It’s snowing lightly, the cold wind is piercing, and the risk of hypothermia is very real.

You’re in the remote area of Tregaron, high up on a mountain, miles from civilisation with zero phone reception to boot.

And you’re about to voluntarily dip into a lake measuring 34 degrees centigrade below human body temperature. Your insurance policy? Swimming trunks.

To me and you it’s called lunacy.

To Team GB ice swimmer Alistair Bell however, it’s called training.

I contacted the 32-year-old shortly after the British Championships in Hatfield (Yorkshire) in December, the event which ultimately sealed his GB selection. It had been some time since I joined an athlete for a training feature – but intrigue perhaps, curiosity, scepticism - the term ‘ice swimming’ was enough to arouse the sleeping beast.

A three hour Sunday drive through country roads, mountainous terrain, and blitzes of hail later, I shivered beside Llyn Du lake debating if intrigue had overridden sanity. Having got inevitably lost and stopped at an isolated farm building for directions, an elderly woman greeted me with an air of incredulity that suggested human sightings were rare in such parts.

Trepidation grew after Alistair and training partner Colin Hughes provided a crash course in the regulations that governed the sport – namely that only trunks and swim caps qualify as attire and the lake temperature must be below 5 degrees centigrade to count. Digital thermometers measured Llyn Du at three degrees, with the air temperature at 0.9.

Sure enough, the previous night I’d checked with Alistair the likelihood of him still training given inclement weather was forecast.

“Yes we swim in all conditions.”

Right, of course you do.

But then again, Alistair’s tough regime is now a necessity. Next month he represents GB in the World Championships in Murmansk, Russia – thus far the pinnacle of a journey that began when living in the Shetland Islands.

“In the winter I began swimming without a wetsuit and enjoyed the novelty of it,” he exclaimed.

“Then I moved to Wales and realised there was more of a scene for swimming in lakes. The more my body acclimatised to it the more I wondered if competing would be possible.”

And compete he did. But as a member of the Tenby Aces, maintaining cardiovascular fitness is the easy part. Finding suitable training bases from his home in Llanteg? Not so simple.

Throw in his job as a trauma therapist in Gwangwili Hospital, and the complexity grows.

“I’ve often ended up knocking on the doors of landowners to ask if I can use their lake. Usually they are very surprised.

“Rosebush Holiday Park in the Preseli’s has three lakes I am lucky to be able to go there. The actual training only takes around 12-15 minutes so if I can go in my lunch break, or after work if the light is ok, then I do.

“The Cambrian Mountains, Blaenavon, and River Towy are other good training spots. And there is a river in Whitland with a strong current which is useful depending on the time.”

Indeed, the reason behind our meeting destination centred around Llyn Du being 600 metres above sea level. The higher the colder. The colder the better.

Although the last notion seemed a dubious one to me. A couple of brief runs up and down the rocky path had done little to warm the limbs, so I tried to take heed of Alistair and Colin’s advice – get your head under early, come through the shock, concentrate on swimming and breathing, push through the pain, stay composed.


Of course what the pair didn’t realise was I have pedigree. Since 2010, only once have I missed the annual New Year’s Day dip at Whitesands Beach.

Sure, it’s the equivalent of preparing for a marathon in the Sahara with occasional visits to a sauna, but it was a morsel of psychological comfort to cling to.

Alistair and Colin entered first, with the latter’s wife Lucinda watching nearby (location and temperature makes it too dangerous to train alone). To state the blindingly obvious, their session would outlast mine. Alistair’s race in Russia is over 1000 metres with water temperatures expected to be zero degrees, and the air temperature around minus seven.

Colin meanwhile, from Brechfa, is currently gearing towards the challenge of swimming an ‘ice mile’.

“There are obvious dangers,” he’d told me seconds before I finally parted with my hooded jumper and woolly hat.

“The water will sting and then numb you. Whenever you go in you put yourself into a state of hypothermia.”

He wasn’t lying.

As those two embarked on a 500 metre swim round the lake, I stuck to repetitive small circles. And it was soon easy to work out while focussing on technique was paramount.

There were moments where my concentration wandered. Moments I recognised my body was freezing, my range of movement condensing. That’s when panic and flapping set in.

But with a less than exemplary breast stroke, I managed to override the fear factor for long enough to essentially complete my first (and last) ice swimming session. I’d had the smallest of insights into what the elite must endure, but the notion of upping my speed and maintaining such levels of mental fortitude over 500 or 1000 metres was a monumentally distant one.

In no other sport can the customary phrase of ‘mind over matter’ be so relevant.

And yet, as Alistair later re-iterated, the swimming isn’t even the half of it. The recovery takes infinitely longer.

In my case, it took two days.

After scrambling, quite literally, back onto dry land I stood stationary in a haze of ‘that’s out the way’ euphoria. Lucinda sternly ordered me to move the few metres to my clothes.

She’d seen this mistake made before.

Sure enough, by the time I picked my towel up I could barely feel it. That or my body. The prompt and brisk walk back, so essential after any ice swim, was a blur. As were the automated car keys in my hand, which only worked after a prolonged period of stabbing with de-sensitized fingers.

The relief was significant. I didn’t fancy stopping off for the night.

For 24 hours after I was plagued by dehydration. For 24 beyond that, I was still cold and fatigued. And between Sunday and Tuesday my night time clothing and heating arrangements were such that I might as well have settled down in a furnace.

Despite spending twice the time in the water I did, my training partners were far better acclimatised. But the emphasis put on their post-swim recovery was clear.

And yet for Alistair, compared to what he’ll endure in Murmansk in March this was child’s play.

“The recovery there will be interesting,” he told me.

“They take you into a recovery centre and lay you on your back, put your hands in tepid water then cover you with warm towels until your body temperature rises and you can feel your hands.”

And yet the complications don’t end there for him. The freezing water is energy sapping, believe me. Nutritional intake afterwards extends way beyond a flask of hot coffee.

And yet Alistair, who as of yet has not suffered with any ill health from the sport, is vegan.

“I don’t struggle with it (being vegan) but I am the only one in Team GB and one of a few competing in the World Championships.

“I have a great dietitian in Victoria Prendenville who helps me get the most out of my calories which is important, as it takes a lot out of you.”

Yes, I know what you're all thinking. Where’s the enjoyment in this?

“It really is like any other sport where there are times you have to dig deep and push through,” he said, with what seemed like ludicrous understatement.

"But I love doing it it. It gives a me a buzz and makes me only think about what I’m doing at that time, rather than all the other priorities that repeat through my head regularly."

Now that bit, certainly does make sense.

With most minority sports, I round off a feature by encouraging everyone to give it a try. I emphasise the benefits, promote the inclusivity, and include details of community clubs and groups where people can go to gain experience.

But this is different. Ice swimming isn't for mere mortals. It's for a special kind of individual with extreme dedication, strength, focus, and resilience. And maybe throw in technical ability and an immunity to Baltic weather as well.

Luckily for Alistair Bell, he possesses all of the above in abundance.

I'd happily interview him again too. But next time, maybe we'll leave it until the summer.....

  • Alistair covers his own travel and training costs and any businesses or individuals interested in sponsoring him as he prepares for the World Championships, or assisting him with sports treatments or kit, can contact him on or 07835765681.