Swimming through anxiety

For as long as their have been humans, there has been swimming. If you engage with aquatic evolutionary theory, you could say that we were swimming even before we were human. And it’s true that we were all kind of swimming before we were born. But why is swimming in water, particularly cool, open water, so good for us?

I’ve just come back from a holiday. Holidays are a total luxury; but, as they are afforded by the kind of life choices that send you slowly mental, they are a total necessity. Anxiety was scrunching me up, making me jumpy and edgy, causing me to withdraw, ironically, from the very things that sort me out: swimming, exercising, socialising, relaxing. Instead, I was hunching, pulling inwards, flicking obsessively from app to app on my phone, searching for something but never knowing what. Working hard, and trying to work harder. Spending too much time staring at screens, obsessing with doing more, being better. But anxious energy gets jobs done, and in this state of flux, I remortgaged, sold my car and researched and bought a new one, organised builders’ quotes and PTA events on top of working and sorting out my family’s needs. I also organised a holiday.

Swimming has always been the centre point of my holidays. The criteria for my parents’ holiday plans was to find a beach or lake or river and then choose the campsite or rental nearby. So ingrained is this particular method of searching for holiday accommodation that I barely noticed how my planning focused on proximity to the nearest body of water.

Our first swim was on the journey itself. The Plymouth to Santander ferry takes 20 hours, and among the entertainment on board is a small pool cut deep into the deck so the water doesn’t slosh out. Lately, stress and anxiety has taken its greatest physical toll on my jaw. Somewhere across the Bay of Biscay that night brought a terrible wave of temporomandibular joint pain that jolted me awake and kept me there, even after scrabbling around our sleepy cabin in search of drugs. So the next morning I thought a swim might wake me up.

For an open water swimmer, a swimming pool is poor cousin to the vast, ever-changing waters of the ocean, lake, river, tarn, loch or stream. This one was small and over-chlorinated, but it was water and it was deliciously cold. It woke me up all right. But more than that; I was amazed by the sense of calm that washed over me with that cold water the moment I submerged. I smiled, I felt the knots in my muscles loosen a little, the stuffy headache recede, the tetchiness fade.

What an idiot to have forgotten. The stream next to where we pitched our tent in the breathtakingly beautiful Spanish-Basque mountains, the crashing Atlantic waves on the west coast of France, the turquoise-clear lake near our campsite in France, even the open-air pool on the campsite, undid the painful knots of anxiety in my body and  washed them away. Star floating and watching wisps of cloud cross the blue sky as the waves lifted and dropped me, jumping off a rock into a deep pool in the mountain stream, diving through the surf, I was struck by how the water always changed, not just in colour and temperature, but in viscosity, opacity and taste. Being in it, on it, under it is an experience for all the senses, and somehow, unlike any other activity, it always cures.

Another of my holiday pleasures is reading. I took with me two books. Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley, which I had started at home, and The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. Both these women swim the year round, both have had huge emotional health issues with which to deal, both very different from one another, and different again to me, but to whom I could relate in many ways, mainly in their love of being in cold water and the salvation it gives them.

All this; these women’s accounts, my own anxiety being undone by water, made me wonder why swimming outdoors is so powerful a healer. I’ve known for a long time the benefits of swimming, releasing endorphins, well-being from exercise, better sleep patterns, better health and fitness, relaxing through breathing steadily. But can you not get all that from running, cycling and yoga?

There are plenty of theories about cold water swimming, as explained in this article. Connection with nature, release of adrenaline, training your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response so you cope better with stress, anti-inflammatory properties of cold water, and improved immunity. But science is still at a bit of a loss as to exactly why and how plunging into cold water seems to sooth anxiety, cure depression, wash away grief, loss, bereavement, emotional pain.

There’s no shortage of accounts showing that open water swimming does change lives. For Amy Liptrot, it helped her deal with enforced sobriety; for Alexandra Heminsley, cope with infertility. For me, a lot of my anxiety has been tied up with poor body image, but open water swimming seems to have transformed me into someone who’s if not achingly body positive, at least at peace with how I look. Like Heminsley, it’s helped me take pride in a body that I’d always felt wasn’t good quite enough, to find strength and power where I’ve previously seen cellulite and flab. My sister, a photographer, and a person who knows me better than most, photographed me as part of a project in the pool (main photo and below), and she was amazed by the change in my demeanour, my confidence and self-assurance as I entered the water.

It also helps me switch off my whirring mind. When I’m in the water, I don’t think about much more than the sensations, the colour of water, its opacity, whether its sharp and biting, or smooth and velvety. Whether it has a saltiness that buoys me up and stings every nick and scratch on my body, or a freshwater, mineral taste that envelopes me. As I swim, I think about the pull, catch, kick, breathe. I watch the Hockney-like patterns on the sea bed, the pebbles and reeds, or simply my hands pushing away in turn with a steady rhythm. I stop, I look towards the horizon, the sky. Birds and fish come close by. I feel strong, happy, peaceful, and that feeling will often stay with me for more than a day.

I’m a science person, rather than one of faith or religion. But from time to time, even those of us who put faith in science needs to accept that some phenomena is beyond rational explanation. There is perhaps something in the fact that we are ourselves made of water, that we grew in it, that we evolved in it. Just as we are likely affected by the lunar cycles, maybe we are somehow connected to this life-giving element. Perhaps, sinking into a warm bath stirs some kind of pre-birth memory of comfort and safety. Perhaps wading into cold water awakens a genetic memory from our ancestors, living on the shoreline and wading into the cold seas and rivers to find small crustaceans and shellfish for dinner – read The Descent of Woman by Elaine Morgan for more on this fascinating evolutionary theory.

Proof that swimming in cold, natural water heals all manner of emotional and mental health issues is anecdotal, and overwhelming. The manner in which it heals varies from person to person, but the resulting rosy glow and sense of peace and well-being seems to be universal. For me, it’s at once meditative and soothing, and a perfect, attainable high, giving me a pure buzz with a healthy afterglow. Maybe there are no fathomable reasons why, and it doesn’t even matter.

Good reads

Leap In Alexandra Heminsley
The Outrun Amy Liptrot
The Descent of Woman Elaine Morgan

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Swimming in Clevedon’s Marine lake: Photo credit Fur and Gold Photography

 

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Drown-proofing babies

It’s an unfortunate phrase, drown-proofing. Proofing is something you do to objects, not humans, and even then it’s not infallible, as proved by the wet patches my waterproof coat leaves on my shoulders. But it’s a phrase associated with a controversial method of teaching babies to self-save.

To be fair to the Infant Swimming Resources (ISR), I’m not sure drown-proofing is a phrase they use themselves. I hope that they’d agree that you can’t, by any method, make a human-being incapable of drowning. But it’s a phrase that the media has grasped to mixed reception as it seeps into the UK from America where it started.

I’m going to say one more positive thing to be fair to ISR. It is born from a very understandable desire; to reduce the number of children, especially infants, who die from drowning each year in the US, and subsequently, the UK. And, if you only focus on results and only watch the positive videos, you might believe it works.

But ISR techniques are as extreme as they are lacking. While they work to an extent, they concentrate on such a narrow tranche of infant swimming, water confidence and safety, that their effectiveness is equally narrow. The techniques used to reach the point where a baby can flip on to their back and ‘float’ are more like drills, and research can only speculate on how stressful this is for babies.

This is why a group of baby swimming experts, including all major baby swim schools and the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) have come together to produce a statement against these extreme methods of teaching life-saving. Describing it as ‘unethical’, the report includes research from anthropology, aquatic, child development and baby swimming experts, and is very compelling, worthwhile reading.

I find the videos distressing. In this one, for example, the baby shouldn’t be encouraged to reach for something in the water, rather taught to stay away from it. Once she is on her back, she’s not relaxed and floating, she’s clearly unhappy. This one is actually heart-breaking. As a baby swimming teacher for eight years, I would never, ever, ever, submerge a distressed child, let alone repeatedly.

These methods are unethical, and more importantly, unnecessary. One of my colleagues taught an 8-month-old called George in gentle, fun Water Babies classes, who slipped out of his dad’s hands in the bath, and before his dad could grab him, had righted himself and held on to the side of the bath. I taught a 15-month-old called Sam who fell in a pool on holiday, and turned and grabbed the side immediately. There are many more like their stories here.

As an absolute contrast, the Birthlight movement, and the swim schools which have been inspired by it, is about using gentle methods to engage with a baby’s natural reflexes and affinity with water. It’s a holistic technique, looking at health, well-being, development, strengthening, co-ordination, cognitive development, confidence, early swimming skills and safety.

“Conditioning (forcing) a baby or toddler to float relies on extreme traumatic methods and sadly no amount of praise will compensate for the memory of inflicted pain – it just gets pushed into the recesses of our brain, where it is recorded,” says Birthlight founder and medical anthropologist Dr Francoise Freedman. “While some children will escape unscathed, for others, the trauma may resurface in later years and cause a fear of the water. And because we do not know who is at risk, we have to question if it is worth doing; and the simple answer is no, based on scientific evidence and statistics.”

What effect could the stress of these extreme drown-proofing techniques have on babies? While occasional surges of the stress hormone, cortisol, is thought to be beneficial, frequently elevated levels in infancy from a stressful environment are associated with permanent negative effects on brain development. By contrast, gentle supported movement, skin-on-skin contact between baby and parent, and plenty of loving praise has a hugely positive impact on both brain development and stress responses.

That is certainly reflected by what I see in my classes. As I explained in this blog about why we swim babies under water, by respecting a baby’s choice about whether or not they go under, we develop a confidence that, along with parental vigilance, is the best way to protect our children from drowning.

“We are fully aware of the distress to children the self-rescue technique can cause and regard it as an aggressive, unproven method to make babies ‘drown-proof’. Parents who choose this method are well-intentioned, but have unfortunately been misguided,” says Water Babies co-founder, Paul Thompson. “We practise a much gentler, nurturing and holistic approach that enables little ones to develop physically, emotionally and cognitively at an appropriate rate. We have had clients come to Water Babies having used the self-rescue technique and in many cases the children are petrified of water. Instead, we teach safety, but also encourage children to enjoy the sheer fun of swimming with their family for the long-term.”

I’ve been teaching baby swimming for almost eight years, and been a part of classes with my own three children. My children, and those I’ve taught, have spent most of their lessons smiling and laughing, bonding with their parents, and, if I’m doing my job right, learning without really knowing it. What I want is confident, water-lovers, not drown-proofed children.

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My three children aged 2, 6 and 8 years old, happy and confident in water.

Wetsuit or no wetsuit?

Wetsuit? Pah! Should be called a sweatsuit! Putting one on should be an event in itself! Swear I burn more calories getting into my wetsuit than swimming 10km! How do you stop yours rubbing? I can’t move my arms! I’m stuck!

In a clammy changing tent just before the Great North Swim, there were about fifty women of every imaginable shape, size and shade squeezing sticky skin into tight, rubber suits. You hear the same conversations, and see the same wild moves: arms raised, legs lunging and squatting, pulling, bending, thrusting like some bizarre swim event dance ritual.

It looks hilarious, but nobody’s really laughing. Pre-event nerves, plus everyone knows how important it is to get your wetsuit on just-so otherwise the neck will rub so that you’ll finish the race looking like you’ve had a love bite from a conger eel.

Of course, you get those who have applied for special permission not to wear a wetsuit. With a look of smug amusement, these swimmers aren’t actually laughing at you (don’t hate them), they’re just thankful that they don’t have to imitate John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks in order to put on a rubber skin, and they’re in skins because they’re insanely experienced and confident.

So are wetsuits really necessary, or are they just another way of coining it from an activity that’s on the rise in popularity? Do you need a ‘swimming’ wetsuit, or can you make do with a cheaper surfer’s model? Do you need to spend big bucks, or will a cheaper one do?

The best way to answer this is to think about what a wetsuit has to offer. It’s primarily for warmth, delaying hypothermia thus increasing the time you might be able to spend in water safely. Secondly, it gives you extra buoyancy, allowing you to swim more efficiently. Thirdly, it makes you more streamlined, and it also protects your skin.

It may not feel it when you put your back out getting the thing on, but wetsuits are ultimately a safety consideration, which is why most events insist on them. It follows, then, that if you’re not experienced at swimming the distance your planning on swimming, or you’re unsure, you should invest in a wetsuit. Some events allow you to ask for special permission to go without, but you have to prove your experience. Even then, they can decide that the temperature’s too low. For example, an experienced winter-swimmer friend of mine has been told that she can only do the Arctic Circle swim without a wetsuit if the temperate is above 16 degrees C.

It also follows that when buying your wetsuit, insulation, buoyancy and streamlinedness (which I’m fairly certain isn’t a technical term, or even a term at all) are on your criteria list. Swimming wetsuits are pretty much geared up to tick all the boxes. You don’t have to spend a fortune, but well-known brands are the most reliable: Zoot (which I have), Orca, TYF, HUUB, Zone3, Blueseventy and Speedo are all go to swimming brands.

A poor fitting wetsuit will pretty much negate every plus point you have, and you may as well swim in chain mail. Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water against the skin which warms to body temperature. The thicker the neoprene, the better insulated you’ll be, but if your suit’s too loose, the water will slosh around inside and stay cold, thus making you cold. Too tight, and you won’t be able to move.

As a general rule, for this country where the summer water is between 11 and 21 degrees C, you’ll need 3-5mm thickness. Swimming wetsuits are made with variable thicknesses to help insulate your torso, free up your shoulders, and lift your legs to give you a good, flat, streamlined body position in the water. This is especially helpful if, like many triathletes, you have muscular legs or ankle stiffness. I’m one of life’s great floaters, and in my wetsuit I feel like a boat. You’d just need to attach an outboard motor and I reckon I could take passengers!

Streamlining is a good advantage too. Muscular, angular bodies get smoothed out, while stuffing a curvy bottom and boobs into a wetsuit reminds me of trying to get your sleeping bag back into its stuff sack; you’re good and smooth, but you know the second you unzip that zipper, it’ll all come tumbling back out. That rubber skin also protects you from snags or scrapes.

Surf wetsuits tend not to have any of that balancing, varied thickness, nor the contouring that gives you more speed. They’re more clunky and less smooth, but also more robust. I went coasteering recently, which was brilliant fun, but it would have wrecked my fragile swimming wetsuit – I was very grateful for the thicker neoprene.

Having established that you need a wetsuit, getting one fitted it the next step. It sounds obvious, but you need to make sure you can swim in it. I have seen so many confident swimmers put on a wetsuit for the first time and have a total panic attack. Even a well fitted swimming wetsuit will try to simultaneously strangle you and compress your chest. Wiggle has a great buying guide, online assistance, good range of suits and a good returns policy. Even better, find a shop with an infinity pool like Bristol Triathlon Shop where you can actually try swimming in it. I got mine there, and while it wasn’t cheap, I’ve swam a comfortable 10km in it, which was worth every penny. Plus the infinity pool is fun!

Getting it on need not be an actual battle. Put your feet in and pull the legs up to well above your ankle. If you have long nails, wear gloves as you pull it up over your knees and thighs and then bottom and hips. Don’t go any further until the crotch is well and truly in your groin rather than hanging down P-Diddy style. Do the same with one arm, and then the other, so the armpit is in your armpit. Whirl your arms, do some thrusts, make sure you can move freely before zipping yourself in. I totally advocate lube for getting your wetsuit on and stopping chaffing. It doesn’t exactly ‘glide’ FYI Bodyglide, but it does help. My favourites are pictured below.

Once you’re in the water, hold open the neck and welcome the cold water in. It warms quickly, and that’s what you want. If you prefer a nice warm pee, go for it, it’s your wetsuit! It’s a good idea to have a hitch, a wiggle, a tug on the arms and legs before you set off just to make sure you’re totally comfy.

So why would you swim without? Ironically, I take mine off for winter swimming, but then I’m in calm water for short bursts with friends. Swimming ‘skins’, as it’s known, is hardcore, but also liberating, and it’s easy to see why you’d not want to go back to contorting yourself to get into a wetsuit. That said, I love mine. For comfort, safety and warmth, it’s worth the struggle to get in on, and I will continue to wear it for long swims and events.

 

Why under water?

The iconic Nirvana Nevermind album cover is probably the best known picture of a baby under water. For fans, it evoked the alternative, anti-corporate cool that was embodied by Nirvana, but for band leader Kurt Cobain, it was about the simple beauty of babies being in water.

Nevermind was released in 1991 at a time when water births were starting to grow more popular. Water births and baby swimming go hand-in-hand, both extolling the theory that babies’ natural affinity and reflexes in water can benefit them in a number of quite extraordinary ways.

 

Originally, Kurt Cobain said that he wanted a photo of a water birth for his album cover because it looked cool. Under water photos of babies do look amazing, but baby swimming isn’t about following a trend or taking cool photos (although my house is full of underwater snaps of my children!). There are many well researched and documented reasons why people have been swimming babies under water for centuries.

 

 

 

Human babies’ affinity with water is as old as humans themselves. Some evolutionists theorise that being in water played a huge part in the way we’ve evolved (read more – it’s fascinating!). Françoise Freedman, founded the Birthlight movement based on the gentle parenting style of Peruvian Amazonian tribes who lived by, around and in water from birth. Today, Freedman’s philosophy that “a life long love of water and enjoyment of swimming are best generated by a confident and loving handling of babies in water, by swimming with babies and by imparting gentle progressive methods towards unaided swimming.” is the foundation of baby swim school Water Babies.

 

 

 

You see, when babies are born they have no natural fear of water. In fact, the opposite is true. That they have a strong affinity with water is obvious when you think about it: they have lived and grown in fluid inside the womb for nine months. Born with a set of reflexes that have the job of getting them through birth and surviving immediately afterwards, they hold their breath when fluid hits the back of their throats to safely feed. They also have a swim reflex, where they move their legs and arms in a swimming motion.

By taking your baby to a warm pool as soon as possible after birth, you can help them grow and develop. Because the water supports them entirely, and gives them a kind of weightlessness, they can move in a way that not only strengthens their muscles, improves co-ordination, but also helps their developing brain make important connections through that movement as explained in this blog. On the flip-side, lack of movement, or restricted movement contributes to developmental delays, so you can completely see why movement is so important.

When I see a new baby class in their first lesson, I notice that many babies have stiffness or restricted movements. Some babies object to being held in certain positions, perhaps because they have discomfort from either the way they were squished inutero, or by the birth itself. A group of fellow teachers had a very interesting talk from an osteopath who told us that when suspended in water, with a full range of movement, you can see stiffness that he believes explains problems like colic. It’s very gratifying to watch a baby grow, develop and move to become stronger as they move freely in the water.

Other than free, unfettered movement, swimming under water is important for water confidence and safety. Drowning is too often a result of panic, when a victim reacts to being unexpectedly plunged under water. Most drowning accidents happen when people fall into water, as opposed to when they’re swimming. By gently and regularly swimming your baby under water, you’re taking that natural affinity and lack of fear and teaching them how to control their breath so they’ll always stay calm when submerged.

Even when babies go through phases of what we call the wobbles, which often occur around that time fear of water could kick in if they hadn’t swum regularly, it doesn’t impact on that positivity that has surrounded them in the pool all their lives. I taught one fifteen month old who fell into a pool on holiday and calmly turned around and grabbed the side, even though he was going through a bit of a clingy phase in lessons.

His wobble was quite typical for his age: separation anxiety as he took a developmental leap in his sense of self; not an actual fear of water. But, this phase is when fears and worries start to creep in – you may notice night terrors, fear of strangers, or spiders, or toys with big eyes. If you don’t have a regular swimming habit where you’re used to bobbing under the water’s surface from time to time, fear of water can be one of them.

So gently swimming under water is an enjoyable, fun part of baby swimming lessons. We do it for safety, and to help little ones get the most from their time in the water. It’s never forced, it’s never prolonged or designed to stress or test the baby; in fact, in Water Babies classes, we use word association that essentially asks the baby’s permission to swim them under water – and many times have I seen them say no through a shout, grimace or shake of the head! On these occasions we leave it until another time.

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Betty, aged 3, just as happy under water as on the surface!

 

Myths about drowning

Summer weather, and everyone takes to the water to cool down. But beware! There’s a danger that you might not know about…

That danger is click-bait articles that give alarming misinformation about drowning and put people off teaching their children to swim. Opening with sentences like the one with which I began this post, they are designed to attract readers, often to the cost of quality and fact.

You may have read these articles. There’s one doing the rounds at the moment (from a notorious ‘fake news’ site) about a four-year-old who died “1 week after swimming”, and claims: “The boy’s lungs were filled with water and he had fallen victim to so-called dry drowning.” This is alarming: we take our children swimming, and most people don’t know the facts about drowning, dry, secondary or otherwise.

Drowning is a very real and very serious danger, that much is true. In the UK, around 60 children drown each summer, and it’s the second leading cause of death and injury in children, those aged one to four-years-old being the most vulnerable. The best defence against drowning is vigilance, but accidents can happen with even the most attentive parents. That is why knowledge and learning swimming and safety skills from as young as possible is so important.

The type of drowning of which most of us are aware is where, having been submerged for an extended period of time, the victim blacks out, reflexively tries to take a breath and inhales water. In some rare cases, the epiglottis which covers the wind pipe, doesn’t open, and the victim asphyxiates under water. This is sometimes called dry drowning (though not by medics) because the person has drowned under water without actually inhaling any.

If the victim was rescued during a drowning accident, they’d need to be monitored for 72 hours afterwards because there is a small chance they had inhaled water, and a small amount of fluid in the lungs can cause a pneumonia-like infection. But this only happens after a near-drowning accident, or where someone has panicked under the water. The key phrase here is ‘near-drowning accident’.

We all have a set of reflexes that protect our lungs. When water hits the back of our throats, the epiglottis closes, sealing shut the windpipe. Water in our throat, and the tube that connects the throat to the windpipe (the larynx), can trigger a cough reflex, where air is forced out of our lungs to clear away the water. That can also trigger the gag reflex and make us throw up, or, more often, the swallow reflex so we simply swallow the water into our stomachs.

In my eight years teaching swimming, I have seen so many children go under water and come up coughing and spluttering because these brilliant reflexes are doing their job. I try to stop myself using the phrase “the water went down the wrong way” because it’s not true; it can only go one of two ways – into their stomach or back out of the mouth or nose.

To enter the danger zone, they’d need to be under water for an extended period of time (how long depends on the individual and the situation). And they’d also need to either panic or pass out – in other words, the situation would have to be out of control. The wonderful thing about swimming lessons is that children learn water confidence, safety skills and swimming skills in a carefully controlled environment.

Babies have no sense of fear with water; having grown in it for nine months, they have an innate affinity with it. The reflexes I talked about earlier are even stronger in babies. By introducing young babies to water, including gentle, controlled submersions, those innate reflexes can become learned behaviour. From a water safety point of view, not just teaching safety skills like turning and holding on to the side, but guarding against panic by making sure they’re always confident and comfortable in water.

I taught a boy called Sam who fell into a pool on holiday when he was 15 months old. His mum was right next to him, but before she got to him, he had turned round and held on to the side. Another baby, George, slipped out of his dad’s hands in the bath, but he calmly righted himself and held on to the side, and he was only eight months old.

What worries me about the articles that spread worry among parents is that they might discourage people from teaching their children to swim. By the time they leave primary school, children should be able to swim 25 metres because if they can swim this distance, chances are they’re strong enough swimmers to get themselves out of trouble.

The Amateur Swimmers Association (ASA) says that one in three children will leave primary school unable to swim. That’s 200,000 children leaving UK schools this summer who would be in big trouble if they fell into deep water. That’s quite a scary statistic, and a much more realistic contribution towards drowning accidents than misinformed notions of secondary drowning.

So how can you protect your children? Be vigilant when it comes to children and water. Remember that it doesn’t take much time or much water for things to get serious. And teach your children to swim. Start in babyhood if you can, choose a swim school if you can, or just take them yourself and teach them confidence and water safety.

Find lessons near you on this website

Find out about baby swimming.

Nice and Icy

With just over a week to go until the National Cold Water Swimming Championships, there’s time for one more chilly swim. Thanks to the recent cold snap, conditions at Clevedon’s Marine Lake have been perfect for training, with the water dropping as low as 2.5 degrees centigrade.

So what happens to your body at this temperature? And how best prepare yourself for swim in icy waters?

Standing lake-side, contemplating your icy dip, you are aware of how your body might respond. The cold shock response is first and most dramatic: gasping, hyperventilating as your skin cools; at the same time, your heart-rate shoots up as your arteries narrow. Then comes the numbness. As your body reserves the warm blood for your vital organs, your extremities become increasingly numb, heavy and useless. After half an hour or so, hypothermia becomes a risk – and remains so even after you get out, as your core temperature continues to drop.

Standing lake-side, you should be scared! If you don’t at least have butterflies, if not a full fight-or-flight feeling where you have to beat all instincts to get yourself in the water, you don’t fully understand the risks. You also need to bear in mind that this is a time for dipping, not distance swimming.

No matter how often I take an icy dip, I have the same sense of foreboding as I drive to the lake, which peaks as the cold air hits my skin when I undress. Changing into my costume among seasoned winter swimmers, the chatter is all along the lines of: why are we doing this? we must be mad! I don’t really want to. Testament to this is the high level of faffing that postpones the inevitable plunge!

And then, one-by-one, we enter the water. The easiest way for me, is to walk quickly down the metal steps into the lake, taking small in-breaths, and then purposefully blowing out, long and steady. This reduces the gasping hypo ventilation, gives me something to focus on other than the pain of the ice-cold, and lets me steady my breath and stroke as I swim away.

Most impressive is Maggie, who having inhaled two cigarettes while changing, dives headlong in from the side. But then she, like so many of my fellow swimmers, is one of the South West Seals’ old pros. This approach is not recommended for the uninitiated!

For safety reasons, I rarely swim alone. If not with fellow swimmers, I get someone to stand on the side and hold my Dryrobe. Plus, I need help to pull down my swimming costume straps when I get out, as my numb hands are quite useless. It’s also good to have someone to egg you on, and share coffee and cake afterwards.

What struck me as odd as the water temperature dropped, was that I didn’t get the ice-cream headache at four degrees that troubled me at ten degrees. Instead, my fingers take the punishment. The pain that comes with vasoconstriction is palpable. My hands hurt. The first time this happened, they froze like useless claws in a position that’s not conducive to swimming. So I learned to set them in place as paddles before I became unable to move them.

At sub-five degrees, I swim between 100 and 200 metres; no more. That’s up to seven minutes in the water, including faffing a bit and stopping to appreciate where I am, and admire Clevedon’s rather lovely pier; and on a crisp, clear day, look across to Wales.

This weekend, as I entered I got an applause from some onlookers. I admit that I loved this, and it was the audience I needed to break into a fast front-crawl that I plan on swimming next weekend instead of my usual neck-breaking heads-up breaststroke.

My CWSC event is a 30 metre swim as part of a relay team: it’ll be over before I know it. I feel ready, though; nervous, but excited. Perhaps next time, I’ll do a bit more. But for now, I feel an extraordinary sense of accomplishment and pure buzz from swimming in icy water!

What’s in my kit bag?

My kit has evolved as the season’s gone on. Here are what I consider to be essentials for winter swimming:

  • Swimming hat – I use a normal silicone cap, but you can get neoprene for more heat-loss prevention
  • Mask goggles – I love the Aquasphere Vista mask that covers the bit between your eyebrows and seems to prevent ice-cream headache pain
  • A Dryrobe – this was a Christmas present, and my favourite bit of kit. It’s so warm, plus keeps you covered as you try to get dressed with numb hands
  • A piece of foam rubber, matting, old towel on which to stand while you’re changing
  • Warm layers – I don’t bother with undies, but wear merino wool leggings under fleece-lined jogging bottoms, a thermal vest, long-sleeved top and my wonderful Dart 10k sherpa fleeced-lined hoodie
  • Hat and gloves
  • Flask of coffee
  • Hot water bottle
  • Some cake or chocolate – getting that digestive system going warms you up from the inside!

Getting used…

“Getting used… getting used… getting used… got used!” is what we used to say as small children as we eased into my dad’s unrelentingly scorching bath water. It’s what I’ve heard myself mutter too as I get into cold water at the start of my winter swim adventure.

Winter swimming is catching on. Mainstream media broadcasts its benefits, like in this article in the Guardian, and the first episode of the BBC’s Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs which aired last month.

The benefits seem manifold. Boosting circulation, immunity and libido, as well as fighting off depression, thanks to a release of lovely endorphins. “One thing that encourages people to endure the pain is the accompanying cocktail of endorphins that arises in the brain, resulting in a lasting sense of euphoria and calm,” says the Guardian’s Jonathan Knott.

There have to be enduring benefits, or nobody would do it. Risking the cold shock response, hypothermia, and possible heart attack is one thing, but the certainty of numb extremities as your blood rushes to preserve your vital organs is quite another. You know it’s going to hurt.

Yet it’s a risk worth taking. The benefits of swimming in frozen rivers and plunging in icy pools have long been enjoyed across north and eastern Europe before it became hipster cool. The “epiphany swimmers” in Russia, and the Scandinavian sauna tradition, as well as traditional swims and plunges undertaken by pretty much everyone: the young, the old, men and women.

While the health and well-being benefits are difficult to prove scientifically, the anecdotal evidence is strong. What’s more, they’re benefits anyone can enjoy; unlike most extreme sports, anyone can take a cold dip. In fact women with a good layer of subcutaneous fat seem to make the best chilly swimmers.

That’s what makes me happy, at least. It’s November, and a cold one at that, and I’ve thus far got as low as half an hour at 10 degrees centigrade without my beloved wetsuit, so it seems that bit of extra timber I’m carrying has its uses. The cold shock response is evident for about a minute or two: that dramatic in-breath, followed by some mild hyperventilation. You want to be able to hold on to something or touch the bottom until this effect has subsided.

After that, it takes a few minutes and a few strokes, dipping in my face and grimacing at the dreaded ice-cream headache. And once that’s gone, you’ve got used! And oh, the bliss! Your skin prickles, and yes, your feet and hands gradually lose sensation. You feel slower and heavier, which is why you should never go alone, and always be aware of when your body tells you get out.

But nothing can make you feel more alive, in the moment and at peace with the world. Perhaps that right there is as big a part of the antidote for anxiety and depression as those wonderful endorphins. You feel strong too, and inordinately calm.

That feeling really does stay with you, and I find myself plotting my next ‘hit’. It’s part trying to make sure I stay acclimatised as the temperature drops further. part thrill-seeking addiction. I may make the Cold Water Swimming Championships with a silly hat, but that doesn’t really matter. For now, at least, I’m just enjoying the chill. How low can I go?!

Incidentally. The colour of my skin after a cold dip is much the same as it was after a hot bath. Only after a chilly swim, when I touch my skin, I can’t actually feel my touch, which is very disconcerting!