How do you get in?

With the rise in popularity of Cold Water Swimming, how do you get in?

The sea is a force amongst the Salty Seabirds that brings us together. We share a love of cold water swimming and as such our shared experiences of joy, respite and faffing is what notably makes us the same. But we all get in the sea differently.

We noticed this when we swam to the east of the Palace Pier to have a morning of celebration in the Beach Box Sauna and cold sea as we introduced some new Seabirds to our swimming pod.

Patrick McLennan, is the the co-director  of a new documentary called The Ponds, about Hampstead Heath Ponds. In a recent article written for the Guardian by Tim Lewis McLennan explains “Outdoor swimmers tend to divide into “divers” and “creepers”, with the latter group easing themselves into the water more gradually. There are also “tea-baggers”: people who jump in and get straight out.”

When the Salty Seabirds visited the Ladies Pond last year we were definitely divers as the jetty and steps only allowed for that form of entry. How we get in the sea on Brighton’s beaches, all depends on the conditions and state of the tide. If the tide is high you have no choice but to submerge yourself at speed as after three steps and you are out of your depth on our steep shingle. However, the length of time you faff,  get changed or observe your swim area can vary considerably. At low tide, particularly a spring tide, you maybe walking for what feels like miles across sand to get anywhere near swimming depth taking gradual acclimatisation to the extreme!

Outdoor Swimming Coach, Rowan Clarke has the funniest video parody on her Instagram account that charts the 10 ways people get in. When I watched it I associated each type of entering the water with  Salty Seabirds. The types are;

  1. Just Get On With Itthis is definitely me
  2. Faffthis is a favourite amongst the Salty Seabird flock – our super power is forgetfulness and changing bags are emptied and repacked quite a few times on the beach before we realise the swimming hat we are looking for is on our head
  3. Inch by Inchmany a fledgling Seabird starts off this way, but after a few dips and possibly an encounter with Brighton’s infamous shore dump, they soon join the rest of the formation and get in as quickly as they can.
  4. Swearyep lots of it. In fact the swearing normally starts with the faffing and just continues into the water. Swearing helps you to regulate your breathing – FACT
  5. Huff and PuffI love chatting to the Seabirds that huff and puff as they get in as they are completely unable to talk back and I get the opportunity to waffle on uninterrupted. 
  6. ScreamYep again and lots of it. It is a Seabirds primal call to nature
  7. Splash and SlapI am yet to spot a Seabird doing this but the more serious swimmers that migrate for the winter and return in the summer have been known to partake in this activity. On a serious note, it is a good way to acclimatise before a distance swim.
  8. Heads Up – So last year! Once we’d listened to Dr Mark Harper’s informative talk on the Health Benefits of Cold water Swimming hosted by iSWIM we have all been obsessed with stimulating our vagus nerve and stick our heads in as much as the ice cream brain will allow.
  9. Recklessly – definitely a ‘don’t do this at home kids’. Unfortunately as a tourist city by the sea the Seabirds often witness people making poor choices. We don’t and move to safe swim spots when it’s stormy or just wave bathe on the shingle shoreline known locally as “pilcharding”.
  10. Just Don’tthis applies to lots of our family members so we have created a new swimming family that ‘Just Do’

Whatever the time of year, outdoor water temperatures in the UK are cold. Even if you are wearing a wet-suit you will be susceptible to ‘Cold Water Shock’. Your breathing speeds up along with your heart rate and blood pressure – which in itself can lead to panic and gasping. The secret to over coming the cold water shock is to swim often and resist the urge to panic. The Outdoor Swimming Society has tips for cold water immersion written by the late great Lynne Roper of Wild Woman Swimming fame. She writes ‘ Much of the acclimatisation process is mental – knowing the moment of immersion will feel cold, and embracing it anyway.’ The RNLI ‘Float to Live’ campaign is aimed at people falling into the sea in British and Irish waters where the average temperature is 12-15 degrees. Low enough to cause cold water shock. The campaign promotes the lifesaving technique of fighting your instinct to swim until the cold water shock passes.

I have a unique style of entering the water. I am what Patrick McLennon would refer to as a ‘diver’ and Rowan Clarke a ‘just get on with it’.  But the first thing I do, after getting in quickly, is to roll onto my back and just float. It’s not a conscious considered decision based on my lifesaving training or an attempt to be in the moment with nature. It’s just something I do without thinking. What it does do is allow me to relax and my breathing has time to regulate without plunging my head through waves or respond to the physical activity of purposeful swim strokes. The urge to start swimming soon arrives as I realise I need to move to keep warm.

However you get in – do it safely and JUST KEEP SWIMMING…….and eat cake afterwards. Copious amounts of cake.

Scribe: Seabird Kath

Footnote: An Our Screen Viewing of The Ponds is scheduled in Brighton on Thursday 28th February at 20:30 but has SOLD OUT!

To Swim or to Gym? That is the Question

National Women’s Health and Fitness Day falls on the last Wednesday in September. i.e. yesterday. This is an American concept but one that the UK seems to have adopted. My Social Media streams were full of positive images of women keeping physically fit. Lots of references to introducing exercise into your life and healthy living particularly diet and super foods. But still a disproportionate lack of advice, images, suggestions to promote Women’s Mental Health.

Mental and physical wellbeing are intrinsically linked. If you focus on physical health, i.e. diet and exercise, there is a positive impact on mental health . The WHO states that “there is no health without mental health.” Nowhere is the relationship between mental and physical health more evident than in the area of chronic conditions. … People with chronic physical conditions are at risk of developing poor mental health.

In the past I have prioritised my physical well being over my mental health. I was your typical gym bunny. Always doing the school run in Lycra and headed off to a gym class as soon as I had dropped the little darlings off. The sweat was addictive and the endorphins kept me coming back for more. As with open water swimming, there was a supportive gym and school mum community too. But it was a double edged sword for me. It brings out my  competitive nature and I found that it was never ‘enough’. I hadn’t trained hard ‘enough’. I hadn’t gone to ‘enough’ classes. If I didn’t sweat it wasn’t ‘enough’. My focus on my physical wellbeing was beginning to have a detrimental impact on my mental health.

So I changed my approach and looked for balance. I reduced the gym classes and mixed them up with more gentle classes that focused on strength, flexibility and relaxation. Much needed for 45+ year old joints and a frazzled brain. Slowly I weaned myself off the sweat addiction. But the hardest activity to change was my swimming. Open Water swimming has always been part of my life but in recent years I have introduced pool swimming into my routine. Not indoor pools….that would be a step too far! I applied my standard discipline approach to this activity. The number of lengths I swam each time and the time it took to swim distances. It was hard to be a seabird swimmer, free from swim drills in the pool. The lane ropes almost dictate swim drills to me. So I headed for the sea and ditched the pool. Luckily there was a Seabird flock waiting for me to join them.

Over the last 18 months, since the Seabirds were formed, I have swum in the sea all year round and there has been a marked improvement in my mental wellbeing. However, as soon as the water warmed up enough to be safe,  I found myself setting swim distance targets all over again. Round the pier, counting the groynes or using the iconic yellow swim buoys to measure the distance of my swim. I even swam solo, which was as much to do with a confidence goal as the need to pursue physical goals. If I didn’t swim front crawl without stopping and get up a sweat (yes you can sweat in the sea) it wasn’t ‘enough’.

Vanity played it’s part too. Ditching the gym and the pool changed my body. And not in a way I liked. It didn’t stop me from stripping off on the shingles and showing half of Brighton my bare bum. But lots of my clothes now don’t fit and even the most resilient woman would struggle in seeing the positive in that. Without knowing it the Seabird Community brought me back to balance. Listening to their pre and post swim conversations I distinctly remember one Seabirds saying at school she wasn’t ‘sporty’ and now she is proud of what her body can do after months of sea swimming. Others have talked about being role models for their children, showing them that there’s life in the old Seabird yet. All of them talk about how happy they feel in the water and for hours sometimes days afterwards. The running theme throughout was always that getting in the sea was ‘enough’. It didn’t matter if you swam out to the buoys, lay in the shore dump or floated in the waves. It was ‘enough’

Health and Fitness is and always will be a very personal choice. Alone or in a group. In a gym class or in the outdoors. Dry land or in the water. If you don’t enjoy it and if it doesn’t make you happy it won’t be ‘enough’ and you won’t keep doing it. And your mental health is as important as your physical health. For me finding a balance is a challenge. But I think I am finally there. A mixture of gym classes as I like routine and encouragement. A daily dog walk on the South Downs as I love solitude and fresh air. A seabird swim free from arbitrary goals that leaves me feeling happy.  So the question isn’t really Swim or the Gym. A balance of both is ‘enough’.