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.