I am not referring to cold water swimming or winter swimming. I’m referring to relaxed swimming without worry. A way of swimming free from arbitrary goals with it’s sole purpose being it’s soul purpose. This is chilled swimming.
There has been a significant increase in swimming outdoors whether it be lidos, lakes, rivers or my favourite the sea. And whilst this is wonderful, the fixation with time in the water, distance swum and the temperature of the water is also growing. I have never known how cold the water is that I am swimming in or how long I’ve been in or how far I’ve swum. I can hazard a good guess, but ultimately I swim in a huge body of water that’s temperature is effected by tidal currents, fresh source water and air temperature so any measurement I take is never going to be accurate. I don’t have a water proof watch or trust that my phone is waterproof so no idea of the time when I’m swimming and that’s just how I like it. I swim between groynes in the winter and around the piers and the swim area buoys in the summer but again I can only estimate how far I’ve swum as at some point I’ll be going against the flow.
Instead I go with the flow. The joy I experience when I’m in the water cannot be measured and as a goal orientated and competitive person if I begin to count the number of swims I do a week, month or year, it will rob me of this joy. I understand the need for some to have goals. Particularly if they are training for specific event or raising money for a good cause. Or as encouragement to keep getting in. But this, for me, cannot be to the detriment of enjoying the water, being in the moment, being present. One of the ways I manage my mental health is by spending time in the sea and I can’t risk it becoming about something else, a task or a tick box on the to do list. I cannot take the overwhelm I am running away from with me to the beach. I’m fighting against my nature to do this and it has taken a lot for me to free myself from setting myself targets. But I am definitely a chilled swimmer.
I want to notice the details. The light at different times of day. The depth at different tides. The topography at different swim spots. I am awake to the changes in the sea environment. If my focus was on measuring temperature, the time or distance would I notice the details? Focussing on the feeling of the water on my skin, the sensations, is measurement enough of the temperature. Swimming past a particular landmark is measurement enough of the distance.
Preparation is the only measured task for me. A bag full of warm clothes, cake and hot tea. Possibly a hot water bottle but definitely a woolly hat. A bag for the inevitable beach clean. Weather and Sea forecast checked. When I arrive at the beach I am prepared. Prepared to stay dry if my preparation doesn’t match the sea state before me. And when I get in the sea, I float to prepare for my swim. I think about how the water feels, and how I feel. Am I tired, am I hungry, am I melancholy? Is the water moving fast, is there a wind chill, can I see the bottom? Once in the sea, she will tell you which direction to swim in and how long to stay in for as long as your preparation is measured.
Cath Pendleton has achieved some incredible swims. But she initially took up cold water swimming to manage her wellbeing as busy single mum working for the NHS. Her experience is that she found her ‘reset button’ whilst swimming in the wilds of Wales. It wasn’t until she’d fallen in love with swimming outdoors, learned about the swimming environment, experimented with what to wear, swam in different spots that she decided to swim the channel and more recently becoming the first person to swim a mile in the Antarctic Polar Circle. The measured goals when temperature, distance and time in the water are important, came later.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the ‘need to know’ times and temperature. My Social Media feed is full of ice breaking shots of swimmers with sledgehammers and I find myself longing to be where they are. There pictures of calm clear, but bloody cold seas taken all along my local coast line tempting me in. But the accompanying text and numerous comment discussion is all about , yep you guessed it, water and air temperature, time spent in the water, distance covered. The image that filled me with joy so quickly becomes a feeling of disappointment as the ‘need to know’ and share measured success becomes the forefront of the experience. Again, I understand that people have specific challenges at this time of the year to get them up and about, and causes close to their hearts they wish to highlight or raise money for, and this type of imagery and text is necessary. But it does nothing to expel a nations fixation with goals and targets.
January can be a time for setting goals and for many this is to swim outdoors in the winter. But did you know that the promoted 10,000 steps goal is a number plucked out of the air as a marketing campaign for a company selling pedometers and is not founded on fact . Now every step counter you buy or upload is set to the golden 10,000 automatically. Just because someone, somewhere wanted to sell you a lifestyle choice. When you think about swimming goals in those terms you can question who decided official ice swimming was anything under 5 degrees……. Goals can of course give you much needed encouragement to carry on or get something done. In the case of chilled swimming they can still be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time Bound without taking the pleasure out of your winter swim. I am taking part in the Arctic Tern Challenge which is a bit of fun to encourage swimmers to swim year round and raise money for a worthy cause – Level Water. I gain immense pleasure from seeing swimmers enjoy the cold sea and know this challenge may have been just what they needed to get them started and keep them going in every aspect of their lives. I also took the time to improve my swim technique last year having lessons (even swim coaches need help to improve the efficiency of their swimming) and I wanted to improve my swimming fitness too. One of my measures of success is the timed swim at the end of my session, for others it may be putting their head in the water or learning front crawl. But I will caveat any swimming goals I have, with the knowledge that, the rivers, lochs, lakes and sea are not going anywhere so you have plenty of time to learn what your body is capable of and build up to year round swimming slowly and enjoy the journey.
This winter I have swum less than I normally would. This is due to Covid but not in the way you might expect. I have been able to swim constantly through the different tiers and local lockdowns as the beach is on my doorstep but the beach is busy. Lots of people in groups is difficult for me at the best of times but during a pandemic when my anxiety levels are heightened and you’ve got no chance. The once deserted winter seafront is full to overflowing with people getting fresh air and exercise. Good for them, shit for me. Over the festive period I went in twice. On Christmas Eve I met with the permitted six swimmers and it was magical. I arrived on the prom to grinning faces and a ton of baked goods. We, none of us, were having the Christmas we wanted and many of our clan had fallen ill. So we shouted, sang and swore it all out in the sea so we could return to our families with smiles on our faces, buoyed up by our fellow birds. My next swim was with one other, a friend who is always up for SUP, surf or swim adventures and she always arrives with homemade goods and an incredible energy. It was the pick me up I needed after post festive blues. These swims were enough for me to keep me going until the crowds had dispersed well into January. I’ve never gone in every day at a set time at a set place anyway, just when needed, when I’ve been invited or when the mood takes me. Indeed in the winter you can go for days without being able to access the sea due to storms. And I have just had to explore new swim spots and there are always seabirds willing to come with me which is all part of the experience and fun of outdoor swimming.
The best way to approach cold water swimming is to ask yourself what is your reason for getting in the water year round? Is it to decompress, to wind down, to let yourself go? Because regardless of what you think Social Media is telling you, this is perfectly possible without measuring the temperature or time in the water. In fact this can create its own problem as everyone is different, copes with cold water differently and have different swim abilities so may what be okay for a swimmer on Social Media, may not be suitable for you. I have been swimming in skins for the exact same amount of time as Co-Flounder Cath, yet I can stay in longer and she requires a considerably more layers of clothes to warm up afterwards. One of our seabirds, Clare, can stay in for what seems like forever and we’ve never seen her shiver. We are different. I have witnessed time and time again swimmers that have not taken the time to tune into their bodies stay in the water too long and require assistance because they stayed in for as long as their fellow swimmer. This should never be a measure of how long to stay in. Comparison, in this case, could be more than the thief of joy.
For me, swimming in the sea year round is a way to manage my wellbeing. It quite simply provides happiness and joy in a sometimes bleak world and a busy brain. I spend time away from the sea and swimming, thinking about it. Planning my next trip, looking for new swim spots, reading books that capture the experience of others, watch films and documentaries charting the feats and achievements of others. Learning and exploring through other peoples knowledge, words and experiences. Oh and of course writing about it. I don’t need to measure my swimming activities, this is enough. Just getting in is enough. I hope it is for you too.