Cold water swimming Swimming and mental health

Swimming during a pandemic

Episode transcript

Jade Hanley 0:07
Welcome back to Wild Swim Podcast with me, Jade Hanley.

It’s hard to know how to start this episode and do justice to what the last year and a bit has been like. And it’s fair to say that it wasn’t really what any of us had planned. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve been trying to manage some level of chaos since early in 2020. And training plans, swim meets, and even just access to water have all gone out the window. And that’s just the swimming side of things! So I wanted to make an episode to record what the last 12 months have been like for a swimmers. So at the start of 2021, I put out a call on social media for swimmers to get in touch and share their experiences of swimming, or not swimming, during a pandemic.

Way back at the start of 2020, I was planning to take things a little easier on the swimming front. I was fed up after all the training for the Dart 10k the previous year, and I wasn’t in a good place with my job. So I didn’t want the pressure of any big events looming. I started the year knowing that I needed to take things a little bit easier. Little did I know that February’s limited swimming due to a combination of short days and bad weather would then be followed by a global pandemic, and the UK would go into lockdown in March. Trapped inland with only strict reasons to leave home, and with organised sessions stopped, I was forced to stop swimming completely. When I said I wanted a break, I didn’t mean like that! For many of us just getting into the water was a real challenge, as Nadia explains.

Nadia 1:50
And I suppose my intention during 2020 was to repeat 2019 and just swim as much outdoors as I could but part of the organised sessions. And of course, then came along lockdown, and those swimming sessions weren’t available to me anymore. And for much of the year in Greater Manchester, the pools weren’t open either. So I did what I could, which was to just visit the local facility that we’ve got the outdoor facility and dip and to swim if possible if I was able to have somebody with me.

Jade Hanley 2:29
And obviously the pandemic is global, it wasn’t just the UK. Russ from Boston, USA told me about his experience.

Russ 2:37
We shut down completely around March 15 2020. Luckily, at that point, the weather started to get pretty beautiful. So, you know, for the first few weeks, there was still no swimming, you know, the temperatures were just a little too cold. But I was going up to the lake and doing entries and exits, you know, basically just getting wet. And standing in the lake, and just to bear the temperature a little bit without really leaving my feet. And then I would say around mid April, I was able to start swimming a little bit, you know, five minutes here, 10 minutes there. And, you know, given the distance of driving for five or 10 minutes, it seemed like a lot to do. But, but there wasn’t much else to do! So it was a nice way to get back into nature.

Jade Hanley 3:44
I’d even started to look longingly at the very brown rivers and canal that flow through the middle of Manchester. Although I’ve never actually quite reached a point where that seemed like a good idea! I have seen some very creative solutions to this enforced break though, including outdoor pools in gardens, and even filling wheelie bins with water. I have to confess that’s a little too far, even for me.

Despite longing to swim again. After the first lockdown lifted. I didn’t return to the water for several months. I think for me, it felt like a big change after having been so careful for so long, and trying to avoid risks. And while this was slightly more of a choice for me, I wasn’t shielding or anything, it was strange having some part of my life missing for so long. Others chose not to swim, like Liz, who I spoke to just before the lockdown restrictions lifted in April 2021.

Liz R 4:39
Oh, well. It’s been interesting, isn’t it. Lock down three, I think this is, or 300, I’m not sure! But I haven’t swum since Christmas Eve. And as you will know me from old I’m quite the swimmer. It’s kind of what I do. It’s kind of who I am. So yeah, I found it really tough not swimming. And you know, I’ve watched people locally go and swim in rivers. Not in any of the lakes because the ones I’d go to are the organised ones, but working as part of the NHS family during this time I took the decision not to go and throw myself into a river, or any other body of water for that just in case something went wrong and I put strain on the NHS in any way. So I took a, yeah, big decision not to swim at all over this time. But I’m really looking forward to going back to it next week.

Jade Hanley 5:28
And how have you found being dry for so long?

Unknown Speaker 5:31
Yeah, it’s I’ve had very long showers in the mornings. Cold showers more recently, just to get ready for getting back in the water. Yeah, I find it really difficult actually because although I swim for physical health, and also for, you know, the endurance element of sport, I actually like a lot of people swim for my mental health as well. So actually, I’ve really missed that I’ve really missed getting in the water. When nobody can get at you where you can just, you know, disappear off into whatever world you want to count lanes, don’t count lanes, count laps, don’t count laps, I’ve really, really missed that. Yeah, I’m very, very keen to be back in the water. Yeah, it’s been difficult. I’ve missed my friends as well, my swimming buddies, you know, and those might be people at the pool who I just wave or tap their toes as I want to get past or whatever. But just just missing those kinds of people. And then at the lake, our late this year, had said they would stay open throughout the year. And then just after locked down two with all the, I don’t know if you remember, really, really heavy rains, and the lake flooded. So actually, they bought the end of the season, where they bought an end to the season and after after that lockdown, so they didn’t reopen and aren’t reopening until next weekend actually that lake. So where I had got plans to swim throughout the winter this year, they all kind of disappeared. So I missed the friends from there as well.

Jade Hanley 6:55
Yeah, I know what you mean, I think I’m quite lucky with the podcast and I get to speak to other people about swimming. But yeah, otherwise, there’s not really anyone in my life who is interested in it and having someone that you can chat to about being in the water, who really gets what that means. I’ve been missing that.

Liz R 7:10
I know, I think if my husband hears from me once more “I just want to swim!”, I think he might just dump me in the in the water butt or something! So I think he’s as happy as me that there’s water in my week ahead. So yeah, but it’s been tough. And I’m lucky to see some swim friends that I’ve been chatting to throughout. And you know, some of them have still been swimming and been able to get in the water, which you know, is great for them. And, you know, I think it’s been one of those times when you do realise the things that you really appreciate and the things that you do miss. So my little office at home now is just covered in swim pictures. You know, I’m sitting here now looking at pictures of lidos and pictures of lakes. And I’m like, yeah, it’s okay, you’ve been surrounded by water, if not in it.

Jade Hanley 7:53
I do you have to confess that I also set my computer background to being a photo of me swimming!

Whatever the reasons for having a break from swimming, getting back in is pretty special. Lisa describes perfectly the draw that being in the water has when you’ve been out of it. And that feeling of swimming for the first time after you’ve had a break.

Lisa 8:14
I was busy with work beginning of November, and didn’t get in the water for 13 days. And on Saturday afternoon, I was saying to my husband, “I have to go to the water. I just have to get in, I don’t care who comes with me!”. So I can feel the I could feel the tension just leaching out of me into the water. There’s something exquisite about being in nature and in water supported and surrounded and cared for I think, and the perspective changes. Wildlife you see. We had three amazing swans fly over us inland feet away from us.

Jade Hanley 8:59
I was definitely missing being in nature and being outdoors. I tried to substitute swimming for other sports. Yoga was great in the early part of lockdown. But space is at a premium in a small flat with two people. And being in the same four walls day in day out starts to take its toll and eventually I dropped off. I also tried running for a while and dare I say it I actually got to a place where I was enjoying it before an old injury came back and I was advised to stop. It sounds like Liz was a bit more successful with her non swimming adventures.

Liz R 9:30
Well, I tried and I have done ever since locked down one actually gone out every morning for about an hour’s walk. I mean, it doesn’t replace swimming in the in the same physical benefits. But it’s been good to get out of the house to go and get a change of scene every day and make sure I’ve been out and about doing that actually, I’ve met this sweetest little dog on my walk, a little dog called Gibbs. And you know it’s lovely. I don’t see him every day but when I see him he sort of recognises me now. So he comes bounding along so it’s kind of like a walk buddy rather than a swim buddy. So I’ve been doing that. And then since Christmas, I’ve been getting back into, you know, training really. So bit of strength training in the back garden and stuff like that. So I’ve got a TRX and I’ve got some Finis strength bands and stuff like that. So I’ve been working on those kinds of things so when I can get back in the water, my muscles know which way to move. So yeah, but but mainly mainly just just with walking. And then weekend’s walking out with a husband. And you know, getting out to the countryside. I’m quite lucky where we live that we’re sort of 10 minutes from the country so we can get out on the fields and walk. So that’s been quite nice, too, but not the same as getting in the water!

Jade Hanley 10:39
I love that people, including myself, try these new things as a result of lockdown. And for some that even included trying wild swimming for the first time. Here’s another Liz on her experience.

Liz H 10:51
Hi, everyone. I’m Liz. I recently got into wild swimming last May in the in the lockdown. And it was just an incredible feeling of coming back to myself. I’ve always loved the water, and felt very comfortable and very at home, always splashing around as a child, always on holidays, straight into the sea, straight into the swimming pool. But felt less and less comfortable and confident as I got older. And being overweight was something that I was quite concerned about wearing a swimsuit. But at any time I could, either with my partner or on my own, I’d be in the water, feeling comfortable feeling myself.

And yeah, like last year, I was spending more and more time outside as I think we all were, and started to get into the, into the water into the lakes and reservoirs around where I’m living in Manchester. And it felt incredible. And I could see more and more people doing it. And I was finding people on Facebook and the community is so welcoming and friendly, that I started to think, gosh, maybe I can keep doing this. And as it got to sort of September, I realised that I was no longer, you know, going for a walk or maybe thinking about swimming, I was going to walk and swim. And I was starting to get some better kit, I was starting to get my routine of having my flask and having all the clothes ready to get out and make that transition a bit quicker and easier. And yeah, and then suddenly, I was swimming twice a week, and I was finding some beautiful spots. And for me, that’s kind of like the added extra rates. It’s the the bonus. I do love love swimming. It’s not my favourite activity, but it’s just the dipping and being in the water that just feels so incredible. And you know, I’d be going out and even in the drizzle even in the rain, that sort of Manchester famous for it was just incredible. You know, and going for a big hike, finishing with a swim, having a cup of tea, and just just feeling amazing.

And so yeah, this continued through October through November. And I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to come back to this, I think not knowing people that did it and sort of having people think you’re quite odd to want to make it very easy to sort of forget about it and so seeing people carrying on and realising I wasn’t the only one that was benefiting from this really gave me the confidence to keep going. I mean, I must admit, I quite like go by myself in a way because I just like to be a bit more spontaneous. But I have gone on some of the mental health swims. And that’s a fantastic way of just meeting like minded people.

And since January, I haven’t been able to go because of the the new lockdown where I swim is too far out of my local area. And I’m really missing it. And it’s the one thing that actually when lockdown ends that I just can’t wait to do because for me, it’s just been a real lifesaver and a real way of reminding myself who I am and feeling most like myself and actually nodbody cares what you look like when you wild swim because you’re so bothered about getting out of the water and getting dressed again or getting into the water and feeling the amazingness. So, so for me it’s just felt very, very comfortable. And I can’t wait to do it again.

Jade Hanley 14:26
It’s always great to hear from someone experiencing the benefits and finding a love for wild swimming for the first time. And even as someone who swims regularly, I felt like returning to the water after so long gave me a new appreciation for what I gained from it. I returned to swimming in summer 2020 and before my first swim, I was so nervous. Some that was the anxiety around not really knowing what to expect from the new COVID protocols. But it was also worrying about how I’d feel about being back in the water. Had I built up swimming to be something that was so special in my head. I’d be disappointed by the reality? When I got to this when I dithered about getting in, and luckily Manchester made up my mind for me and it started raining. So I figured if I was going to get wet standing and looking at the water, I might as well get in.

Once I was in the water, I felt a lot calmer. The temperature being similar to the air certainly helped. And then I started swimming. The first 200 metres or so were hard after not really using my arms for much for so long. But I was buzzing from that swim all day, it’s fair to say it did not disappoint, definitely lived up to expectations.

And in the past, probably like a lot of people when I couldn’t swim in open water, I’d resort to a pool. But here in the UK, the pools have been closed for most of the year. Russ, based in the USA, has been able to return to the pool and describes what it was like to start his training again.

Russ 15:53
I would say it was late July when the indoor pool opened. And you know, they had lots of safety protocols, you know, more than one person per lane, etc. But each time that I went, I was literally one of two or maybe three people in a 50 metre pool, you know, 50 metre pool puts about 20 metres wide. So plenty of social distance. And when I got back in my comparative times were way off. Like pre pandemic, I might have been averaging 1:13 per 100 metres. And post pandemic I was probably averaging about 1:27 per 100 metres. And it was really, given my age, I’m now 47, it was really some time before I could get back to where I was. I would say that that finally happened maybe this February, where I was able to start to feel like I was on track for the race that I have the summer, which was also planned for the last summer. It’s the it’s the 10 mile US Masters Openwater National Championships in Lake Memphremagog, which I know you know about because you were talking to another swimmer on your podcast. So I felt like I was on target last March for that. And I was, you know, understandably glad that they postponed it and I think it was the right thing to do. So yeah, I would say, you know, maybe a month and a half ago was when I started to feel like I was finally back. It took some time for me to to get back to where I was pre-pandemic.

Jade Hanley 17:45
I’m sure the uncertainty about his race that Russ describes is something that’s familiar to many. There’s so many events cancelled or postponed or just feeling very uncertain. One thing I’ve enjoyed seeing emerge is more virtual challenges. And I’ve even taken part in a few, ranging from cold water swimming challenges to Christmas themed challenges. And probably the most memorable is taking part in a virtual event called Lakes for Level Water, which was a fundraising event for a charity providing swimming lessons for children with disabilities. I knew I wasn’t swim fit enough to try and take on a big distance challenge. So I created my own personal challenge to try and increase my sponsorship. So I swam while dressed as an octopus. Obviously.

Eva wrote in to tell me about her experience of taking part in a virtual event, which I’ll read on her behalf.

When we were allowed back in the sea after lockdown, the forced rest from swimming had taken my spark to an even higher level, feeling more like a flame. And I was not alone. I swim with amazing friends and family. The Bristol Channel with the second highest tidal range in the world should, however, be respected. So we message each other with the wind force and where the tide is and encourage each other and just keep going. And in the autumn, three of us who have never completed a swimming event before enrolled in a virtual Henley Swim Club to Pub challenge. It was a 1.5 kilometre swim that we were going to do before November the first. We did it in the bracing Bristol Channel. In short wetsuits and equipped with mobile phones to measure the distance. It was 18th October, and after a long cold swim, we decided to check the distance, although there was a definite lack of brain cell activity, and we couldn’t for the life of this convert the miles measures into kilometres. So we kept swimming and swimming! So while taking on the springtide, the autumn sea and the brain blankness we actually smashed our target distance of 1.5k by swimming over 2.5k in this bleak year.

A big well done, Eva and friends for smashing their target, even if it was unintentional. Other swimmers more personal challenges like Nadia.

Nadia 20:02
And then it became autumn into winter and some of my friends and I decided that that’s what we’re going to try and continue doing over the winter. So we wherever we can subject to lock down restrictions we will meet in once or when we’ve been able to in bigger groups and just dipped really in cold water. I decided that wetsuit was just too much hassle for me before work to be carrying kit about and organising kit and drying it all off when I got back. So I’ve done skin dipping all over winter and just, you know, to shake it up a bit we’ve done some sunrise dips, some sunset dips, some dark dips. Later in 2021, I have a Coniston Lake swim, a five and a quarter mile swim. So as soon as it can get back into training for that I will. It’s slightly too cold for me in the water yet to do any decent distance in the cold water. But I’m hopeful that the pools will reopen on the 12th of April. And I will certainly be continuing dipping in the cold water for probably forever. I just love it. I love the invigoration of it. It’s had for me a sort of a sport element over lockdown a relaxation element, some form of routine, and also a social element when that’s been possible with the restrictions.

Jade Hanley 21:33
As many swimmers have alluded to in the experiences they shared already, this winter was a real challenge. Short days made it hard to get out and about an increase in hospital admissions caused another lockdown, which meant that swimming venues were closed again. Frustrating as this was only a few weeks after they opened up. Many of us were also missing friends and family. And the best way that I can describe it is that at this point, the world felt quite small and dark.

So it was a huge relief that one venue near me were able to run one on one sessions, so that a couple of times a month, I was able to get into the water that USwim Salford Quay. Although the water wasn’t kind! It was dark was windy, it was often raining, and obviously it was cold getting down to two degrees, which is the coldest I’ve ever experienced there in several years of swimming in that location. All my photos from these swims have this blue grey tinge to them. It’s so far from the lovely bright atmospheric images that the lifestyle section of the Sunday papers would have you believe is cold water swimming. It struck me that it was bonkers to be there swimming in February when I had a great excuse not to be and yet i’d emerge bright pink but refreshed and alive and excited. I really needed those swims to get me through winter.

Eva has written a lovely description of cold water swimming and the challenges of the weather.

The main advice from me must be to listen to the energy and the melody within you. And if that power and spirit sings about outdoor swimming, don’t let the cold stop you. As believe me when you get out there and try it the numbing feeling can be the actual driving force. Never get put off by the rain. You are definitely getting wet anyway!

And Lisa to share this wonderful summary assuming overwinter with her friends.

Lisa 23:30
My experience of wild swimming in COVID has been life changing. Life altering, I think. Yes, definitely. So I swim with some swim sisters in south Manchester, Pickmere and Sale Water Park. And we met on the last day of September we did a dusk swim together. I’d seen on Facebook, a woman who had done a dawn and dusk swim the day before. So I met two women my lovely friend Sophie and Lesley and we swam, and we bumbled about, and I was in a wetsuit and they were in their swimmers. And we have continued to do that together ever since. We swim between two and three times a week, and it is so therapeutic is like a drug. So I’ve been swimming September through now now through March, swum all year without a break. I’m very, very lucky. I swim in my wetsuit, and then I take my wetsuit off halfway through and I swim in my swimming costume. And I cannot highly recommend it enough. I am a convert.

Jade Hanley 24:43
As spring began the end of what’s hopefully our last lockdown approached and restrictions started to ease and venues began to reopen. I was really excited to be able to swim in my swim friends again, as they’ve been months since I’d seen some of them. Plus, it’s basically been me and my partner for 24/7 for a year, so the company of any other human was sounding pretty amazing by that point! It’s fair to say, I wasn’t the only one who was excited about getting back in the water. Here’s Liz again.

Liz R 25:11
Yeah, happily I’ve got next week off. I mean, that was just by chance, really. So I’ve got next week, often Monday on book to go swimming in a lake, not my normal lake, but a lake that was opening on Monday. So I’m going there Monday, early evening. And then Tuesday, I’ve got a cold lido swim at Woburn Lido. And then I’ve given myself Wednesday off unless I can find somewhere where the space so Thursday I’m going for swim at Chesham Outdoor Pool, which is warm. And on Friday, I’ve booked myself in at Ware Lido, and I’ve never swam there before either. So that’s a warm one as well. So four swims during the week, and then on Saturday, the lake, Box End where I normally swim and train is reopening. So I’ll be back there on Saturday morning. So yeah, I should be maxing out next week. That’s for sure.

Jade Hanley 25:58
Oh, brilliant. It sounds like you’re making up for lost time!

Liz R 26:01
Yeah, yeah. Mind you, I’ve got to get the wetsuit out the garage tomorrow and make sure that still alright. So let’s hope that it’s grown with me or shrunk with me or whatever we’ve done, we’ve done it together!

Jade Hanley 26:11
I also think the last 12 months as tough, and as dry as they might have been, have given me the chance to reflect and appreciate some things I took for granted before, like having access to water and being able to go for a swim. So I asked others what they were grateful for. And I got a range of responses, including previous podcast guest Jo Jones, who was grateful for discovering a new local swim spot. Caroline from the Swim Tribe Podcast who find that working from home meant she had more time for swimming during the week. Imogen who enjoyed cold water swims and running into the sea shrieking with laughter – what a great image! And the Saltyseagal who turned to a paddling pool in her garden.

Lately, I’ve loved seeing swim venues become busy again, an events start up. I took part in my first event for 2021 recently, swimming a mile in Ullswater in the Lake District at an event run by Epic Events. We lucked out with a calm lake, on an absolutely beautiful day, surrounded by the stunning fells. And maybe because I haven’t really left Manchester for a year, at times, it felt so beautiful that it seemed unreal, and I questioned if I was really there. If this was really happening. It was amazing to see the organisers and all the swimmers so full of energy, probably because we’ve been cooped up for forever. And I came away buzzing and filled with positivity for the 2021 swim year.

Thank you so much to Eva, Lisa, Liz H, Liz R, Nadia, and Russ for taking the time to share your experiences with me in this episode. I thank you too for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please consider supporting the podcast to our Patreon support starts from one pound a month, and you can find details on the website or leave us a review on your podcast provider which helps other people find the podcast and helps it grow.

Until next time, happy swimming!

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