Would you take the plunge and join an open water swimming club in Suffolk?
PUBLISHED: 11:01 06 June 2017 | UPDATED: 15:47 06 June 2017
Open water swimming is growing in popularity. But as well as being enjoyable, could immersing yourself in cold water in the great outdoors be good for your health? Sheena Grant reports
“When you swim,” wrote the late, great Roger Deakin in Waterlog, his spellbinding book about wild swimming around Britain, “you feel your body for what it mostly is - water - and it begins to move with the water around it.”
For Roger, whose journey first suggested itself to him as his swam in the moat around his Suffolk home, swimming - especially outdoors - was like returning to a natural state, to experience how it was before you were born, in the safety of the womb.
He recalled illicit swims from his youth, clambering over a fence to get to the open-air pool in Diss on a sultry summer’s evening, and in the night sea at Walberswick seeing bodies “fiery with phosphorescent plankton striking through the neon waves like dragons”.
Swimming was so much more than a physical activity. There was a spiritual demension to it too. It informed his being like the memory of dreams.
Roger was ahead of the game with his 1996 masterpiece. It’s taken the rest of us a little longer to embrace the joys - and health benefits - of outdoor swimming. But we’re getting there. Membership of the Outdoor Swimming Society has jumped from just 300 in 2006 to more than 25,000 in 2016.
According to Jenny Landreth, whose “waterbiography” Swell has just been published, most cold water swimming enthusiasts are sure they get fewer colds, a claim that has been borne out by research conducted by the Extreme Environments team at Portsmouth University. Cold water is also associated with inflammation relief too, she says. The Extreme Environments team is also looking for proof that cold water swimming could help mental health.
But others don’t need scientific evidence.
They know from their own experience how good cold water swimming is for you on all kinds of levels.
Seamus Bennett, organiser of the Felixstowe Swimscapes Open Water Swimming group, has no doubt that swimming outside benefits both mental and physical health.
“It’s free and when you do it in a group like we do (which is the safest way) it is very social,” he says. “It gives people the sense of being in a community that takes in different ages, genders and backgrounds. Swimming is a great equaliser and tremendous exercise for all parts of the body.
“Being in open water gives a real feeling of freedom, challenge and achievement that you don’t really get in a pool, unless you’re swimming huge distances. It’s definitely never boring; every swim is different.
“Our group has grown every year since it started in 2012. We’ve gone from 12 to 500 (Facebook) members now. Not all of them come but the interest is there. Numbers at swims have grown too though. On a summer Saturday last year we were getting 30-40 people. This summer I suspect it could go up to 50 or 60
“On your own open water swimming is dangerous. For newcomers especially, having a group and knowing that the sea you are swimming in is safe and knowing the tides is reassuring and important. Being part of a group is more enjoyable too.”
Felixstowe Swimscapes’ summer season runs from May to October, when meets are held on Saturday mornings and Monday evenings, but some members swim all year round on a Saturday morning.
“In the summer we swim to the pier and back, which takes 60-70 minutes but people can do less than that,” says Seamus. “They can do any distance and we swim parallel to the shore so it’s easy to get out when you want to and walk back along the prom. The water quality here is good and there are no dangerous currents. We get people from all over the region who come to join us.”
The theories about why swimming in nature is good for us abound. Jenny Landreth thinks it’s got something to do with the benefits of connecting with the natural world and getting natural light, even in winter. (Her book, by way of interest, pays homage to “swimming suffragettes” who smashed prejudice, enabling women to swim freely and in it, she quotes one Suffolk noticeboard of 1860: ‘A person of the female sex shall not, while bathing, approach within one hundred yards a place at which any person of the male sex, above the age of 12 years, may be set down for the purpose of bathing.’)
There’s also the idea that the feeling of cold water is exhilarating, concentrates the mind on that one intense moment and gives an endorphin-rush.
Indeed, a Finnish study into year-round cold water swimming reported that, “after four months, swimmers felt themselves to be more energetic, active and brisk”, concluding that “improvement of general well-being is thus a benefit induced by regular winter swimming.”
There’s more literary evidence on the health benefits too. Jessica J Lee, author of Turning: A Swimming Memoir, writes about how she swam through 52 lakes in a year to gain strength after depression and repair a broken heart, while Alexandra Heminsley, author of Leap In: A Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim, says cold water swimming helped her with cope with infertility, the most difficult emotional challenge of her life.
“Just as my body seemed to be letting me down, the regular act of heading to the sea and convincing myself to withstand and enjoy the water was a regular solace,” she says. “It taught me that I can endure more than I had let myself believe.”
Jenny Landreth says one woman she spoke to for her book told how she learned to swim in Hampstead Ladies Pond after the death of her partner, to wash the grief away. “One day I came here,” she said, “and swam underwater. I felt like it was literally holding me in its arms”.
■ Felixstowe Swimscapes Open Water Swimming group, launched five years ago. Meets on Saturday, 10.30am and Monday at 6pm during the summer season. To join and find out more go to the group’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/groups/FelixstoweSwimscapes.
If you don’t fancy the sea...
Open water swimming sessions have been running at Fritton Lake Outdoor Centre, near Yarmouth, since 2009, attracting everyone from leisure swimmers to competition and even channel swimmers.
The outdoor centre’s website says: “Open water swimming is a fast-growing activity and our regular swimmers create a great community. Whoever you speak to, they’ll tell you it’s addictive, and that includes the winter swimmers who plunge into water at temperatures below 5C.”
Visit www.frittonlakeoc.co.uk/open-water-swimming/ to find out more.
The science - and the safety
Acclimatising to lower temperatures is vital as cold water shock can be fatal. Never jump or dive in. It’s thought the process of cold water adaptation leads to a reduced response to stress, which has health benefits. Wild swimming should only be undertaken by strong swimmers. Make sure you are aware of weather conditions, water levels, exit and entry points and anything else that might affect your safety.