Confessions Of a Cold Water Addict

We caught up with open water and ice swimmer, Cath Pendleton, about her journey in wild swimming to learn more about how it’s helped her to spend more time outside and meet a community of water-lovers with whom she shares her outdoor adventures.

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Tell us how and why you got into outdoor swimming.

"I got into outdoor swimming by accident really. I’d always swam in the river as a child, and then you grow up, go to gyms, swimming pools, hike up mountains. And then I got into triathlon and through that, I got back into the open water swimming, so bought myself a wetsuit, did a couple of tris and took on longer swims. Then I saw an advert for a winter swimming gala for Chillswim in Windermere, and really wanted to give it a go, so I went to my favourite river spot in Brecon with a friend and did a couple of widths. It was 12 degrees and we were in there for about 8 minutes, we got out shivering wrecks like “whoa, that was ridiculous”. But my theory is you’ve always got to try something twice, so we tried it again and I just instantly fell in love with it. The buzz you get after it is amazing, and I’ve just found I became completely addicted to it, I couldn’t go enough. I met another friend who told me about this challenge The Ice Mile – swimming a mile in water under 5 degrees in just your bathers. And when I did it, everybody said I seemed to be a natural at it because I didn’t shiver as much, and I’ve got a bit more padding than most people which helps! But I think it’s a mindset as well because you switch off and you’re just there with your stroke. You need to build up slowly, so now I laugh at 12 degrees: I swam 10 hours at 12 degrees last year and I’d done 8 minutes when I first started. It is really cold and not a lot of people can do it. My next challenge to stick with the ice swimming and do something called the Ice Sevens Challenge, which is swimming a mile in each of the seven continents. I’ve done 7 Ice Miles so far but they’ve all been in Europe. I’m going to Antarctica in February next year on a swim expedition, and the distance is one kilometre, but if I got the opportunity I’d do a mile! I want to do a zero mile as well, which is where you swim a mile in water under one degree so that will be an extremely tough challenge that very few have achieved." 

Why do you think mindset is so important?

"Mindset is a big thing for swimming because you have to switch off the negative things. A great swimmer called Adam Walker said to me “Never think cold” so I’ll never use the word cold.  I’ll say it’s tropical, even when it’s 2 degrees, because your mind can’t think cold and hot at the same time”. When you get into the water, I still experience the cold shock response and people die from cold shock, but I know that it is going to happen and I usually sing, or think calming thoughts, which help me to control my breathing and overcome this.  You’ve really got to regulate your breathing and relax in the water.  I am not going to lie, for me the first few minutes of any winter/ice swim the feeling is actually quite uncomfortable and it really hurts your hands and feet at the really low temperatures.  However, I think that’s why I like it so much, because if I swim in a pool, there’s always stuff popping into my head, whereas in the winter you haven’t got time for that, you need to make sure your breathing and your stroke is right, and decide if it’s safe to continue or if you should get out before anything changes physiologically. So for me, my mind is just there in that moment, and the laughs come afterwards when everyone’s out and shivering. Some people get really bad shivers, but some people get a lot from the shivers, they enjoy them as much as the swim. Other people dread the shivers because they hurt sometimes.  Luckily, for me now my shivers usually come later and I have a good 5-10 minutes or so to get dressed and warm before they set in and I am comfortable with my post swim recovery regime now and know my limits more as I’ve been winter swimming for 4 years and safety is paramount." 

How do you prepare for an open water swim? What kind of stuff do you take with you?

"When I go off for an open water swim, it’s really important that I’ve got lots of layers. A thermal top and thermal bottoms are really important for me, and a down jacket and warm trousers to go over the top. You will see every swimmer in their bobble hat and their changing robe, and the other thing is a flask, usually of hot squash for me. Gloves are really important as well. My car is always full of kit – sets of thermals, bathers, down jackets, fleeces. Kit is so important, you’ve got to be able to warm up when you come out. Something to eat really helps warm people up as well." 

What’s the community like?

"The great thing about open water swimming is that anybody can do it.  You don’t need to be a super strong swimmer, you can be a breaststroker, a backstroker, a butterflier, a doggy paddler, it doesn’t matter.  Everywhere I go, swimmers are from all walks of life, it’s just everybody and anybody. More of my family and friends are asking to come along and I’ve managed to get my eldest daughter into it now which is brilliant. Nobody judges you in ice and winter swimming either, so if somebody wants to just come along, swim for a short time in their bobble hat then have a cup of tea or wants to do a training session, it doesn’t matter as nobody really comments as it’s all about what the individual wants from the swim. Everybody looks out for each other, because sometimes when you’re getting dressed and you’ve got the shivers, you need those friends to help pull your thermal top down or if your trousers are a bit stuck and need pulling up or buttons fastened! It’s important to know what you’re doing for yourself and how to look after yourself, and I always say to people that there are plenty of websites out there that you can look up information on, so you can learn how to get started safely. If it’s ice swimming like I do, then you are best to start in summer then work all the way through. It’s all about getting the good advice and having the right gear. Whether you’re competitive or not, we all get the same thing out of it, so it doesn’t matter whether you’re there to clear your head, or you’re not even bothered about the swim, you just want the coffee and hot chocolate afterwards! I’ve made loads of new friends through ice swimming, in fact someone was joking to me today that I collect friends, but it becomes addictive and wild swimming is just becoming so much more popular as people realise it’s not as dangerous as they think. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, and attitudes are changing – it’s just about making sure you’re safe. The community is great too, if I’m off on holiday and I want to go open water swimming, I’ll post in a group and there’ll be somebody, somewhere who can tell you where to go and what to look out for. I do it as well, when people say they’re coming to Wales, I’ll take them to my favourite swim spot, and it’s a massive social thing. We love it." 

Do you ever swim alone?

"I have done, but as a rule I don’t.  I really don’t think it’s safe but with that said it has many different factors to consider (such as, the depth of water, temperature, location, etc).  If I am swimming on my own in the water I try to always have someone spotting me from the river bank/lakeside or beach as they can call for assistance in an emergency.  This is my personal opinion and others will not agree, but my advice would always be don’t swim alone." 

How many people do you swim with?

"That can vary. I would say if we go to the sea there’s probably about 10-15 of us in the summer. In the winter we tend to be smaller groups. I’ve probably got a group of friends of about 2 to 6 people who will go together in the winter." 

How would you describe the diversity of the people that you swim with?

"We’re all very different, the people I swim with. We’ve got people who, in the winter, might pop on a bobble hat, get in and do 10 strokes with lots of swear words then get out, and enjoy it as much as me who would be in there training for 20 or 25 minutes. People do different strokes, some people wear wetsuits while others wear bathers, and nobody says anything, you can wear what you want and swim as long as you want. It’s growing so much and we do organise between us who’s getting out first for safety, and a lot of us swim with something called a tow float which makes you more visible in the water. If we go out to sea, we’ve got an arrangement with the RNLI that if we’re wearing our tow floats, they’ll put a flag up to let the boats know that we’re swimming there." 

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