It may not sound appealing during the colder months, but devotees of cold water swimming swear by the mood-boosting effects and sense of community.
The physical health benefits of cold water – from improved muscle recovery and reduced soreness, to better circulation – are now widely accepted. And while a cold shower after a sweaty workout is commendable enough (especially at this time of year), many women across the country enjoy submergeing themselves in the cold sea, lakes and rivers all year round, sometimes daily.
These women swear by cold water swimming as a means to boost their mental health and self esteem, to feel a sense of community (a particularly important draw over the last year), to feel closer to nature and explore their surroundings. For many, it’s become a lifeline during the pandemic, while indoor pools and gyms have been closed and many have had more time to appreciate the natural world than ever before.
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The mental health benefits of cold water swimming
“Wild swimming is one of the best things I do for my mental health,” says Tanne, a charity worker in Bristol. “The endorphins are always incredible, and I feel the buzz from a swim for hours afterwards.” Tanne swims outside – in the sea, rivers or natural pools – up to once a week during the colder months and several times a week in spring/summer.
“It’s also a kind of mindfulness when you’re in the water because you have to focus entirely on being in the moment, feeling the sensations around you,” she explains. “Cold water is particularly good for making you focus entirely on your breathing.” Indeed, research shows cold water swimming to have real benefits for wellbeing.
Tanne likes to swim in the morning to get her day off to the best possible start. “There’s no better way to wake up – even on the coldest days, I never regret getting outdoors first thing and into the water.”
“Wild swimming gives me a sense of accomplishment”
The self-esteem boost from having endured something uncomfortable, also tempts Anneka Jade Dalrymple, 34, a writer in Cornwall, back to cold water swimming time and again. For the last year, she’s swam in the sea between once a week and five times a week depending on the season.
“You’re in the moment while you’re doing it, then afterwards you feel warm and you feel like you achieved something. You did something for yourself, and it didn’t cost anything but time,” Anneka explains.
Like Tanne, she also experiences mental health benefits from living in the moment while swiming. “My anxiety and depression don’t matter. It’s cold, and I’m aware of that. I’m swimming, and I’m aware of that. I leave my mental health struggles on the shore, just for a little while.”
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“I feel closer to nature”
For Einna Harrison-Mellon, being “at one with nature” is one of the biggest draws of cold water swimming. A company director in Northern Ireland, she swims in the sea at sunrise three times a week, which leaves her feeling appreciative of nature and excited about life. It also complements her wider wellness practice of yoga and meditation.
“Life is short and time is precious, so it’s good to do new things, to stretch the boundaries of your experiences and to get close to nature and enjoy it – after all, it’s free and on our doorstep,” Einna believes.
Tanne also cherishes the opportunity to take in the surrounding greenery, sky and wildlife while she swims. “You’ll swim past ducks in the river or feel seaweed under your feet in the sea. I love that you can go for a swim as part of your everyday life or while out camping, kayaking or hiking. The water is always there, waiting for you.”
I leave my mental health struggles on the shore, just for a little while.
“It gives me a chance to explore”
Cold water swimming also encourages you to explore new places, says Bella Biddle, 21, a student based in Cambridge who has swam outdoors most days since last March. As a student, she describes carving time out for a swim as “an act of self care” that’s been invaluable over the last year, when most of us have been cooped up indoors. She now can’t imagine her life without it.
During the pandemic, it’s provided Bella with a reason for leaving the house that isn’t a run, and is a form of exercise that makes her feel free. “It let me tap into those summer holiday feelings when we couldn’t travel and it also pushed me to explore spots in my neighbourhood that I’d never visited before.”
Without her daily swim, which she tends to do before 9am lectures, Bella feels noticeably “less centred, more anxious and less happy,” she admits. “The cold shock calms my nervous system down and makes me feel peaceful. Swimming is such a kind, gentle way to move your body. When you get out and warm up the endorphin rush is magic. It’s a thousand times better than a runner’s high.”
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“I love the sense of community”
The sense of community fostered by cold water swimming also attracts many enthusiasts, especially during non-Covid times when social distancing is less of an issue. Tanne values her group of friends in Bristol, all women of a similar age, who are always up for a wild swim, as well as the spontaneous encounters she has with others who share her passion.
“The spot by the river where we often go is really popular, and you usually get chatting to other swimmers of all ages. That’s so nice for creating a sense of community and shows anyone can start swimming – you just need to get out there and you’ll find like-minded people.”
How to start wild swimming
Pandemic rules permitting, start by researching local outdoor swimming spots online, in books and via organisations like the Outdoor Swimming Society. “Make sure you pick a spot that’s safe to swim in and check the weather forecast beforehand,” Tanne recommends.
If you’re new to cold water, start slowly by only swimming for a short amount of time and then build up your stamina by going regularly. “Pack lots of layers, a hat, scarf and gloves for the cold days,” she says. “You can buy special socks and gloves to wear in the water and a changing towel or dryrobe to help you dry off and get dressed afterwards. There’s also the option of wearing a wetsuit to keep you much warmer.”
Bring a hot drink, water and snacks to help you warm up afterwards and stay hydrated, Tanne adds. “A flask of tea, coffee, chai or even mulled wine is great after a swim.”
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Bella recommends always knowing your points of entry into- and exit from the water, and advises against jumping in to prevent both neck injuries and cold water shock. She also keeps track of flood charts and observes currents before getting in to ensure the water is safe.
“I always swim upstream first, unless I’m familiar with the spot, so that if I get tired the swim back is easier. Usually I swim with a friend, and as a trained lifeguard, I feel that this buddy system is a good safeguard,” says Bella.
Tanne concurs: “Invite a friend along, particularly in the cold months, so if you get into trouble you aren’t alone – and you can share hot drinks afterwards.”
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