Woman&home’s executive editor reveals how she fell in love with open water swimming…
I used to hate winter. With the exception of opaque tights and Christmas – both of which are great – it seemed to be a rather negative experience. The worst thing, for me, was being forced to stop wild swimming in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond because the water had got too chilly. Of course, there were those who got in year-round – but they were madwomen. Weren’t they?
Then two years ago I had an encouraging conversation with a lifeguard. She recommended neoprene socks and gloves, never staying in too long, super-warm clothes to get changed into, avoiding the temptation to stand around chatting afterwards and, most usefully, having a cold blast in the shower every day at home to keep in the zone. And so, as I approached my 50th, I decided it was time to join them.
Like increasing numbers in lidos, lakes and seaside locations around the country, I’ve become obsessed. Here are four reasons why…
Above: Hampstead Ladies Pond in winter
1. Emotional Release
Apart from the reputed health benefits of cold-water swimming, which include an improved immune system, better circulation and increased libido, the emotional benefits are hard to overstate. The (enjoyable) pain of plunging into freezing cold water is rewarded with a tsunami of endorphins, and afterwards you feel happy as a clam. And once you’ve swum in a 4°C pond, you feel like you can take on anything the day throws at you.
2. Vanity-free zone
I am constantly buoyed up by the sense of camaraderie. It’s like a club for women who put vanity aside for this portion of the day for the sheer joy of the experience. (You do not look great at the time – the benefits coming afterwards, when you’ve warmed up again and look radiant.) I feel inspired by the 70 and 80-somethings who come regularly – it gives me a sense of hope for active enjoyment of old age.
Plus there’s nothing like seeing a lot of other midlife women in the buff to make you feel totally normal. (Unlike at the gym, there’s seldom a G-string in sight, just a lot of sensible pants and necessary fleeces)
Above: Miranda and her husband Ben on their Christmas Day swim
A large part of the effect is the beauty of being outside in nature – especially for us who live in a city. I’ve swam alongside a brilliant blue kingfisher darting from branch to branch. The resident heron has swooped to land above my head. There are flocks of electric green parakeets, and the unfolding annual soap opera of whether the mallard ducklings and moorhen chicks will get eaten by the carp. And that’s all on top of the startling beauty of the changing seasons.
4. A sense of living
People ask, isn’t it mucky? Well, the water quality is tested every day and I can honestly say that while I adore this green water, I will never again swim in my chlorinated local pool, from which I rarely emerge without some sort of bug.
No, give me wild swimming in a pond – or a river, a lake or the sea – any time. It’s so much more than exercise. It’s living.
Above: The sign at Hampstead’s swimming pond indicates the chilly water temperature
Ready to try open water swimming? Some considerations…
Of course, you have to be sensible. Cold-water swimming can be dangerous and can cause cold shock (particularly if you’re not acclimatised) and hypothermia.
The Outdoor Swimming Society advises getting expert medical advice before winter swimming if you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, asthma or are pregnant.
And common sense dictates you shouldn’t just jump headfirst into a freezing pond in the middle of January without any preparation. Talk to a friendly lifeguard at your local lido or on a beach near you.