This week is mental health awareness week and the theme is connecting with nature, so it seems an appropriate opportunity to explain why in recent weeks I have voluntarily (not even for sponsorship!) been swimming outdoors in water below 15C!
Clevedon Marine Lake is pretty stunning. It’s topped up by the tide and separated from the sea (the Bristol Channel) by a wall. It’s surrounded by the sea, and cliffs and the sky. This area has the second largest tidal reach in the world and as a result the sediment stays suspended, and so the sea doesn’t look that appealing to swim in (plus there's tides and currents and things that you should really know about before entering the sea!) Friends who visited in the summer said it looked like being in the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (but it didn’t taste that nice!) The marine lake is filled by the sea water, and is quite sludgy at the bottom as a result of the sediment settling, but the water is clear.
On 1 May 2021 I went to the lake for my first swim there. I watched the lake and remembered that this all started because my friend Kathy had persuaded me to (unsuccessfully) enter a competition to be selected to train to swim a mile in the River Thames. When I found that I hadn’t been selected I was initially relieved, then a bit disappointed, but overall decided that I was definitely relieved. I wasn’t sure that I could swim a mile in a pool, and to get from couch to 1600m swimming and add in the outdoor component in 3 months seemed like a big ask. But having researched the benefits of cold water swimming, and booked a taster session with Row Clarke at Outdoor Swim Coach, I decided I had to at least try it!
I had been told that outdoor swimming is good for your mental health, but as I waited for my taster session to start and looked out at the lake I felt the anxiety rising. How could this be good for me when it was already making me feel worse?
The two things that put me off cold water swimming are the words swimming, and cold.
I can swim, but I’m not a strong swimmer. I’d been to my local pool the weekend before and I swam a few lengths, but I am very out of practice and it showed! I’m also not a fan of noisy indoor pools. In a river or lake I would be scared about being out of my depth and not being able to make it to the bank. The reason I had chosen to try the Marine Lake was that I could stay close to the edge if I needed to, it felt safer than a river or a lake, and definitely preferable to the sea!
On top of that I do not like being cold. I am a big fan of being dry and warm - my car has heated seats, and I love open fires, blankets and generally being cosy. My best purchase of lockdown was an oodie (I now have two, an oversized hoodie that is made of blanket - bliss!). The night before the taster session I had emailed to see if I should (could!) cancel, it was colder than average for the time of year (the newspapers the day before said it had been the frostiest April for 60 years) but when the response came back it was to tell me that I would be ok, I was in safe hands, and it was normal to feel a bit nervous.
My fear and my stubbornness were at war - I had set myself this challenge and I would see it through, but I was terrified. I tried to tell myself not to panic, what was the worst that could happen?
As the group gathered for our taster and Row explained what happens to your body when you enter the cold water, and how to do it safely, I found the answer! My body would go into cold shock, I would have a gasp response and possibly hyperventilate, and if that is done underwater can result in drowning. If I’ve remembered correctly*, the blood would retreat inwards to keep my organs warm, a fight or flight response would start, my blood pressure would rise and my heart rate would increase. We would continue to cool for around 30 minutes after the swim, and then gradually rewarm. Staying in too long can cause hypothermia.
We would be in the water for a maximum of 10 minutes, Row told us, the rule of thumb is a
minute per degree and the water was only 11C.
Seeing my face, the people who had been before reassured me that “you never regret going in” and “you won’t want to get out”. I’m here to prove you all wrong, I told them - I couldn’t imagine that I wouldn’t regret going in, and I was pretty sure that I would be getting straight back out!
Row went on to tell us firstly how to enter the water safely so that we didn’t drown, and then the benefits of this apparently insane idea.
I shivered in my swimsuit, and put on my wetsuit socks and gloves, and started to step into the water. I breathed as though I was starting a meditation, long, deep, slow breaths in through my nose, out through my mouth. Remember to breathe out, Row reminded us as we walked down the steps.
The initial cold of the water did make me gasp but it wasn’t actually as bad as I thought it would be. As my brain pointed out the steps were right there and there was still time to stop this madness, I got my breathing under control. My breathing slowed, and I pushed off from the wall - I was swimming!!
Then I felt pain! Every bit of bare skin felt like a million tiny knives were stabbing me! And then that passed and all I was conscious of was my swimming stroke, the sun dipping in and out of the clouds, warming me and then cooling, the sound of the sea and the cool of the water, and that vast open sky that you get by the sea and which so many times has comforted me. I floated for a few minutes unable to think of anything other than what I could see and feel, before swimming back - the ten minutes was up, and I was beaming from ear to ear!
I did not regret going in.
And I didn’t want to get out!
Row had told us that the benefits of the cold water swimming included release of endorphins which help mental health, and that it could also boost your immune system and improve circulation. I could certainly feel the endorphins, and that effect seemed to continue all weekend.
Since then I have been back once, with two of the local WAY members, and we’re due to go again tomorrow. The water was a couple of degrees warmer the second time, and I swam a bit further. It was raining as we got in but it stopped so at least we were able to get dressed in the dry! Our smiles say it all!
Not having a distance goal in mind has actually made a massive difference to my approach. Had I gone for my second swim with the challenge of having to swim a mile ahead of me it would actually have been quite stressful - my mind would have been worrying about how to get my speed and stamina up. Instead I have been able to focus on how it feels, and to enjoy the sky and the scenery. I saw a post on an open water swimming page that referred to it as a swimble - that sounded a perfect description, I floated a bit, swam a bit, and just pottered about in the water!
I try to be careful when referring to mental health in this blog because I do believe that grief is a natural reaction to being bereaved. However, I have also suffered from anxiety and depression on and off for most of my adult life, needing anti depressants and anti anxiety medication and grief has at times triggered me back into that downward spiral.
The past few months have been hard, and I’m about to enter the beginning of the anniversaries - Chris’s birthday, our wedding anniversary, fathers day and the anniversary of his death are all within the next two months. I am hoping that this new hobby and connection with nature will help me to cope better with it all.
If nothing else, setting myself a challenge to do something that really scared me and doing it anyway is something that I know would make Chris proud, and that definitely makes me feel more positive!
*IMPORTANT: If you are considering trying this, please don't rely on any of my blog as guidance, but find yourself an instructor who can help you make sure that you are doing it safely!