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I was never someone who really enjoyed the cold, in fact I’d quite often stay away from it. So I was really surprised when I fell so heavily in love with cold water swimming and outdoor swimming. The thing is, it was something that had really intrigued me for years. Every time I’d go to somewhere with a body of water, whether it was the coast or a pristine alpine lake, and I’d see someone swimming, I’d be captivated. However, a combination of confidence as well as listening to a lot of inner and external talk around the idea of safety, cold water shock and everything in between stopped me taking my first proper cold water dip in natural water until April 2021. Since then, cold water swimming has become somewhat of an obsession of mine. Every trip, hike and everything in between has found me searching for wild swimming spots and the more I’ve done it, the more I’ve realized the benefits. When it came to really cold water swimming, that’s where I particularly felt at home, especially for the mental health benefits it provided me. As we came towards Autumn and Winter, having been swept into the cold water swimming community on social media, I decided that I was going to try and keep swimming through the winter. As the months passed by, and my tolerance increased, I found myself just doing it, much to the amazement and amusement of passers by, friends and family. However the hardy community of outdoor swimmers I’d come to know through social media were always giving the gift of inspiration, sporting their lobster tans and ear to ear post swim smiles. It wasn’t until a trip to the Scottish Highlands in late February 2022 that I truly realised just how rhythmic, meditative and overwhelmingly positive cold water swimming had become for me. Even though the waters on that trip were the coldest I’d ever experienced, I decided I was going to swim everyday, prepare myself for it, and even if I was only in the water for mere seconds, it was always worth it. By the end of that week, I felt an enormous sense of pride that I’d managed to do that and realised just how much cold water swimming and the mindset and resilience that comes with it, has helped me. On the way back from that trip we returned via the Lake District, and a long swim in Ullswater proved to me just how much of a difference building resilience really makes. I didn’t realise how much I would miss those really cold temperatures by the time the water got warmer in spring and summer. Winter swimming had become my favourite – the sense of joy, and overwhelming positivity I got from it were much more intense in colder water. Fast forward to now, and cold water swimming is a crucial piece of my toolkit to help my overall sense of wellbeing, my mental health and help me manage my chronic illness.
Wild swimming for Health and Wellbeing
In early 2022, I was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis; a chronic condition that doesn’t have a cure and a lot of misunderstanding surrounding it. Within this period, I saw a pretty drastic decline in my health and what was possible for me day to day. I had intense brain fog, which made working and the realities of running a business really hard. My brain fog feels like I can’t concentrate, I can’t always form sentences in the way I’d like to and doing so can leave me feeling frustrated, stressed out and really tired. I was struggling with post exertional malaise which means, without warning, I can be wiped out after activity. I found this really scary – I’d built my life around adventure, and particularly hiking. Suddenly hikes that I used to find easy were becoming less and less so. I was having to spend more and more time recovering after small activities and learning to plan and structure my days in ways that hopefully wouldn’t wipe me out. I was also struggling with a whole host of symptoms on and off; I always felt like I had a cold, I always had aches and pains in my joints and my sleep just did nothing. Most of this year has been spent learning to adapt my lifestyle so I still get to enjoy things as much as possible and do the things I love. In early summer, due to a burst water pipe in my bathroom, the damage it did and the extensive work that was required to fix and remodel it, my home became unlivable. Stress makes my health condition worse, so to say this year has felt like a struggle has been putting it lightly. Throughout this time, one of the things that has helped me more than anything is wild swimming, but particularly cold water swimming. Firstly, because swimming is relatively low impact it was a form of exercise that worked for me. I found it much easier to swim for exercise rather than walk, so swimming became a much bigger part of trying to keep as healthy as possible. I also started to find cold water swimming helped with my brain fog; within a few minutes of focus on a cold water swim, I would generally feel sharper than I had before. I would find on a day where I’d had a cold water swim, it would be easier for me to concentrate and make decisions. The impact it had on my general mood as well was important, but I found that the crushing aches I’d started to get in my finger joints were gone for hours at a time. Swimming in cold water has got to a point for me now where it isn’t just for fun, it’s out of necessity.
Why not take at look at my guide to the best gear for cold water swimming? It also contains lots of practical tips on how to make your wild swims safe and enjoyable.
Cold Water Challenges
This year, with all its ups and downs has really affected my self confidence. I can’t help but feel, because I find it hard to do some of the things I used to in the same way, that I’ve failed – and that is a feeling that is hard to sit with, regardless of how much work I try and do to change my attitude. I decided I wanted a challenge – a way to end the year that was going to give me a little taste of confidence and show me just what I was capable of. However, I think I was interested in a different kind of ‘capability’. I think we get so used to hearing statements like ‘we can do hard things’, and whilst I absolutely believe that’s true, I think it often romanticizes the idea of struggle in our lives – that just because we can do hard things is a justification that makes it ok for things to be tough on you. Having strength to get through things when life is hard is one thing, but what about showing ourselves we can do hard things, for the positive benefits that this brings, rather than just when we need to enter battle? The improved confidence, the opportunities, or even just the memories that setting your sites on a goal, achieving it or readjusting can have on us can be truly pivotal, and in some circumstances, life changing.
When I started thinking about what that challenge would be, I knew that I owed it to cold water swimming to be the protagonist of this story – because of the incredible benefits that I’d experienced from wild swimming and almost felt I owed to the water in some way. I initially started thinking about what would be involved with swimming an ice mile, but within a short amount of research, I realised it felt too stuck in rules for what I was about now – and to me, didn’t feel into the essence of why I got into cold water swimming in the first place. Then I remembered one of the first wild swimmers I’d seen when I was in the Bavarian and Austrian Alps visiting Königsee a few years previously. The swimmer, having caught the boat to the other side of the lake, seemed to set off completely fearlessly to swim across to the other side. This amazed me, I didn’t think this could even be possible. That’s when I realized that our perspectives on what is possible changes over time, and it also changes based on the experiences we have. What can seem impossible for us one year, isn’t always going to be impossible the next year – whether that’s caused by a change in circumstance or simply putting the effort and consistency in to make change. Thinking about that person swimming across the lake and how I thought that was impossible at the time, I also thought about how I didn’t even know one year previously that I could withstand, never mind enjoy, very, very cold water swims.
With this wild swimming challenge, rather than making it about a certain distance or a certain amount of time spent in the water, instead, I wanted it to be more about challenging myself to expand and seeing what would be possible if I could learn to use the knowledge I’d built up alongside my experience to push myself past all of the stories our brains tell us, and see what happens on the other side. I wanted it to feel more me – more about connecting to the spaces around me and the benefits and confidence that would likely bring. It seemed only natural after the original inspiration of that swimmer all those years back at Königsee to base this around lake swimming in Austria and Germany. There was also another reason I wanted the alps to be the backdrop of this story: the water temperatures. It was also going to be a lot colder – heading off in late November, the waters still weren’t cold enough for me to get what I wanted out of this in the UK. Due to being at higher altitude, many of the lakes and bodies of water I planned on visiting in Austria and Germany were already reaching single digits. Plus, there’s also the fact that it is an unimaginably beautiful place, so that helps!
Making the Most of the Water
When we first arrived in Austria, a very early get up time and long travel day had really impacted my condition. I started to get really concerned that this was going to have a real impact on what I could do. Following a long rest, I got up apprehensive, but ready to go – I knew that the swims I had planned for the day would help to shift that for me. I think there’s always this feeling before a very cold water swim where you question whether you actually want to do it. In many ways, I think the build up is what has the capacity to put you off, because once you’re in the water, it is a whole different thing when you’re acclimated. I’ve started to almost enjoy the dance that comes before a swim. The shifting of apprehension and wondering ‘just how cold’ this one will be. My first swim at Thumsee provided a beautiful start to this whole experience. As I entered the water on the crisp, cold but sunny morning, vapour started to fill the air from my breathing. It had been a week since my last swim, so it took a little while longer to acclimate, but once I did, I felt a wave of emotion and a sense of relief. The water quality was amazing. As I swam off into the centre of the lake, I grinned from ear to ear whilst feeling floods of tears fall from my eyes. This is something that I’ve experienced before with wild swimming, especially in times where things have been stressful on the run up to it. It’s like the cold water was working all of the worries and woes out of my system and the immediacy of the cold water forcing me to come into the moment. Every lap of water that hit my shoulders reminding me of the coldness. Reminding me that I was there. One of the things I’d decided to maximise my time in the water was to complete more than one swim a day. So as soon as I was out of the water, my dryrobe was on and I was warming up ready for my next swim. I think by the time we reached the second lake, I was kind of back to temperature, but I’m also not entirely sure I was as I found I could just literally walk straight into the water, with very little acclimatisation. Gosh that water felt cold though! I was aware just how much colder it felt than anything I think I’d actually experienced in the UK before – even in the Scottish Highlands the previous winter, I loved it. When the razor blade-biting feeling left my skin, I started to feel a real sense of calm, peace and solitude in the cool water that I hadn’t felt for a long time, even though there were people walking past giggling at the fact there was someone in the water whilst they were in their hats, gloves and scarves. I hadn’t thought I was going to spend very much time in the water based on the fact this was my second swim of the day, but I was surprised when I got out of the water after around 32 minutes. Last winter, I’d spent mere moments in the water at its coldest, and I think one of the reasons for this was because I didn’t have the experience at the time to know what I was capable of or how I would feel after. Going into these swims as a more experienced swimmer meant I could enjoy them from a whole different place and sense of confidence (whilst also being very mindful of what was happening and when it really was time to get out). I felt like I knew what I was doing, how to respect my body, the water, my health and how to keep going and push myself. It also really helped having those extra items to help like my dryrobe – which made a big difference in increasing my body temperature at a sensible rate. It meant I wasn’t focused on feeling freezing cold, I was just focused on getting dressed. It genuinely felt like a game changing piece of kit. A hot flask of tea and the car’s heating on the hottest blast imaginable felt like the perfect gift of luxury too! By the end of my first day’s wild swimming, I felt so much more confident than I had in a while. Not only had I been able to swim at these two wonderful places with towering mountains behind me, I’d felt a sense of being at home again in the water.
Cold Water Immersion
Through the course of the week, my life became all about swimming and cold water immersion – it was all I thought about and every single swim felt like a gift as it added to a sense of strength. My symptoms were much less than they had been for a while and I felt calm. On the second day, after a couple of the locations I’d had in mind didn’t work out for various reasons (apparently closing lake shores in winter is a thing in Austria) we stumbled upon a back up option. We drove up a winding mountain road in search of a pool of blue that appeared on the map – I had no real idea what we were going to find. It was off season and there was nobody else there. The air temperature felt cold and the vapour from my breath was obvious every time I spoke. I walked along a path I discovered not knowing where and how I would get down to the lake, but a few minutes into that mooch amongst the pinecones, a sharp hill presented itself to my right with the most amazing view opening out of a dark and deep looking lake with imposing mountains behind it. A few seconds later and I was on the lake shore – feeling like I was the last person on earth. It was obvious this place wasn’t visited a lot, especially at this time of year – I felt like I’d won out. I was eager to get in the water. The first few minutes whilst I composed myself and practiced a sense of calm until it became natural, I really felt the cold. I used the breathing techniques I’d come to depend on to acclimatise and get used to the cold. The water looked almost like it was varnished, or made of silk, it was so calm. I realised within a few minutes I had only been focusing on the moment and what was around me. When I got out after 33 delicious minutes, I felt like I’d reached a new sense of peace I’d never felt before with outdoor swimming. As I sat on the lake shore for a few minutes afterwards getting warm in my dryrobe, I realised that there is something really profound about cold water and why so many people are constantly in search of it – it makes you feel truly connected. Everything is on overdrive, and you feel so aware of yourself that it’s impossible to be anywhere else but here.
Feeling inspired? Our guide to cold water swimming gear is a great place to start if you want to experience the benefits of wild swimming and cold water immersion for yourself.
Confidence and Resilience
My last swim of the trip and the challenge was probably the most special of all – even though each and every one of my other swims was a treasured story and precious memory in its own right. It felt like this swim was a culmination of everything that had come before it. I thought, famous last words, that it would only be a quick one because I was still a bit cold from the first swim of the day. I was also getting tired from the week and everything that had been involved. I feel like the water had another story it wanted to tell. As I lowered myself into the unbelievably cold and clear water my skin started to pickle and I became aware in a way I’d become so used to. However, because I was feeling more tired than I had earlier in the week, I started to feel fatigued pretty quickly moving my arms and legs, so I decided to stop near the shoreline, just focusing on cold water immersion whilst taking in the moment. Sitting still and feeling a sense of peace and strength I think I reached a new level of mindfulness than I ever have before. I looked at the tree line on the mountain in front of me and felt alive and awake. Awake in a different way to ever before. I felt free of emotion, judgement and all of the things that keep us feeling stuck in a loop so much of our lives. I don’t even think I was thinking about anything at all, and to be honest, I’ve never felt anything more refreshing.
9 beautiful lakes and 250 precious minutes in the water had brought me to this point – a point of realising that when I put my mind to something and trust the process, whilst also built up the tools and experience, well, magical things can happen. It took me a good few days to feel like I could even put this experience into words, I spent time being quiet, reflecting, not need to have to make sense of it all at once. It felt free of judgement; something I don’t think I’ve managed to do before.
By the time we got back to England I was itching for another fix of cold water, and so the following day we went to one of my favourite swim spots nearby. It was the last place I’d swam before we headed to Austria and Germany. At the time, it had felt really cold – at just over 10 degrees Celsius. When I started walking into the water, I was apprehensive as to how it would feel. To my surprise, when my body reached the water, I said with a sense of disbelief ‘it’s not even cold?!’ All that regular swimming in cool water has cleared paid off. For me, I think there will always be something I refer to now as ‘the time before Austria’ and ‘the time after Austria’ because I think my time in those cold lakes finding a deep sense of peace will be imprinted on my memory forever.