Why cold water swimming is more than just Christmas craziness

It is usually seen as the preserve of the ultra-hardy and the ‘little bit wacky’, but cold water swimming has seen an extraordinary increase in popularity in 2020, chiefly because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lidos up and down the country have reported huge rises in demand as the British public continue to search for permitted activities while cold water swimming groups are also seeing unprecedented numbers joining.

Usually the sight of semi-naked men and women, some with antlers and Santa hats, charging down the Leigh-on-Sea beach, is a remarkable and newsworthy event (to be fair, it still makes for good pictures!) but this year, immersing yourself in freezing waters is becoming the sport of choice and now the Essex beach is seeing a procession of swimmers every day.

A Facebook page launched in October looking to recruit swimmers to the beach reached almost 650 members in two months and numbers have continued to rise during the latest lockdown. The attraction is simple, say the swimmers – working from home has given them time to step back and look to seek out more simple pleasures in life. And swimming in the sea is just that.

A branch of the Bluetits – a women’s open water swimming group which has 6,000 members worldwide – has been set up in Leigh-on-Sea by Lisa Monger and is run by her friend Jenny Bier. Jenny went for her first ever open water swim in the Thames Estuary in September and described it  to the Press Association: 

“I went in up to my thighs and I thought, ‘That is absolutely awful.’ It really, really hurt. I got out again. And then I gave myself a talking to and I went back in and it was just glorious. A boat had just come in with a load of cockles or fish or something and the bloke said to me, ‘You must be absolutely mental.’ It was raining at the time. He said: ‘What are you doing, are you alright?’ I was like, ‘This is the best thing ever!’ I was so happy I’d done it, but it wasn’t an easy first one. I’ve tried to go in maybe three or four times a week ever since whenever I can.”

The Bluetits – and their male counterparts the Bluebells – like Sportside, look to connect like-minded swimmers whatever their age or stage and Lisa added:  “This year has stripped back all the stuff that’s not important and has made people appreciate the simple things. That’s what has drawn people to it, I think.

“You might be feeling completely stressed and overwhelmed and it’s something that soothes you and washes away stress and really forces you to forget everything else because you’re so focused in the moment, of feeling everything as you walk into the water. Feeling how cold it is. Other times I’ll go there wanting the camaraderie and laughs and banter with other people who are on the beach.”

The group reports that there can sometimes be as many as 50 people in the water at 7am – but that the numbers remain steady throughout daily hours. “The ones that surprise me are when it’s 11am,” Lisa told the Press Association. “Ordinarily people would be at work, and actually people are saying, ‘You know what – I’m going to take my lunch break when the tide’s there.’”

It has become a community and, as Jenny says: “It’s been a lovely way to connect with people in a very strange time.”

Meanwhile, back in the pools, Woburn Lido in Bedfordshire, which normally closes in September for the winter, said so many people had been in contact asking to swim in the pool that they opened up again for winter.

They have proved so popular that the charity-run pool is putting on extra sessions over Christmas.

“The demand has taken us by surprise. We walked into this not knowing what to expect, but we have been astonished,” trustee Murray Heining told the BBC.

“Most of the sessions have sold out and we are adding more,” he added. “The charity is now planning how it can remain open all year round. We don’t want to see it left empty and it’s looking good for the future.”

Earlier in the year, The Telegraph caught up with Lido Ladies London, an Instagram account borne out of the frustrations of the first lockdown.

Jessica Walker, a full-time carer to her mother who had been diagnosed with colon cancer, needed an outlet for her stress, and the local pool gave her just that.

“When you’re a full time carer it’s emotionally draining – there’s no escape,” she told The Telegraph. “But in the swimming pool no one can reach you. What started as a quick dip became like a prayer every morning. A daily meditation: you breathe in, you breathe out and you let go of any stress or anxiety.”

Jessica, 56, got her friend Nicola Foster on board too and the pair would head off to Charlton Lido at 7am every morning.  They told the Telegraph just what the swimming had done for their physical and mental health.

“After I turned 50, getting out of bed and that first walk down the stairs was really quite stiff. But then I woke up one morning and thought: ‘I’m not stiff anymore, it’s gone, it’s absolutely gone,’” said Nicolda. “The issue I had with my hip, my knee, all gone, I felt amazing. I’m convinced exercise is the explanation. The swimming also helped me manage my weight and keep it stable. I’ve lost 10 kilos since I started.”

Lido Ladies London, an account created to spread the word about the swimmers’ new-found passion and encouraging other midlife women to get in the water, already has over 500 followers.

Cold water swimming must, of course, be taken seriously and safely. Ann-Marie Dale, who took up cold water swimming earlier this year and also volunteers as a Lifeboat Press Officer in Newquay, Cornwall, explains: “It is really important to go into the water slowly so you can get used to the temperature and avoid cold water shock. Always swim with someone else, stay in your depth and know how to warm up properly afterwards. That may sound obvious but is very important to avoid any delayed effects of the cold.

“If you’re not feeling up to it that day, stay out of the water. The sea will still be there for another swim tomorrow – and the day after. If you or anyone else does get into trouble call 999 immediately and ask for the Coastguard.’

Katie Richards, also from Newquay, runs a group called swimminwimmin’ with over 300 active members. She says she has been for a swim in the sea every day since the start of 2020.

“Local swimming groups are a great way to find others to swim with safely and keep up to date with important advice for your area – such as sea temperatures, tides, and swell,” she says. “It’s also a great way to learn tips from experienced swimmers, like the importance of staying visible with colourful caps and tow floats.”

The RNLI’s official safety advice for taking a winter dip is:

  • Don’t swim alone – always go with someone else and to a familiar spot
  • Always check the weather forecast, including tide information and wave height
  • If in doubt, stay out – there is always another day to go for a swim
  • Take plenty of warm clothes for before and after your dip, along with a hot drink or a hot water bottle to help you warm up again when you come out of the water
  • Wearing a wetsuit will help increase your buoyancy and reduce the chances of suffering cold water shock
  • Be seen – wear a brightly coloured swim cap and consider using a tow float
  • Acclimatise to the water temperature slowly – never jump straight in
  • Stay in your depth and know your limits
  • If you get into trouble remember FLOAT to live by leaning back in the water, extending your arms and legs, and resisting the urge to thrash around to gain control of your breathing
  • Take a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch

Cold water swimming – done safely – can be incredibly good for you: it boosts your immune system, it improves circulation, it burns calories, reduces stress and, most importantly at this incredibly difficult time, it makes you happier! It activates endorphins which is the brain’s way of making you feel good. Not only is it a form of exercise, which already has these effects, but endorphins are released when the body is in a difficult or stressful position to help us cope with it – such as being in cold water.

And it is a great way to make new friends and socialise which is just another way to boost your mood. 

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