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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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.

 

The big one! 10km swim

By heck, I did it! Face down, legs flutter kicking, arms pulling through murky water for 3 whole hours. So, what did it take to swim a marathon?

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The pros and cons of swimming a marathon

I have a lot of love for the Outdoor Swimming Society who organises the Dart 10k. It’s quite an event with something like 1200 swimmers over two days, organised to start and with a little festival at the end that offers a hug, a hot chocolate, a hot tub, Dart 10k Sherpa fleece hoodies to buy and snuggle in when you finish. So that joy you feel at finishing lifts to ecstasy by the time you’re warm, dry and fed.

I’m sure this is a cunning ploy to make you do it again. To eclipse the hours of your life you’ve given over to training, the raw patch on your neck where your wetsuit rubbed, the pounding headache you got from a too tight cap/too tight goggles/dehydration/exhaustion* (*circle all that apply).

But actually, those discomforts and challenges at least provide interest. Once eliminated, there’s not much to think about when you’re ploughing on. I’ve blogged before about swimming being mindful, and that is part of its joy for me; and I was listening to Radio 4 programme just this morning about how good it is to let your mind wander from time to time. But it’s hard to appreciate a mindful state of being for 3 hours.

The training is boring, there’s no two ways about it. I found having to complete a certain distance in a session cancelled out most of the joy I take from wild swimming . Finding the time and the grit to stick to a training schedule was probably the tougher than the swim itself.

The swim

We started at 9am on the Sunday; the leisurely wave. I should just point out that leisurely is a misnomer. Swimming 10km isn’t my idea of leisure, and when the medium wave started ploughing past us, it was clear that we were the slow and steady tortoises of the event. I might suggest this new name.

The current was good, helping us downstream (like running a marathon downhill with the wind behind you, as I told my brother), and the first feed station came quickly. I was surprised by the water’s saltiness, and that feed station with its jelly babies and Lucozade was a glorious beacon to which I clung for a bit longer than was decent.

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Feed stations: a beacon of loveliness

The next stretch got saltier still, and the previous day’s heavy run had washed in all kinds of leaves (some very prickly: holly?), debris and, judging by the smell and stomach upsets many of us had afterwards, cow poo.

The second feed station at 7.5km was soon there, and those of us clinging on expressed amazement that we were nearly done. Mistake. We’d been warned that the finish is always further than it seems, and it was. I wasn’t that tired; I felt great physically, like a machine, almost. But after another kilometre or so, I was mentally done. I wanted out.

At one point, I spotted a slipway ahead, and became convinced that my glances through misty goggles between breaths had spotted a crowd. But we still had the last big bend to go.

My fingers touched a gravelly river bed, and I thought I must be right at the back of the pack, and the tide was leaving me behind. It also occurred to me that I could get up and walk, so I steered myself to a deeper bit, and a quick glance round showed that I was still in the middle of the pack.

As corny as it sounds, I imagined my children watching for me to finish, and that gave me that final push. Actually, I imagined how cross my eldest son would be if I finished slowly! Eventually, at last, the finish was there.

Again?

Will I do it again? Perhaps. Not next year, but I will probably do it again at some point. I’ve compared endurance swimming with giving birth before, and I’m convinced that I’ve discovered a new similarity: with time, the negative side of the experience fades in your mind, and only the glory remains. Plus, the hug, the hot chocolate, the hot tub, the Sherpa fleece… They were like the baby; the lovely, warm, gift you get to take home.

 

Injury time

It’s sunny; it’s warming up; it should be time to get out my wetsuit. If only my arm weren’t in a sling… The big question when your injured is, is do I keep form (and sane) when I can’t go swimming?

I’ve been working out like a fiend. My first event on the season is on June 11th; a lovely starter swimming a mile around Windermere as part of the Great North Swim. Last year, I did it in 35 minutes with cramp in both calves. All year I’ve been training with the aim of getting sub-30 minutes. All year. Only thanks to a little wobble on my bike, I now have a fracture in my left elbow.

As I’ve blogged before, swimming is my time out, my escape as well as my exercise. It’s so important to me mentally and physically. So not only do I need to keep sane, I also want to be able to get round the lake in just under eight weeks’ time.

The answer for the exercise part is high impact interval training (HIIT). Following the principles of Jillian Michaels creator of the 30 Day Shred, I’ll be doing a 20 minute workout five days a week that comprise of three minutes strength, two minutes CV and one minute abs. The question is what exercises, and how can I keep my upper body strength?

Cardio and abs are easy; high knees, high feet, jogging on the spot, ropeless skipping, and at the gym static bike and cross trainer. I can also continue with ab curls, crunches, leg lifts and so on. Strength is trickier. Unable to push weights, the focus switches to lunges in all directions, squats, core rotation, some with a dumbell in my good hand to add resistance and keep my upper body strong.

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Squat walking: hardcore!

But trickier still is the mind game. With yoga and swimming on hold, and also being unable to drive or work, the chances of getting bored are very high. Walking has to be a good start. There’s more scope for a wandering mind than when focussing on your stroke while swimming; I’ve been walking since I was 12 months old, so I don’t have to think about form. But at least I’ll be out there in the world.

I’m also going to try meditation and maybe dig out my old sketch book. Perhaps by viewing this as an opportunity to try things I don’t do normally, I won’t lose the plot!

Of course the moment I can, I’ll be back in the pool and lake. Swimming is wonderful for rehabilitation after injury, and is recommended by physiotherapists. My trouble, I know, is that I’ll push it. Starting with water walking with gentle pulling, I’ll progress to a one-armed stroke, and then a gentle stroke.

I’ve been very lucky that my radial head fracture (a crack in the nobbly bit at the end of the radius that sits in the elbow) is stable, and that means it can be exercised as the pain allows. I hope that by June 11th, I’ll be strong enough for a gentle swim around Lake Windermere.

Armless 20 min HIIT Circuit*

  • Warm-up (2 mins)
    • 30 secs running on the spot
    • 30 secs high knees
    • 15 secs neck rolls
    • 15 secs shoulder rolls
    • 30 secs high knees
  • Set 1
    • Strength: 45 secs static squat with abdo twist, 45 secs side lunges – repeat
    • Cardio: 30 secs butt kicks, 30 secs jumping jacks – repeat
    • Abs: 60 secs sit ups
  • Set 2
    • Strength: 45 secs lift left leg and raise dumbell with good arm, 45 secs squat walking, 45 secs lift right leg and raise dumbell with good arm, 45 secs squat walking.
    • Cardio: 30 secs high knees, 30 secs ropeless skipping – repeat
    • Abs: 60 secs ankle taps (with good arm – lean towards you ankle on the other side)
  • Set 3
    • Strength: 45 secs lunge with good arm bicep curl, 45 secs step through lunge – repeat
    • Cardio: 30 secs grapevine with abdo twist, 30 secs lunge jump – repeat
    • Abs: 60 secs full crunch – lifting legs as you sit up.
  • Cool down and stretch

*I’m neither a medically trained physio nor a qualified trainer – please check with your medical practitioners before exercising.

 

Strong is the new skinny

The prospect of not hearing about desirable thigh-gaps, bikini bodies and waifs is good news, no doubt. But the real progress is a) who’s driving this movement b) who moves up the ratings as an idol and c) what it means for our mental and physical health.

The 90s have my heart. Brit pop, trip hop, jungle, Adidas Gazelles, parkas, Courtney Love and Kate Moss. I emulated Heroin chic: smudged eyeliner, blood-red lips, grimy hair and short skirts. Only I really loved the college canteen’s chips with beans and cheese, and the local pub’s pound-a-pint night could only be cancelled out with cheese pasties.

Fast-forward to now, and Beyonce is up front with her thighs, booty and glossy Amazonian goddessness. This is A Good Thing for us women who choose food over hard drugs. It’s good for anyone who has a naturally athletic figure, who enjoys working out, who isn’t a pubescent white girl.

But where has this come from? As far as I remember, we were complaining about heroin-chic in 1997 while watching Trainspotting, shopping in Miss Selfridge and applying our Rimmel eye-liner. We wondered how it happened, how the curvy 50s figure had been usurped while our friends were pulling us across the floor of the fitting room in New Look by the leg hole of the hot-pants in which we’d got stuck (maybe that was just me).

Back then, Heroin chic was the new 1950s hourglass. And that ubiquitous phrasing favoured by lazy journalists everywhere sums up perfectly the driving force behind all fads and fashions before now. Blah is the new blah: the formula for the consumer market where one fad is replaced by another.

These trends, derived by whoever, pushed on (mainly) women by the world’s media, seep into our conciousness. I’m a savvy consumer: I like what I like. And yet I have four jumpsuits (they’re the new LBD), work the bronzer and highlighter (contouring, Rupaul), and have at least one Hemsley & Hemsley style cookbook (clean eating, not dieting). In other words, I’m as much of a consumer capitalist sucker as the next person.

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Contouring like Rupaul

And yet this strong woman movement seems to have emerged from somewhere else. I may believe this to be the case because at last, 20 years on, I’ve accepted that I’ll never look like Kate Moss, and decided to suck it up, and I got there before it started trending.

But I like to think that social media has allowed women to dictate how we want to look; a trend that has been started by real people and the market has answered our actual needs rather than creating them.

It may also be that, finally, health is taking the top line. That we’ve realised that being strong and fit is so, so much more desirable than looking like we’re injecting between our toes – and it’s better for our mental health, too.

Clearly we haven’t moved on enough to stop analysing the figures of women, like this excellent piece of journalism by the Mirror, but if the media inspires women to go out for a run rather than stop eating, then perhaps it’s progress. Maybe if people from ethnic minority backgrounds or with fuzzy gender boundaries become inspiring idols, then it’s progress. If we’ve, through the power of social media, picked our own idols, then it’s progress.

But the biggest bit of progress is just starting to creep into our collective conciousness. Not just that it’s ok to have big quadriceps that don’t fit into hot pants, but that exercise makes us feel better about ourselves on many levels.

When I started this blog, I wrote about the mindful, almost meditative state I enjoy when I’m swimming. But I could go further and say that I have never in my life felt so good, and so at ease with my body. Now! When there are a thousand baby-stretched, greying, random-pube sprouting reasons not to love my body, I am actually ok about how I look.

Back to Bey, and I do like to draw parallels between myself and Ms Knowles, and her video for her new Ivy Park activewear collection. Yes, it’s beautifully produced, and so is she, but it’s the fact that she talks not about she came to look so amazing, or what she weighs, or how many minutes it takes to run a mile, but the spiritual, emotional benefits of exercise. It’s the focus on how it makes you feel good, not what it does to your body.

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Beyonce launches her new Ivy Park range. Yes, it’s consumerism, but it’s spiritual, yeah?

The narrative is finally shifting, or so it feels, from how we look to how we feel; to our health, physical and mental. My weighing scale is currently buried under some decorating sheets, and long may it stay. While I cut through the water I feel stronger and more at peace than ever before. It doesn’t matter how old I am, what colour I am, even that I’m a woman, and to me, that’s a blissful state. Maybe at last, my heart can move on from the 90s.

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Just like Beyonce, see?

For the love of skin part II #guestblog

In the same way that it’s important to look after your fitness between swims, it’s important to look after your skin and well-being too. Last week, guest beauty blogger Gilded Magpie gave some recommendations for products to keep in your kit bag to use after a session. This week, she explores products to use at home.

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Hi all! Gilded Magpie back again with some more skin care recommendations to help you keep your swimmer’s skin looking distinctly un-swimmery. Last week  I suggested some lovely products to keep in your kit bag, today I am going to recommend a few bits to keep in your bathroom.

All products are suitable for women and men, except those marked with a * which smell a bit feminine.

Firstly: body products.

I know from experience that chlorine wreaks havoc with the skin on your upper arms particularly. Little patches of dry, tight skin abound and any existing skin conditions can be exacerbated. Moisturiser is a must and, if you get on with a bog standard body lotion then more power to you. Sometimes my skin needs a bit of a boost above and beyond the in-shower moisturisers I mentioned last week. For this I like to use a smoothing body lotion – these are moisturising but also contain alpha and beta hydroxy acids which gently exfoliate. Dry skin patches and chicken skin begone! Palmers do a really good priced version called the Anti-Ageing Smoothing Lotion* (£4.39  here) but I simply cannot stick the smell of the stuff. I have been testing Clarins Renew Plus Body Serum* (£40 for 200ml here) and Ameliorate Skin Smoothing Body Lotion (from £17.50 for 100ml here). Clarins to the left of me, Ameliorate to the right (thanks to Stealers Wheel for the memory trick) and I have to conclude that they are about equal in terms of skin smoothing and chicken skin busting. The Clarins smells infinitely better however – Ameliorate has an odd, jarring chemical smell that hangs around all day. It isn’t over powering and I doubt any one would notice but Clarins edges it for me for that reason.

Secondly: the face.

I like to use different cleansers in the morning and evening. I like to be refreshed and woken up in the morning and nurtured and cosseted in the evening. Swimming regularly adds another dimension to this in that your skin needs to be cosseted and nurtured whatever time of day it is. For this reason I would chose Ultimelt by Soap and Glory (£10 here) for the morning. This is a beautifully unctuous cream cleanser with oils and skin treating ingredients but it rinses really well and has a tiny bit of a tingle to it. Skin is left soft and supple feeling, perfectly cleansed and balanced for serum and moisturiser. In the evening thicker balms are the order of the day. Make up needs to be destroyed, skin needs to be pummelled and nourishing oils need to be introduced. Boots Botanicals do an excellent Hot Cloth Cleansing Balm (on offer at a bargainous £5.99 here) which is thick and effective. Even quite heavy make up is removed easily but it feels really nourishing and rich on the skin below. For something a touch lighter but still emphatically balmy Lush’s Ultrabland* is for you (from £7.50 for 45g here). Slightly creamier than the Botanicals balm this is still very luxurious feeling and smells deliciously of honey. Both these products will need to be removed with a flannel. The Boots one comes with a muslin but I find these a bit mimsy – flannels feel much more like you are having a bit of a facial and are more effective at removing all the product/end-of-day-face-grub.

For faces suffering the wrath of the elements/overexposure to chorine a bit of exfoliation is probably a good thing. I like to exfoliate with acids, as with the body lotions mentioned above, rather than scrubs but each to their own. A gentle acid tone, after cleansing 4+ (depending on your skin type – build up) nights per week can do wonders for dry, flaky and irritated bits of skin. I use a plethora of different acids but I would say that Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Night Pads Extreme (on offer for £9.97 here – I need to get me to Boots!) are a good and well priced all rounder. Do not be fooled by the ‘Extreme’ labelling, these have less alcohol and dryness-causing ingredients than their ‘gentle’ version but they also contain more types of acid to work at different levels on the skin. They smell deliciously grapefruity too.

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I love a facial oil and feel that, particularly for faces that have had nourishment sucked from them for whatever reason (and swimming would be one such reason) you get the best bang for your buck in terms of skin improvements with them. Generally they aren’t cheap but they last ages so offer reasonable value for money. I know people with oily skin baulk at adding oil but, counter intuitively, it can help to balance the skin’s oil production and keep the complexion more even. Boots Botanicals have a really good version for an amazing price (on offer at £6.66 here). This is quite oily so you’ll only need 5-6 drops per application but it smells delicious, has a good range of oils and is 100% organic. A dryer oil, and one of my personal favourites, Caudalie’s Polyphenol C15 overnight detox oil (£29 here) is a superb fix for combination skin and uneven skin tone. I try to ignore the ‘detox’ in the title because that means little to me and focus on the benefits I see in the mirror – brighter, softer and more even skin. 6 drops of this natural, plant derived oil are all that you need for a thorough massage and it lasts for ages. I have just bought a new one after over a year of regular use.

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Finally for facial products: night creams. I am a big fan of Eucerin Hyaluron Filler Night Cream – I am on my 563rd (approx) pot and I always return to it with guilt for ever doubting its efficacy after trying alternatives. It is a delicious blanket that keeps all of my other night skin care in place. It contains the all important hyaluronic acid which is superb for treating dehydration and it helps to plump and soften the skin. I love it and for £19.50 (admittedly on offer but it often is) here it is hard to beat. Every now and then I do break out of the usual routine to give my skin a more intensive hydrating treatment. For that I have BioEssence Hydra Tri-Action Aqua Droplet Mask (£29  here). This stuff is watery but in a way that is accessible to your skin. Droplets form on massaging which you then pat into your skin to super-hydrate it. Leave on overnight for beautifully hydrated morning skin.

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Thirdly: treats.

The following products will not necessarily help your skin but they most certainly will help your mind, body and spirit. A few weeks ago Rowan wrote a post about how knackering swimming can be. Your limbs feel heavy and you seek comfort. Well look no further: bath products are the tops for providing relaxation and restoration by the bucket load. I love the Mandara Spa range, developed by the team behind Elemis but budget friendly and available in Sainsburys the Bali Santi is my favourite scent. The Island Paradise fragrance which is fresher and more citrusy runs it a close second and the bath soak is pleasingly bubbly and luxurious (£10 here). For bigger budgets/gift lists everywhere Laura Mercier Creme Brulee Honey Bath* (£33 here) smells like heaven and is skin softening and mind transporting in equal measure. For aching muscles and frazzled minds Therapie Himalayan Detox Salts will ensure a sound nights sleep and restored muscles so you are ready to face the water again the next day.

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Again, I will haunt the comments section for questions. I hope there are some recommendations above that can be incorporated into your routines and will really help with nourishing and hydrating your skin.

Enjoy, Gilded Magpie XOXO

For the love of skin #guestblog

If you’re anything like me, your skin suffers from all that training. I frequently get that tickling, crawling sensation that comes with swimmer’s itch, and before I consulted my guest blogger, I suffered hard, white pimples under my skin.

Let me introduce Gilded Magpie, an experimenter, an expert, a nurse and a beautiful woman herself. She tries all manner of skincare products from high end to budget. She really gets into what goes into products, and how the ingredients work. And, like any good nurse, she knows exactly what’s good for you…

*****

As a skincare enthusiast and sometime beauty blogger I have been asked to recommend a few products to keep in your kit bags/bathroom shelves to keep your skin all lovely looking despite exposing it to the ravages of chlorine, or (for open water lovers) the elements.

Honestly I could go on forever about skin care/beauty gubbins but I have tried to keep in mind the practicalities of limited bag space, suitable packaging and cost. I will be around in the comments to answer your questions…

(Apart from those marked with a *, all are equally good for men and women.)

First up: kit bag essentials.

Boots does a really broad range of travel minis so you should be able to easily find a shampoo/conditioner combination and shower gel to suit there. Post washing I think your skin would thank you if you added in a body conditioner. I know there is some controversy around these in shower moisturisers but I find them easy to use and genuinely effective. I think the people who argue that any benefit is washed away simply haven’t tried them! Nivea in shower Body Moisturiser Dry is an absolute bargain at £3.69 (Boots). I use the lighter version but if you are swimming regularly then this more meaty version is just what you need.

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More luxurious and much more hydrating and oily (and appropriate given the name of this blog’s owner) is Lush’s Ro’s Argan body conditioner*, from £16.50. It smells gorgeous, a tangy rather than overly floral rose, and leaves a heavenly soft oily feeling behind on the skin. A little goes a very long way but I love to slather it on and let it sit for a bit before rinsing. The packaging is not completely kit-bag-friendly but it would be worth decanting this and keeping some at home too: you’ll want to use it all the time!

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Your face is the first place that any dryness or dehydration as a result of exposure to swimming pool chemicals or extreme temperatures will show. There is very little that you can do during your swim to limit exposure (though decent waterproof sunblock is an absolute must) but you can really treat your skin once you are back on dry land.

I think a lovely luxurious oil based facial cleanser is a must to remove any chemicals and to start your skin rehabilitation. If money were no object, and you had infinite space in your bag for enormous glass bottles then I would go with Tata Harper Nourishing Oil Cleanser* which is delicious and rinses really well so no need for a wash cloth. More realistically Una Brennan does similar oil cleansers which rinse well and are much more practically packaged and priced. My top pick would be the Vitamin C Skin Renew Cleansing Oil (£10.99 from Boots) for its mild resurfacing properties but the Rose Miracle Makeover Facial Oil* (£14.99 also from Boots) has better packaging for toting around pools and plages. The Rose Oil also doubles as a decent night oil (more on which later) but is much more expensive than the Vitamin C, which could always be decanted.

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In order to restore the moisture to your newly soft-from-oil cleansed skin I think a decent hydrating serum is a must. For pure hydration with no bells or whistles Vichy Aqualia Thermal Dynamic Hydration Serum (£22.50, Boots) cannot be beaten. It feels lovely on the skin and is absorbed quickly and really really works. Patchy dryness and those very fine lines that get worse with dehydration will be a thing of the past. For slightly more cash and with slightly more age defying ingredients Hylamide SubQ Anti-Age Advanced Serum (£30, Boots) is also super hydrating but contains a plethora of peptides and collagen boosting gubbins to minimise the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and “surface irregularities”. I know, I know, we’ve heard it all before, but I really rate this serum and the brand behind it. They use their science well and their products do seem to deliver.

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To seal in all that goodness a decent moisturiser is an essential finishing touch. I know it isn’t the absolute cheapest but I cannot speak highly enough of Skyn Iceland’s Arctic Hydrating Balm (£25, M and S). It is a beautiful product, deeply hydrating and an amazing base for make up. Even though I use it pretty much every day I remain surprised at the longevity of its moisturisation. It is also a brilliant carrier for oils/moisturiser boosters and I often add a couple of drops of jojoba oil, or even a night oil, if my skin is feeling undernourished.

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You should now be ready to sally forth all clean and conditioned! A word of caution before I leave you: talc is an absolute no no. Having worked in swimming pools for years I know it is completely revolting when wet and no one likes to step in or clean up the grey slime left behind. If that were not reason enough to NEVER use it Johnson and Johnson have recently been ordered to pay out $72million to the family of a deceased woman who’s ovarian cancer was linked to talcum powder use. Just say no folks.

I’ll be back next week with some home based product recommendations to maintain that lovely skin. In the meantime, like I said, I will stalk the comments section below for any questions. May your skin always be glowing and your swims always swift…

XOXO Gilded Magpie.