Did you swim laps in a lake or puddle near your house this summer with Lifeguard Training, because you didn’t feel like going to that overcrowded swimming pool? Although it is often claimed that you can happily continue with this in the winter, and that there are all kinds of great health benefits associated with a refreshing dip, it turns out that this is not always wise.
This becomes clear after a conversation with, personal swimming coach and project leader of the unfettered swimmer employed by the Swimming Association (KNZB). Dunkers indicates that swimming in open water has recently become extremely popular, partly due to corona, but that there are also serious dangers in winter. Although the Swimming Federation strongly recommends swimming in itself, it strongly advises to do this indoors in the pool in winter.
Do not swim in open water that is colder than sixteen degrees
The swimming coach explains that the KNZB itself does not draw up official swimming rules, but that this is done by FINA: the umbrella international swimming association. ‘They make the rules regarding competitions in open water swimming in consultation with her medical committee. These rules indicate that swimming in open water at distances of more than a kilometer is not without (medical) risks when the water temperature is colder than sixteen degrees.’
Now you may think that this cold is easy to control with a swimming wetsuit, but these rules are already geared to that. If, on the other hand, you want to do a quick splash or dip in the cold water for a big boost à la Wim Hof, this is still fine if you want to. However, swimming greater distances than 200 meters in cold, open water is strictly not recommended.
Also dangerous for experienced swimmers
The biggest danger of swimming in cold open water is that you can become hypothermic. Donkers explains: ‘Your temperature can drop so much unnoticed when swimming in very cold water that, in the most extreme case, you can lose consciousness and/or go into cardiac arrest. It is often difficult to realize that you become hypothermic in this way while you are moving.’
‘That’s why it’s so important that you always have a buoy with you when you go swimming in open water and don’t go too far from the shore. If you get a cramp, then you always have something to hang on to and if you still lose consciousness you will not sink to the bottom because of the buoy.
Risk of the open water
Donkers also says that the risk of swimming in open water is often difficult to get on the retina. ‘Someone who regularly swims laps in the pool may think they can do this in the open water as well. However, the circumstances are so different: the pool in the water is not cold, not dark and there is always a side nearby that you can hold on to.’
‘People can really be taken by surprise by the enormous cold of open water, but when this happens on a puddle or lake, there is not always a side immediately nearby. If you sink to the bottom here, you are really lost in the dark water. After all, there is no lifeguard around here who sees what is happening.’
Advice for when you go swimming in open water
Despite these obvious dangers, some people are still likely to venture into natural waters. Donkers has some urgent advice for these people: ‘It is very important that you always go swimming with at least one or two other people and preferably someone is standing on the side who knows that you are in the water.’
‘In addition, wear a double colored swim cap that stands out and also gloves and shoes made of wetsuit fabric. Make sure you keep the jump start as small as possible when you go into the water. For example, first wet your wrists and your neck and then lower yourself into the water as calmly as possible. So never dive into the water either.’
‘If you still get caught by the cold, always lie on your back so that your head stays above water. That way you can also keep an eye on the environment.’
‘Don’t step under a very hot shower after swimming’
What you do after swimming is also important for your body. After moving in the water, you cool off quickly in your wet suit on the side. ‘After swimming, it is important to put on sufficiently warm clothes and to take off your wet clothes immediately,’ says Donkers. ‘It is also smart to have a hot drink with you, so that you can also warm up quickly from the inside.’
The way in which you warm up is also important to prevent a shock reaction. The swimming coach explains: ‘Avoid very active warming up, such as stepping directly under a very hot shower. This transition is much too intense for your body, just like jumping directly into cold water.’
But as mentioned earlier, swimming in open water, even in winter, seems to be becoming more and more of a trend. This is partly due to the many health benefits that the sport would bring. And although these benefits have certainly not been lied to, Donkers emphasizes that the benefits simply do not outweigh the dangers. Donkers advises that it is better to look for the extremes in another sport, such as running. ‘If something goes wrong, at least you are still visible and you can be helped quickly. The FINA and its medical committee really know their stuff and advise everyone to swim safely indoors in cold temperatures. And who are we as swimmers to question that?