The Simple Magic of a Wild Swim
By Kirsty Watt
My fingers are dead, numb. Well, almost. I can feel a slight tingling where the skin rests against the warmth of the plastic mug, but apart from that, they have no feeling. They are little sticks of ice desperately trying to cling onto their life raft: a hot mug of tea. It might still be summer, but a swim in the wild Atlantic off the Northwest of Scotland can leave you feeling washed up on the shores of Greenland. Yet I don’t feel like a foreigner -isolated and cut off- in fact, the truth couldn’t be more the opposite. I feel alive, empowered, like someone has lit a fire inside of me and it’s bursting to get out -like lava preparing for an eruption. And happy. So very happy, as if the water has washed away all my worries and left a reassuring hand on my shoulder.
I look out at those breakers -grey and angry; salt spray leaping back into the sky, too scared to come close to land- and I see friendship. Not the dangerous and unpredictable enemy the sea can sometimes be, but a friendship stronger and more nourishing than any list of half-known Facebook friends.
People used to look at me crazy when I told them I swam every day. “What? Outside? Without a wetsuit?” The reaction would not have been dissimilar if I said I flew to Mars every morning. But not now, now I’m simply one of the crowd. Since the rise of COVID, wild swimming as a regular hobby has become so popular folks barely shift an eyebrow when the topic breaks the surface. Winter, summer, heatwave or rain, somewhere, someone will be bobbing in the waves or sliding into a river.
Being trapped for so long indoors has left us all shrivelled up, desperate for some fresh air and space and so, instead of heading for the normal summer haunts of cramped parks and deck-chair smeared beaches people began turning to the hills and glens. And to the water. There they found not only a moment in which to breathe, but an escape, a moment to really become a part of nature. With the fresh cool water of a river swirling around your body all thoughts of viruses, paperwork, money... they all just disappear. There are no obligations, responsibilities, restrictions. Nothing. For five, ten, fifteen minutes we are who we were always meant to be: a simple creature living in a beautiful, if complicated, world.
I feel honoured to have been enjoying this experience for so long I can’t even remember starting, but for many the gift of the COVID wild swimming craze has quite literally changed their lives. My own mum is one of these people. Despite being related by blood we always joked that while I was quite clearly cold blooded (preferring the icy winter seas) she definitely had warm blood flowing through her veins; blood which shied away from any water that wasn’t beneath a sunny sky and sun cream. Until lockdown. The unusually hot weather and a renewed sense of time and freedom saw her taking the plunge more and more.
She said: “It always made me feel so alive, but I certainly never thought I would swim every day! Then I began to say to myself: ‘I will carry on doing these swims until it becomes too cold and I stop enjoying it. But I never did stop enjoying it.”
Summer turned to autumn and with it, for her, came the menopause. She said: “I began to get these unbearable hot flushes where I would suddenly feel like I was sitting beside an incredibly hot furnace wearing all my winter clothes in the middle of a heatwave!”.
These flushes came to a head one week in October whilst on holiday in a tiny campervan. She said: “One morning I woke up feeling so hot and sticky that I decided to go down to the river for a wash.” It was a typical autumnal morning, dry and cold- way to cold for my Mum to normally consider a swim- but she said: “When I got there a wash just wasn’t enough. I had to get in. And despite not believing I could actually swim in such cold water, I did! I felt so zingy and invigorated and I haven’t looked back since!”
Every morning she dashes out of the house, often before anyone else is awake, and runs down to the sea for her daily dip. Talking about it now, she has tears in her eyes: “It is absolute heaven to be able to cool off from the hot flushes, but it has also helped increase my self-confidence. I have never been a particularly confident person and when the menopause came my confidence began to drop more and more. I became less sure of my capabilities, especially at work, and began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to do certain things. But wild swimming changed that, and I think it is partly because I have been able to do something I never thought I could -like swimming every day”.
Although there is yet no solid scientific evidence of wild swimming helping women through the menopause my mum is not alone in finding a helping hand in the cold water. A quick google search and up pops countless stories of women who experienced significant decreases in menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, as well as aching joints and mood swings, when they started regular wild swimming.
My mum adds: “I love the way it wakes you up in the morning -it’s so invigorating! Even when I struggle out of bed half asleep I know that once I’ve had my swim I’ll be able to tackle anything. And although the initial plunge never gets any easier, once you’re in, it’s magic. ”
My aunty Sheena is another woman in my family to have recently begun a daily wild swim. Pre-covid she swum every morning in her local swimming pool, but of course, lockdown put a stop to this.
She said: “I wasn’t going to be beaten. I decided there was all these lochs and rivers which needed to be swum in and then when I started swimming in them I discovered this feeling, this thrill. Sometimes I feel really tired, lousy, really miserable, cold, all of those horrible things but then I get into the water, I slide in ... and come out feeling wonderful!”
The buzz, or natural high, we experience during and after a swim in cold water is actually our bodies natural stress response. Our blood flow and heart rate are increased, and to counteract the presence of stress hormones a string of endorphins are let free which leave us feeling, quite literally, on top of the world.
But it’s not just a one time mood-booster; each time our body goes through this stress response the more accustomed it becomes to dealing with it. In the longer term this leads to our bodies being better equipped to cope with the daily stresses of life. So a regular wild swim not only wakes you up, it also helps strengthen your mind and body.
In an age of ever ‘smarter’ technology, antibiotic resistance and a reliance on prescription drugs it’s wonderful to see people turning instead to the water tumbling down our hillsides. Wild swimming could be classed as an ‘alternative medicine’ but for some these words might sound too hippie for them to give it a try. But it’s not hippie. Wild swimming is something we’ve been doing since the beginning of time, it’s just now that its restorative power is coming to light.
I know summer has long passed and most of you will have hung up your cossies for another year but why not pick them back up again? What have you got to lose? Yes, it will take some guts to get yourself into our bitter December sea for the first time but if you’re missing the sunshine and feeling a bit low, or stressed about work and family it might just be the best decision you make all year. You don’t need to commit to swimming every day, or even every week. Just give it a try. Shove that costume into a bag, grab a towel and head down to the sea. I promise, you won’t regret it.
Just remember to be safe! The Wild swimming society has detailed information on how to safely begin wild swimming, covering everything from Wild Swimming groups to dealing with anxiety in the water: https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/category/survive/getting-started/
And for more information on the health benefits of wild swimming, take a look at: https://www.wildswimmingcornwall.co.uk/about
And for more information about wild swimming helping women through the menopause: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-47159652