Last January, I sat in a cafe with a friend looking out at the snow on the ground. We talked about starting wild swimming in a few months time and laughed at the irony of discussing it while the weather was so cold. We agreed to start wild swimming in May and carry on until the school summer holidays. Perhaps we’d even be brave and manage to one or two swims in September. Over a year later, Spring officially starts in under a fortnight and we’ve completed our first Winter of wild swimming. Here are a few things I learned.
1. Cold water won’t kill you
I would never advise anyone to get into cold water without proper preparation. You need to know the body of water. It can’t be flooded or dirty and you need to be dressed appropriately and enter the water intentionally. But if you do all that, cold water won’t kill you. In fact, it makes you stronger.
We’ve spent the Winter swimming at least once a week in water temperatures varying from 3 to 7 degrees. We were careful, swimming only for a few minutes on the really cold days. We’d have towels, clothing, hot drinks and dry robes ready for when we got out. And on so many occasions, we thought this would be the last swim. That the water would get too cold and we wouldn’t cope. But we coped, and colder temperatures just made it more invigorating and exciting, more of an adrenaline rush and a greater achievement.
2. Wild swimming makes Winter more bearable
There’s nothing worse than that depressing Winter feeling. Always indoors, you become sluggish and miserable. Everything seems difficult. Children bounce off the walls and misbehave and Spring seems like an eternity away. Surprisingly, there’s nothing that counteracts that feeling quite like chucking yourself in a freezing cold river.
This Winter, I’ve had more energy. I’ve spent more time outside doing other activities including walking, running, cycling and getting outdoors with the children. I’ve been more inclined to get out in the fresh air rather than hibernating because I’ve realised that I can do it. Embracing the cold puts a whole different perspective on Winter, and suddenly it becomes enjoyable.
3. Wild swimming and after drop
I always suffer from after drop. For the first few minutes after getting out of the water, my extremities move slowly but I feel ok. Then suddenly the cold hits me and I start to shiver violently. Getting warm afterwards takes a long time. Half an hour in a car with the heating on high before I can drive. As soon as I get out of the car, I’m instantly cold again. If I can’t get in the bath, I won’t fully warm up for around two hours.
This probably sounds unpleasant and quite frightening. In fact, it’s the opposite. There’s no feeling quite like it. You feel alive, invigorated, full of energy and somewhat invincible.
UPDATE: I have recently discovered that I warm up a lot quicker and more effectively by walking instead of sitting in the car with the heating on. I walk quickly until I feel like I’m cold from going on a winter walk rather than from being in the river. Having a hot drink and some food is also helpful but sitting in the car with the heating on is not the best way to warm up. Keeping moving is much more effective.
4. Wild swimming is the ultimate stress relief
As a mum of two fitting work in around the children, life can be stressful. We’re always on the go and things can seem a little overwhelming. Since I started wild swimming though, things have been different. During the Summer months, the exercise I got from swimming was stress relief in itself. We’d be in the river for an hour and a half some weeks and get out feeling incredible.
But Winter swimming is different. You have to be totally focussed on your body, temperature and surroundings. It’s impossible to think about work, wonder if anybody is trying to phone you or panic about the to-do list. For ten minutes, the rest of the world is insignificant. And by the time you get out of the water, you can put everything into perspective. Stress seems to evaporate with the visible white clouds of mist you exhale each time you breathe.
5. The sea is much warmer than the river
This has been a revelation. My first Winter sea swim was in November and it felt like a bath compared to the river. I swam for longer than usual and felt no after drop at all. I assumed it was due to the time of year, that the sea hadn’t yet cooled down. So in February, it was with some trepidation that I ventured into the sea again.
It was a grey, windy day and fierce waves crashed against the rocks. I walked for nearly half an hour to find a safe spot to get in. Far enough from the cliffs and where there wasn’t an obvious rip. Cautiously, I waded in, waiting for the temperature to hit me. It didn’t. Because like November, the sea in February was relatively warm. If you’re not used to swimming in cold water, it would still feel chilly. But if you’ve been wild swimming in the sea in Winter then do exercise caution before venturing into a river or lake. The temperature difference will be a shock.
6. Wild swimming in Winter isn’t as unusual as you’d expect
As my interest in outdoor swimming developed, I actively sought out other swimmers. Some were already friends, others were strangers I discovered through Instagram. All were utterly captivated by the cold. I discovered Winter swimming events and even a World Cup in Winter Swimming. It remains a minority sport, but as the health benefits of open water swimming become more widely accepted, I suspect it may become a little more mainstream. But for now, I’m proud to be one of the small group of ‘crazy’ folk who is willing to swim throughout the Winter.
7. Winter wild swimming is addictive
With Spring on its way, I’m ready for the warmer temperatures as much as anyone else. We’re planning longer swims, days out to find new swim spots and the sort of wild swimming adventures that can only happen in warmer weather.
That said, Winter wild swimming is addictive. As the temperatures dropped, we expected our dips to naturally come to an end. Instead, we’d swim more regularly. I learned to love Mondays because that was our swimming day. I craved that feeling of invigoration, stress relief and complete surrender to the cold water.
So, perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from a Winter of wild swimming is that it was the first of many. I can’t imagine a time when I no longer want to swim. Stopping when temperatures plummet is no longer an option. Winter wild swimming is here to stay.