I’ve been a swimmer for most of my life.
I’ve always loved water.
I started regular swimming as a teen as I never really stopped except for the early years when my children were tiny (I’m an early morning person so I like my swimming first thing, something that was kind of difficult with tiny children. During those years I started running instead but it never made me feel awesome the way swimming does).
On a typical week I swim 40 lanes of front crawl/drills about 3 times a week in an indoor swimming pool.
This year for some reason I started getting a yearning for wild swimming here in Cambridge, something I normally only do whilst on holidays in the South of France where it’s warm.
I developed a kind of fascination with the idea and started asking everybody I knew about wild swimming spots around Cambridge.
In the running up to the summer this year I promised myself that I would do some wild swimming in Cambridge.
As I made my intention in my mind, friends started sharing local swimming spots.
Various places got mentioned, including the Milton Country park, and also the Shelford Recreation ground.
Then several friends started mentioning the swimming club in Newnham.
So one gorgeous July morning I went there with a friend and it was a revelation.
It wasn’t just the river swimming, though this was gorgeous too, it was how peaceful the place was.
I fell in love with the energy of the place.
As the summer went on, I started going nearly every day, and it started to feel like I was on holidays, even though I was still working.
We had many weeks of exceptionally warm weather, and immersing myself in the cool water was a welcome relief at the end of a hot day.
I took my family there, and introduced a few friends to it too.
I met lots of lovely fellow wild swimmers. This place seemed to attract like minded people and soon felt like I’d not only found a new hobby, I’d found a whole new bunch of friends too.
I also noticed was the positive effect it had on my mental health.
Swimming there just made me feel happier, more balanced, and more content, and able to take things in my stride.
I read an article about a woman who had managed to stop her depression medication, and chatting to fellow swimmers every single one of them reported similar positive mental effects.
To put it simply, whenever I went for a swim, I felt like I washed all my shit off, like a mental equivalent to a shower after exercise.
I started researching the subject online, and found stuff on the effect of swimming on the body, the effect on the immune system etc.
But to me, it felt much deeper than this.
It felt cleansing on a spiritual level.
My theory about it goes like this: we live lifestyles which are very removed from nature. One of the side effects of this is, in particular, a lack of direct contact with the earth.
This means that we often lack grounding.
There is some cool science behind grounding. It decreases inflammation, pain, and stress, and improves sleep, energy, wound healing, and blood flow in particular (read this paper)
It has even been shown to increase vagal tone (the activity of the part of the nervous system that keeps us calm).
You can read a brilliant review paper here.
The review paper has a statement that particularly tickled me :
” One overlooked element in the human environment— the surface of Planet Earth, including its landmasses and bodies of water—may provide a potent and surprising natural remedy for this challenge and the alarming rise in chronic inflammatory-related diseases.”
This is how I see it myself : when I feel tired or grumpy, walking barefoot on the grass helps me feel instantly better.
The more I swam in the river, the more I felt like this was like a full body grounding experience.
I’m an energy worker, I practise Reiki and other healing modalities. This means that I already have tools to improve my well-being and mood. But since doing the wild swimming I’ve noticed that I can boost my well-being within literally seconds of dunking myself in the water, something that takes me a lot longer using self healing.
So I swam all summer, which was really easy and pleasurable as we had an exceptionally warm summer this year, and the water was a balmy 23 degrees.
As the summer turned into Autumn I found myself pre-mourning the end of the river days.
Except I didn’t stop swimming.
As I chatted to older members of the swimming club I discovered many go all year round, so I started asking them for tips on how to keep going.
I joined a Facebook group called Outdoor Swimming Society, and asked for more tips there.
I invested in a wetsuit, neoprene gloves and socks, and a neoprene hat.
I dug out my old hot water bottle from the cupboard.
It’s been fairly easy so far as the weather has mostly been mild.
I had a break in September after getting a tattoo, then another one during a trip to a warm country (Dubai) in November and worried whether I’d be able to get back in afterwards but it was easier than I thought.
More importantly, I teamed up with a friend and we promised to go together at least once a week. It really helps me feel more motivated and also feels safer.
At the moment I average a couple of swims a week.
The wellbeing effect continues despite the cold temperatures.
Or maybe it is because of it? There are also publications about the positive effects of cold water swimming on the body. It really does boost your immune system and gives you an endorphin high apparently.
I can relate.
It’s not just the swim, it’s the whole experience.
After the swim, as I sit near the river sipping my steaming tea and clutching my hot water bottle, and either chat with my friend or sit in quiet contemplation looking at the peaceful river (often sharing my snack with a robin), I marvel at how wonderful I feel.
Last week the water temperature dropped to 5 degrees (this officially qualifies as an ice swim), my friend and I only managed a short dip rather than a swim, so when I went on my own a few days later, I used my wetsuit for the first time, as being alone made me a bit more weary.
I’m proud to say I went swimming today which is my first December swim in my whole life. The water was back to nearly 10 degrees so I had a proper swim (probably about a hundred meters).
The club has hard going veterans who swim every day all year round.
I’m hoping to become one of them.
I’m really looking forward to the new year swim. Last new year apparently there were over 60 swimmers.
Update January 2020.
I didn’t stop swimming and made it through the winter, the following summer, and back again. The coldest swim, in January 2019, was minus seven outside, white with frost and glorious sunshine, and with 1.5 degrees water.
A couple of days ago I attended my second new year swim. I was really looking forward to it and it didn’t disappoint. I went in wearing only a swimsuit and some neoprene booties and gloves.
I’ve mellowed into it and it no longer feels weird and scary, to swim in cold water. I don’t mind going alone, in fact sometimes I relish the quiet.
I’ve met a community of like minded people, both in real life and online. It’s a like a weird group of friends who share the same secret, and within witch it’s considered completely normal. I love it.