Lately, nothing seems to be going right
why do you have to get so low You’ve been waiting in the sun too long
When they learn about my open water swimming journey, the most common question that people ask me – generally after they have made insinuations about the state of my mental health – is – ‘why do you do it?’ It is not a straightforward or simple answer, for me, and I hope, that over the course of the past year, while writing this blog, I have gone some way to trying to answer that question and to explain how swimming outdoors makes me feel and why I do it.
However, I have to confess, that as I now embark on my second winter of outdoor swimming, I find that I have been asking myself that very same question! I have recently been experiencing a little crisis of confidence that has been threatening to undermine some of the joy I have previously reported. I have been finding myself feeling really quite anxious at the thought of going swimming. This psychological and emotional struggle I have been experiencing is, I realise, not only due to the falling temperatures, but also because I have made the commitment to swim through this winter in, what open water swimmers call, ‘skins’ (just a swimming costume, goggles and swim hat).
“take a chance in life you have one, a little bit scary, but fun, did you forget what it’s like to be young?” (Grace Jones, 1986)
I know that I can swim through the winter because I did it – and enjoyed it – last year. However, last year I did it in head to toe neoprene. Now, after a wonderfully sunny and warm summer and autumn of swimming without a wetsuit, the temperature of the sea (and of the lake) have dropped quite considerably – and quite quickly – and the commitment to keep swimming in cold water is beginning to feel like a much tougher psychological challenge. I have recently found myself questioning (and worrying about) whether I will be able to do it – and feeling afraid that I won’t be able to.
I also realised that I had allowed the ‘excitable’ discussions on our facebook group page, about the temperature of the water in the Marine Lake, at Clevedon to build up in my mind into a huge obstacle. I found that I had become ‘afraid’ of the lake! Nearly all of my swimming, since June, has been in the sea – either at Clevedon Beach or along the South Coast. Now, as the winter sets in, the weather and the tides become more unpredictable and the hours of daylight become shorter my swims will all have to be a) much closer to home and b) often in the Marine Lake – where the water is on average between 2 and 5 degrees colder than in the sea. “It’s hard enough psyching myself up to get into the sea” I told myself. “How on earth will I ever be able to swim in the lake?”
Why worry? There should be laughter after pain
There should be sunshine after rain
These things have always been the same
So why worry now? (Dire Straits, 1985)
“Why?” you might ask do I not just put my wetsuit back on and get on with it?
The answer seems to be that I have undergone some sort of cultural adaptation process. Most of the people I now swim with do it in ‘skins’. I have also been swimming without a wetsuit since June and it now feels more ‘normal’ to do it that way. It is also – even in cold water – a lot more pleasurable to be able to feel the sensation of the water on your skin and to be able to move your arms and legs without the restriction of a wetsuit. And, as the website Chillswim point out ‘authentic‘ cold water swimmers do not wear wetsuits as this ‘defeats the concept and benefits of feeling the cold water on your body‘.
Furthermore, as I said in my last blog (An Indian Summer ) I have signed up to complete this years Clevedon Polar Bear Challenge in ‘skins’ – and, if I am honest, having committed to doing that, I am too proud to back down!
Wild Thing. You Make My Heart Sing. (The Troggs, 1966)
I am also inspired by all those I swim with who have been swimming through the winter ‘in skins’ for years and to whom no evident harm has come. Lots of people do it – so – I tell myself – it must be do-able. And, what is more, they all seem to enjoy it.
Writing in The Guardian, Sally Goble (2017) has argued that cold water swimming is about ‘feeling alive … it will make you feel invincible“. Cold water swimmers, she claims, are “adventurous, full of life and quick to laugh. They sparkle like the icy water they inhabit”. She admits that ‘the first two minutes in the water are the worst’ but goes on to promise that after that the ‘magical moments‘ happen. “Cold” she asserts “is exhilarating and amazing”.
Leeson, (2018) goes further, linking that post-swim feeling of euphoria to a “sense of achievement – of doing something a little out of my comfort zone”. As Sara Barnes (2018) also argues: swimming in cold water “is life affirmation and self valuation at its most raw”. In her video, Feeling The Power From The Cold, Jinton (2018), describes how, by embracing cold water swimming she is aiming to ‘take back her own power’ and to not allow the cold and dark of the winter to drain her of ‘energy and happiness’. By swimming through the winter she intends to “change the way she thinks and feels about it … to allow the cold to be a source of power and to allow the winter to awaken her soul”.
It is this sense of achievement, of overcoming something that terrifies me, of completing something I have committed myself to, of facing my fears – and surviving – that is driving me to persevere. And despite my fears and my anxiety, I have (so far) managed to continue to swim 2 to 3 times every week. I know that there is an awful lot of winter still to go – and the temperatures will continue to fall a lot lower – but I am hoping that by the end of the winter, I will also be able to report that swimming in cold water – without a wetsuit – has made my heart sing in the same way that swimming with one did last year.
Sing out loud, Sing out strong
Sing of good things not bad, Sing of happy not sad
Else to hear, Just sing, sing a song
Experienced cold water swimmers stress the importance of having the right ‘mindset’. Swimming through the winter is not about keeping your body ‘fit’, they say, it is more of a psychological challenge, of overcoming your fears. As Miranda Larbi (2017) has pointed out: “getting into the water goes against every natural urge and you have to train your body to fight them; you have to learn to breathe deeply, relax and push through the initial few minutes until you numb off.’
The website Swim The Lakes admits that – “Yes it’s going to be a shock and yes it’s going to be bloody freezing at first, but don’t keep telling yourself that! Think warm thoughts and focus on how great you’ll feel when you get over the initial cold water shock and how annoyingly cheerful you’ll be over the next 24 hours”.
All much easier said than done!
Having thought about this new found anxiety and what to do about it I came to realise that it is at its worst when I am thinking about, planning or travelling to a swim. Once I’m in the water I’m fine – and of course, afterwards I feel great. I have come to realise that it is the ‘build-up’ and the thinking about it that is where the little seeds of doubt take hold.
There is a lot of research evidence on the health benefits of singing and I remembered a technique I always used to use when going to an interview or to give an important presentation. On my way there I would sing – loudly. Often, I could not remember the words and would mostly belt out a ‘lala lala’ tune. The important thing, I found, was to sing out loud, because it helped me to get my breathing under control and it helped to calm me down by focusing on the song (and often laughing at myself), rather than thinking about whatever it was I was on my way to. Research has also shown that singing is good for releasing muscle tension (Launay & Pearce, 2015), it can release ‘feel good’ endorphins (Dunbar et al, 2012) and that people feel more positive after actively singing than they do after just listening to music (Launay, 2015).
So if you spot a grey haired Jubilada driving in front of you, singing her head off, it may well be me on my way to a cold water swim!
And so far it is working! I seem to have got my ‘mojo’ back.
“(She) who sings frightens away (her) ills” (with thanks to Cervantes, 1872)
This month I have managed to not only swim in water as cold as 8 degrees centigrade, but also to re-embrace swimming in the marine lake. I have continued to get in the cold water – and to swim. But most importantly, I have re-discovered the pleasure of doing it. Yes! I really do enjoy that feeling of icy cold water on my arms and legs. It is difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it but (to me) it feels like a sparkling and stinging and tingling on the outside – on your skin – while being aware of the warmth of your blood pulsing through your body – your core – on the inside. It is exhilarating.
The fear hasn’t gone away. I still feel ambivalent about swimming on a cold, wet and windy day, or at the thought of getting out of a warm bed to greet an early morning high tide.
But I believe again that I can do it. After all, I don’t have to swim miles – to meet the challenge all I need to do is to swim 100 metres. And I now believe again that I can and will do that – one swim at a time.
I know that there is an awful lot of winter still to come – and some far lower temperatures to swim through – but, for now, I think I have seen off my demons. I believe that I will make it through the winter.
Coldest Swim So Far
Clevedon Marine Lake 12th November 2018
Water Temperature: 8 degrees celsius
Air Temperature: 12 degrees celsius
Distance swum: 1100 metres
Time in the water: 22 minutes
British Voice Association (undated) It’s Official Singing Is Good For You, britishvoiceassociation.org.uk
Chillswim (undated) Top Tips For Winter Swimming, chillswim.com
Clift, S. and Hancox, G. (2001) The Perceived Benefits of Singing, in The Journal of The Royal Society for the Promotion of Health; December 2001, 121 (4), pp. 248-256
Dire Straits (1985) Why Worry, from the album Brothers In Arms, Vertigo.
Dunbar, R. Kaskatis, K., MacDonald, I. & Barra, V. (2012) Performance of Music Elevates Pain Threshold and Positive Affect, in Evolutionary Psychology, October 2012
Goble, S. (2014) Why I Love Outdoor Swimming, in The Guardian, 26th June 2014
Goble, S. (2017) 10 Things You Only Know If You Swim Through Winter, in The Guardian, 30th January 2017
Jones, G. (1986) Scary but Fun, from the album Inside Story, Manhattan Records
Larbi, M. (2017) Cold water swimming: why the hell do so many people like doing it? Metro.co.uk Monday 2 Oct 2017
Launay, J. (2015) Choir Singing Improves Health, Happiness – and is the perfect Ice Breaker , the conversation.com
Launay, J. and Pearce, E. (2015) The New Science of Singing Together, in Greater Good Magazine December 4th 2015
Leeson, V (2018) The Mental Health Benefits of Cold Water Swimming, welldoing.org, 8th October 2018
SwimTheLakes (undated) Cold Water Swimming Tips, swimthelakes.co.uk
Travis (2001) Sing, from the album The Invisible Band, Epic Records
Troggs, The, (1966) Wild Thing. You Make My Heart Sing. from the album From Nowhere, Fontana Records