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A Guide to Winter Swimming: it’s grand once you’re in

I took up winter swimming in 2019. That first winter I used it as an escape, it was all still a bit of a novelty and mad craic. Last winter was almost harder: I knew what I was literally getting myself into, and knew a bit more about it (a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing).

I swam earlier this week and had my first experience of brain freeze for the season. No real words for it - I kept my head down, swam through it and got out feeling the better for it. I might wear a second swim cap the next time I get in. Next time?!!! See it’s already 11 degrees and I’ve accepted the season is here and am welcoming it with my arms wrapped tightly around my chest as I enter the water. Recently I popped down to Fenit to chat with open water swimming coach Kevin Williams about the essential preparations for winter swimming.

Standard winter swimming face.

Where has winter swimming come from and how did it start?

The Christmas Day Swim has always been the highlight of winter swimming. This tradition began in Fenit in 1952. The Tralee Bay Swimming Club has continued to run this event every year. In 2013 the club began the Turkey Series - a series of weekend swims from October through to December. Everyone donates some money into a kitty and this becomes the prize fund for spot prizes at the end of the series. The first event was run with 7 people and continues to run every year since with numbers growing to 70. This year the Turkey Series begins on Sunday, October 24th at 11am. Kevin is hoping that this year’s series will kick off with a Christmas Day like rush to the water.

When should you take up winter swimming?

Ideally now when the water temperature is not too low. Currently the water temperature is 11 degrees. But water temperatures can reduce very quickly: Over a week ago, the water temperature was 17 degrees. If you are only dipping/swimming once a week and you go from swimming in 17 degree water to 11 degree water you will notice a big difference. The idea is to swim as regularly as you can, allowing your body to acclimatise to the water.

Don't swim alone - freeze with your mates.

How should you plan your swim?

Plan to swim with someone - don’t ever go it alone. “There is a certain way to enter the water. A certain way to act in the water. A way to exit the water. There’s a whole process to winter swimming. It becomes addictive”.

Put some water on your face before you get down - get your body ready for the experience.

“Always stick by the shore, swim within your depth & limit your time in the water”. The sea temperature is governed by ground (not air temperature) - a good rule of thumb to use when winter swimming is the 1 minute : 1 degree ratio. So if the water is 10 degrees, plan to swim for 10 minutes. All of this is a general guide and should be built up to as you acclimatise comfortably with the water.

How do you warm up fast?

Replace your swim cap with a woolly hat straight away.

Have a bottle of lukewarm water - pour this over yourself.

Stand on a mat as you get changed.

Get dressed as quickly as possible. Wear loose warm clothing that’s easy to put on - this is no time for fashion statements - leave the leggings at home.

Have a hot drink

Robes, hats, coffee, hot water bottles - all the essentials for warming back up.

I’ve heard of after drop - what is this?

When you swim in cold water, a process called vasodilation occurs. The blood vessels widen and this encourages blood flow to your core to protect your organs and allows you to continue to swim in colder temperatures. When you come out of the water, the process reverses and your temperature around your core drops - this leads to shivering and your teeth can chatter. This is the after drop and can last for 30-40 minutes. Always allow your body to recover from this. Have something hot to drink. Don’t just get into your car and drive or get straight into a hot shower. Allow your body to return to normal body temperature.

Where are good spots to do winter swimming?

Apart from Fenit, Derrymore, Banna & Ballyheigue are all good spots. Covid has scattered swimmers who would have always come to Fenit - they have now found more local spots and are setting up swim spots of their own.

Banna Beach - also good for a winter dip. Yes that's snow on the mountains.

What’s particularly good about winter swimming in Fenit?

It’s sheltered from northerly winds, it’s shallow, and it’s safe. The tides don’t really matter here when it comes to winter swimming. Most importantly, it’s popular with like minded swimmers who will always share advice and encouragement. So even if you don’t know anyone and can’t find someone who wants to take the plunge with - there are always plenty of swimmers who will be delighted to welcome you into the fold.

Winter swimming clears the mind - there’s a lot you tend to focus on once you are down in the water. You’ll be thinking of your breathing, the cold, the sensation of the water, how your fingers and toes feel. It doesn’t allow the mundane troublesome thoughts to enter your head. And you get out feeling strong and victorious, tingling all over.

Eddie Stack is our most experienced Fenit winter swimmer. He had some good advice for me last winter: “if you can still whistle while in the water, you can still swim”. Sound advice. But don’t ever leave things too late - a very important part to winter swimming is the post swim chat, coffee and baked goods.

Kevin Williams can be found on or in the Fenit water, swimming or coaching, almost daily.

Thanks to Kevin Williams for all of these winter swimming tips. Kevin is an incredibly experienced Tralee Bay swimmer, swim coach and swimming event organiser. Every year Kevin organises an Introduction to Cold Water Swimming course in Fenit as well as one-to-one swim coaching in open water. If you're interested in joining the Fenit cold water swimmers, you can contact Kevin via his Facebook Page. The Fenit Turkey Series, a winter swimming series, begins October 24th.


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