Wild swimming is my “new thing” (in relative terms; I’ve been in cold water every week since April 2019). It complements long distance running training well; it’s calming and builds mental toughness, whilst being an end in itself to enjoy, relatively statistic-free, rather than constantly pushing to improve. All you have to do is show up.
Cold water is usually defined as lower than 16°C; wild spots are rarely warmer than this in the UK even in summer. If it’s lower than 5°C it’s an “ice swim”. The feeling of submerging oneself in it is hard to explain, and varies wildly. The air temp, the windspeed, energy levels, experience, menstrual cycle and mood can all play a part in how you perceive it.
It’s not that I don’t feel the cold, but easing into it through weekly dips has helped my brain and body get accustomed and acclimatised. I know that it’s better to get in decisively (not too quickly!), and hundreds of repetitions have cemented this. I think I like it precisely because I feel the cold…it’s like running in the rain. It makes you feel alive. I feel forced to be present by the tingling/stabby sensations, and the overwhelming sense of calm keeps me coming back again and again. So I thought I’d try doing it every day.
Caveats: I’m more of a “dipper” than a swimmer; sometimes I’m in for less than a minute. Those who know me know how prepared I like to be for such things… I have years of experience in the outdoors including being a qualified Mountain Leader, I’m well acclimatised, always dip within my limits (rarely solo, near the shore), and I take a very large bag of kit (see photo) with me in the winter. This is my second winter dipping and I’ve done a lottttt of research (e.g. the Outdoor Swimming Society website, Everyday Athlete Rachel Andrews’ YouTube). If you’re not an experienced wild swimmer, starting it in the middle of winter in a lockdown is definitely not advised; maybe consult the links, find a community and build up to it in spring!
I decided fairly spur-of-the-moment that I wanted to dip every day in December 2020 – I was already fundraising for Northern Traverse (and am now also asking for sponsorship to chop my hair off), liked the idea of doing a low-key personal challenge (whilst talking about it endlessly on Instagram) and was inspired by the likes of January Daily Dip (a feat which seemed completely alien and impossible to me in January 2019!) and Ella Chloe on Instagram. The timing worked well as I was wanting to increase my running mileage after some niggles, but needed a distraction to prevent too sudden an increase! December had a few nice “occasions” to celebrate (and therefore excuses for a social dip): Winter Solstice, Christmas, New Year.
So in no particular order, here are some particular gems of wisdom that I picked up along the way.
- It’s good to have a reason to go outside each day, something I often struggle with… even if the reason is a meaningless challenge – it made me very happy. I actually found it quite easy to leave the house at 11.30pm on New Year’s Eve to walk to the top of a hill in the snow!
- “Normal” is relative. “Just because all your friends do it, doesn’t mean it’s normal.” (Marc Laithwaite, Lakeland 100/50 organiser). Most people I know think we’re mad, or hardcore, but I look to people who actually swim in the UK in winter (see: Merthyr Mermaid on iPlayer and half the wonderful people I follow on insta, like Becca, Melodie and Gilly) and I think of my dipping as totally ordinary and they’re super hardcore! (These people are of course wonderfully supportive – I’ve had more criticism from random passers-by on the moor: “Ooooh it looks very cold…why didn’t you do any proper swimming?”) It’s quickly become standard to meet five people (#2020) on a windy hilltop, talk excitedly about ice thickness and take almost all our clothes off.
- Improvising is good. Socks instead of mittens, a tub for a cup, a top for a towel, hands in place of a hammer (ice breaking). It’s made me more adaptable and flexible again, which is a skill I definitely feel has been lacking over the past few months of cosy lockdown life.
- And it’s going to sound ridiculously twee….but: with the right community around you, anything is possible. I only did one completely solo dip, all the others were with friends, some experiencing cold water for the first time, many with whom I embarked upon the adventure of “dipping through the winter” last year. It was quite easy really, all I had to do was make plans and not cancel them – and I knew there would be gentle encouragement if I tried to back out! The hardest part was probably the pre- and post-dip kit faff!
- How lucky we are that we get to do this. That we want to do this. 33 mini adventures. I wouldn’t have considered attempting this when I was working several 13-hour days a week. 2019/20 was a super mild winter and we didn’t get to play with much ice. I am eternally grateful that we have still been able to socialise, albeit creatively and often bizarrely. December certainly facilitated some very special and weird memories! There were dips in the dark, snowy dips, windy dips, one with a brew, one with bubbly, some with waves, some sunny, some rainy, swimrises, sunsets, ice, group dips, a solo dip, post-work, pre-run, post-run, dancing, quiet and loud.
More pictures on my Instagram.
Thanks to everyone who came along or sent words of encouragement (or bafflement, those work too!) my way, I had a great time!
A few stats:
Warmest measured temperature: 6.5°C.
Coldest measured: 0.4°C.
Most people in water: 6
Memories made: countless.