How open water swimming benefits mental and physical health
Before I start, I must make it clear that I am not a medical professional. All of the insights that I share are from my own story and that of the wonderful community I swim with.
I started swimming in the sea regularly about 18 months ago, as a form of self-care and time out from a very busy coaching practice - a way of setting boundaries otherwise I would work upwards of 60 hours a week.
I loved the feeling of the water, the connection with nature, and the moments of peace and tranquillity. Nothing around me apart from water. No noise pollution, no devices or man-made paraphernalia, no artificial lights, nothing but nature.
What I noticed was the speed at which I could switch my busy mind off.
It helped that my swimming buddy is a perpetual in-the-moment optimist and she definitely helped me notice the 'now' by expressing her gratitude at the tiny moments of warm sun in amongst what would be described by most as a dull and cloudy day. "Feel the warmth of the sun" she would exclaim - when the surrounding temperature was about 12 degrees. But when you hear it enough, you too begin to notice the submodalities (the small bits of information processed by our senses) of your surroundings with more ease and acuity.
I (we) swam all through the winter, even on New's Years Day, in Cornwall where literally the entire village that we were staying in congregated on the beach and either cheered on the swimmers or were excited onlookers eagerly waiting armed with towels and hot drinks.
By now, I was hooked. It became something that I really looked forward to. I swam in a shortie wetsuit during the colder weather all through last winter.
I then joined a couple of open-water swimming groups locally to me. As I am about 45 minutes from the coast, being able to access open water in the rivers nearer me seemed a sensible next step. Rivers tend to be colder so I felt better prepared after a winter of swimming in the sea.
As confident and competent as I am as a person, it took me three weeks to pluck up the courage to take the plunge and join a Saturday morning swim with the kindest of groups I have ever met. The usual 'what if' questions had popped into to head, what if:
- I didn't have the right kit
- I forgot something necessary
- I got hurt by something in the water
- I hated not knowing what was in the water and freaked
But I need not have worried. They guided me through the swim, making sure to let me know what to expect before it happened. Things like submerged obstacles and reedy sections and, before long, I was hooked. It didn't matter what you wore or how long you swam for, you were accepted for whatever open swimming meant for you - plus there was always cake and a hot drink afterwards with the opportunity to talk and connect.
The hook was on many levels:
- the freedom
- connection to nature
- moments to switch off
- time to just be me
- connecting with like-minded people
- a community spirit
In amongst a group of people from such varied backgrounds, all with one thing in common - the desire to be connected to nature and especially the element of water. I've since joined another group and swim at least twice a week.
As winter approaches, I've chosen to stay in a swimming costume. I've also done a Wim Hoff breathing course that helps prepare you mentally as well as physically - several of his methods and videos can be found online and many are for free.
As a coach, I've coached others to take control of their breathing, to have the confidence to face their fears and love the feeling they get after doing it anyway. I've met people who were lonely, people with anxiety, people going through a divorce, relationship break-ups, grief, and people who had arthritis or other inflammatory chronic conditions.
My own menopausal symptoms have greatly reduced since I started open-water swimming. My body temperature and ability to regulate it have also improved - I used to be the cold one that had the extra blanket on, but now it's the opposite. Backaches from sitting at a desk for too long have been reduced, too.
The friends I swim with give testimony to the following:
- anxiety greatly reduced
- swollen joints returned to normal
- arthritis and joint pain managed without medication
- depression lifted
- confidence improved
If you are interested in seeing what it is all about, there are some caveats I would recommend:
- Start by climatising yourself to cold water using the shower at home, gradually building up in both the area that you expose to the cold water and the duration.
- Swim with a group or with others that know the area.
- Get some neoprene socks (hard soles if the river bed is stoney).
- Wear neoprene gloves in the colder weather.
- Wear a thermal or woolly hat in the colder weather.
- Invest in a tow float.
- Have a large towel or changing robe to get dry under.
- Have a waterproof bag for your wet kit.
- Have plenty of warm clothing to change into.
- A warm drink for afterwards.
- A hot water bottle for colder days.
Undoubtedly there are benefits that go beyond what I have mentioned above:
- it improves your immune system (I never get colds)
- it boosts circulation
- it improves your libido
- it burns calories
- it gives you a natural high
- it reduces stress
- it is medically researched that cold water exposure improves the functionality of the brown fat we have that surrounds our internal organs
I'm looking forward to seeing if I can swim in just a swimming costume, neoprene gloves and socks and a thermal hat all through winter. I can expect temperatures to drop as low as five degrees. I've made it to 10 degrees, so I am hopeful that I can achieve this self-imposed goal (I do like a challenge!).