experience with the cold water temperatures.

Does It Hurt To Swim In Cold Water?

When we first get into cold water, we experience what is called a cold water shock response.

Cold water shock is a well-documented response to cold water and many experts believe it is cold water shock that actually causes some good swimmers to drown as they try to fight the cold water and thrash around. This causes panic and can tire a swimmer. [source]

When you first enter cold water, you will experience an initial gasp, your breathing will increase as well as your blood pressure. It can take between 60-90 seconds for cold water shock to pass. [source]

In these initial moments, your heart will be under greater strain as you will be breathing fast and there will be a rapid reduction in blood flow to the skin. Your blood pressure increases. [source]

As mentioned previously, this is one reason cold water shock can induce a heart attack in some.

To cope with cold water shock, it is a case of waiting for it to pass or subside. Do not try to swim instantly or fight it. [source]

Pain is subjective and we all experience discomfort in response to cold water in different ways.

Some people will tolerate the cold better, particularly if they have more body mass, which acts as insulation.

That said, the National Centre For Cold Water Safety classifies water with a temperature of less than 5°C (41°F) as painfully cold. Nobody is safe at these temperatures. It hurts.

This water temperature is exceptionally dangerous and death may occur in as little as 15 minutes.

Here is a summary of cold water temperatures and how the National Centre For Cold Water Safety classify cold water and pain levels:

Can You Swim In Jenny Lake?
Can You Swim In Jenny Lake?
Cold Water TemperatureWater Conditions
30°C – 40°C [86°F – 104°F]This water temperature is pleasant. The water will feel nice and warm.
25°C – 30°C [77°F – 86°F]This water temperature is cool. Still safe and nice to swim in.
20°C – 25°C [68°F – 77°F]This water temperature is classified as cold. Our breathing is affected in this region.
15°C – 20°C [59°F – 68°F]Below 21°C (70°F) should be treated with caution. We are entering the region of dangerous cold.
10°C – 15°C [50°F – 59°F]This water temperature region is very dangerously cold. Many will find this region painful. You will suffer from maximum cold shock in this region.
Below 10°C [50°F]Below this region is exceptionally dangerous and painful. Only the very experienced should swim in this cold water temperature.
This Table Shows A List Of Cold Water Temperatures & How The Water Feels

Is It Harder To Swim In Cold Water?

Yes, it is much harder to swim in cold water.

In cold water, your muscle tissue will be affected by the cold, which will cause heavy and fatigued muscles.

As a result, swimming will feel so much harder and require more effort.

Personally, I liken it to swimming against a current. All the speed and power you have built up while training in a heated swimming pool will seem to have disappeared.

In addition, it is not always possible to submerge your face and swim in the normal way, as your breathing reflexes will continue to gasp. This can be very dangerous.

If you suffer from cold incapacitation, which can happen if you get too cold, you will lose power in your muscles and you will find it increasingly more difficult to swim. [source]

With enough exposure, you could suffer from a loss of coordination in your limbs and fingers will lose dexterity.

Be very vigilant and pay attention to how your muscles feel. If you swim out of your depth and suffer cold incapacitation, it can lead to drowning.

Many experienced swimmers who are new to cold water believe that they can keep swimming to prevent cold, but this is not the case. Even if the water feels OK, your body is still losing heat, which means blood flow will be restricted.

Keep to the shallows until you have greater experience of cold water, as it is far harder than swimming in a heated pool and a very different experience.

How To Be Safe In Cold Water

Cold water swimming is an amazing and very addictive experience, but it is very dangerous and needs to be done in a safe environment.

Here are some of the best top tips to be safe in cold water, especially as a beginner.

1. Do Not Swim Alone

Swimming in cold water should always be done in pairs or groups, as it is much harder to swim in cold water and if something goes wrong, it is much safer to have someone there with you.

If you are swimming in cold water and experience any of the symptoms of cold water shock, such as difficulty breathing or rapid heart rate, it is important to have someone there with you who can help you get out.

2. Take It Slow

When swimming in cold water, it is important to take things slow and never try to swim through the symptoms of cold water shock.

Take your time, be cautious and wait a few minutes for the initial symptoms of cold water shock to pass.

If you do not feel comfortable, leave the water. With time, you can build your tolerance to the cold water, so it will be easier.

By taking it slow, you will be safe and will return.

3. Know What Cold Water Shock Is

Knowing what cold water shock is and what to expect is important as a newbie to cold water swimming.

At first, it is hard to comprehend just how cold water can feel if it is your first time.

As your breathing increases and you feel the gasp reflex, it is important to know what is happening to your body.

In addition, allowing yourself a few minutes in the water to see if you can adjust to the water temperature and allow the cold water shock to pass will help you understand if cold water is for you.

To learn more about cold water shock and how to manage yourself in the water, I recommend reading this summary article about cold water shock from the RNLI.

4. Stay In The Shallows

When trying cold water swimming for the first time, it is important to stay in shallow water.

This is true, even if you are a good swimmer.

With the cold water comes cold muscles, which results in muscle fatigue. Your body will feel slow and heavy.

Staying in the shallow water will help you get out or walk to safety if you feel too cold.

5. Go For A Dip, Not A Swim

Do not expect a long swim from your first cold water swim experience. Treat it more like a dip than a swim.

If you have the heated pool mentality of a 40-minute swim with countless laps, you need to re-think this strategy for your first attempt in cold water.

It is best to start with the expectation of going for a dip. Gently get in the water and feel what it is like. It is better to spend just a few minutes in there and be safe to return another day than to try to get a long swim completed, which could result in your body temperature dropping to dangerously low levels.

Final Thoughts

Swimming in cold water can be an amazing and addictive experience, but it is important to do so safely.

Cold water swimming is very different to warm water swimming and can be deadly if the swimmer is not aware of the consequences of exposure to cold water.

With time, cold water swimming does it easier as you can acclimatise to the cold and begin to explore cold water swimming capabilities and limits.

As a beginner, take care and always put safety first. If you can enjoy your first cold water experience, you will be back for more!

Happy swimming.

Louise Byrne

Hi, I am Louise and I am obsessed with swimming. I spend my free time in the water or getting ready for my next water adventure.

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