What a great weekend we've just had! Two weeks ago it was winter and now it's summer! Sea temperatures are rising and with the recent improvement in air temperatures it means that long distance training is now firmly under way with a 2 hour 9 mins swim last Saturday. Sea temperatures fluctuate locally but I usually use the data from the Channel Lightship as a guide and this is now reporting 11ºC.
I had wanted to begin my distance training around Easter this year but the combination of an early Easter and some chilly weather meant that the first one hour open water swim had to wait until a Kimmeridge Bay swim on 2nd April. Then the sea temperature was less than 10ºC which meant that the swim was still well within the realms of winter swimming. I was glad that I'd trained in cold water throughout the winter as it did mean that I was able to get outside and swim in a beautiful location before the summer crowds.
Opinion is split amongst Channel swimmers as to whether there's any training advantage in keeping swimming throughout the winter. I'm an experienced winter swimmer but not an experienced Channel swimmer so listened carefully to various respected opinions. I've often heard it said that winter swimming is pointless for training, and I guess that's true if you don't stay in long, but I still managed to chalk up a few one mile swims at the coldest time of the year and that was only possible by going all out, keeping my work rate high and generating as much heat as possible. So winter swimming is not distance training but it certainly can be training! Another advantage of winter sea swimming is that it keeps building your sea experience and open water skills. You're more likely to encounter large waves and high winds in the winter which often need radically different techniques. I would concede that you certainly have to be mindful of avoiding injury whilst winter swimming as the cold can mask strains and pains, but if you can withstand and learn to embrace, even enjoy, the cold you may well find yourself addicted. Indeed much has also been written about the possible health benefits of cold water swimming, both physical and psychological. And what's more, winter swimming is lots of fun!
So it's probably not absolutely essential to train throughout the winter for a summer Channel swim but for me the balance of benefits and risks means that it's a no brainer. On top of this the cold is one thing less to worry about now, at the beginning of the long distance training season, when temperatures have only just risen to double figures. Cold water exposure once or twice a week over the winter has meant that I'm now well ahead of most of my peers who've limited their winter training to the pool. Most non acclimatised swimmers will be finding the cold tough to deal with now whilst my cold water training has just allowed me to post a swim of over 2 hours already this season. I guess I'm probably around three weeks ahead of my virtual non-acclimatised self and to me that three weeks is very important as I only have eleven weeks before my Channel swim.
My advice to anyone wondering whether they need to train throughout the winter would be that it probably isn't the most important question so don't get into a stew about it. Although there is some training benefit to be derived it is limited and personally I swim through the winter mainly because I enjoy it. I enjoy the swimming and enjoy the outdoors - it's just a great thing to do early on a Sunday morning with friends. As I haven't really identified any downsides I'll keep on going! My Channel swim is relatively early in the season and I wanted the confidence gained by chalking up some early long swims. If your event is not until September and you don't like the idea of winter swimming then don't do it! But remember that you will still have to acclimatise at some point as Britain's sea temperatures are best described as fresh at any point in the year!