Live Wildly – Swim Wildly: A Guest Blog by Sophie Hellyer
Sophie Hellyer is not your typical overachiever (and I say this with love and awe!). Yes, she’s a former British champion surfer, a TEDx speaker, a model, writer and yoga teacher – but she is much more than that. Sophie is a passionate advocate of the environment, protecting the oceans and wild swimming. I simply cannot think of a better person to write our Guest Blog on the benefits of going wild by taking to the cold water!
Whenever I take people wild-swimming for the first time, the last thing I say to them before they enter the water is: “do not use the C-word!”
Then I explain: “You can swear as much as you like, just don’t utter the word “COLD”.
Instead, we all try to use words like ‘bracing’, ‘invigorating’, and ‘refreshing’ (ha!). Anything with a positive vibe helps you embrace the elements. It’s like magic with the mind.
Before you know it, that scary winter dip is something you genuinely look forward to because you’ve stripped away all the negative language and feelings – what’s left is a really awesome, wholesome experience that makes you feel invincible. It might not be for everyone, but how do you know if you don’t try it?
I first started wild swimming in Ireland with my friends. We’d been talking about the possible benefits of cold showers and decided we may as well jump in the sea together in the middle of winter instead of soaking ourselves at home.
We met at 7.30 am under gloomy skies and ran into the Atlantic Ocean in our swimmers. I probably only stayed in about 30 seconds, but boy did it have a lasting impact. Very quickly it became a daily ritual – a reason to set my alarm clock and rise up with a fierce, can-do attitude each day.
I’d long been a competitive surfer and I’d always had an affinity to the ocean, but wild swimming is a totally different kind of rush: the cold water forces me to stop thinking and start feeling. It calms me and energises me at the same time.
I also love the experience of being immersed in nature; I love the tranquillity of bobbing around; I love starting the day surrounded by friends; I love the rhythm and repetition of this daily routine.
I guess it’s a metaphor for life: I can cope with any kind of adversity if I put my mind to it. Writing that reminds me of a lyric from a song I play all the time, The Swimming Song by Loudon Wainwright III:
“This summer I went swimming, this summer I might have drowned,
But I held my breath and I kicked my feet, and moved my arms around.”
If you’re not yet convinced about the personal benefits of wild swimming, there is lots of evidence showing that it can boost fitness, mood, the immune system and even the libido. New research even suggests that it could slow the onset of dementia, and cure depression and anxiety.
Admittedly, scientists don’t yet know exactly why these benefits occur. It could be because of the temperature, it could be due to the therapeutic effect of being outdoors, or it could be derived from the sense of community you get from being around other like-minded people.
The current theory scientist have is that stimulation of the vagal nerve and the serotonin release that occurs when in cold water can decrease the inflammatory response, which in turn may have beneficial effects on symptoms of depressive disorders and other health issues linked to inflammation, such as Alzheimer’s and type-2 diabetes.
If this all sounds a bit far fetched, or a bit like hippy therapy, believe me, it’s not. Even the NHS now recognises the power of cold water therapy. Over the past year, they’ve paid for dozens of members of staff to undergo an 8-week wild swimming course to help them cope with trauma and stress (doubtless much of it caused by the impact of Covid on the health sector). I’ve been coaching local NHS groups in Cornwall and have seen first-hand how these people – of all ages, body types, personality types and confidence levels – have been transformed by the ocean. There’s something pretty magical about seeing people come alive in the water, and seeing those who are initially fearful of the water learning to revel in it by the end of the course. I think it has taught us all that as adults we need less adult-time and more play-time!
Of course, one of the main focuses of the NHS swim sessions has been teaching participants how to swim safely because the thing about wild swimming is it’s, err, wild. This means it can be potentially deadly if you’re not well prepared.
One of my first nuggets of safety advice is to never swim alone. Not only is swimming much safer with a friend, but it’s also much more fun. Swim with a club, or with other experienced swimmers or in supervised locations. Check out The Outdoor Swimming Society‘s website for established groups.
And if you’re not a confident swimmer, it’s never too late to learn. You can usually get adult swimming lessons and coaching at your local pool or lido for around a fiver. Check out the Swim England website for more info.
Another key piece of advice I give to people is don’t just jump in. UK sea temperatures range from around 7-16°C depending on the season – aka COLD! With this in mind, suddenly plunging into water that is 16°C or below puts very severe stress on the body. The normal reaction is ‘cold shock’ – where the breathing and heart rate increases dramatically on entering the water. This can lead to hyperventilating which is very dangerous in the water.
I recommend focussing on slow, steady breathing and long exhales as you enter the water gradually. This will help to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and keep you calm (mind magic again).
Even when you feel comfortable in the water, don’t be tempted to stay in too long. It never ceases to amaze me how many experienced sea swimmers stay in for longer than they should – five minutes is more than sufficient in winter.
The reason you shouldn’t stay in too long is because when you get out of the water you will experience the ‘after-drop’ – where the body’s core temperature continues to drop even though you’re no longer exposed to the cold temperatures. Don’t be lured into thinking you’re fine and faffing around taking photos for Instagram. Instead, you should get dry and put on lots of layers as soon as you exit the water.
Now is the time to grab a hot drink or a bit of cake for sustenance and appreciate what you’ve just achieved.
If you fancy giving it a go, there are so many beautiful places to swim, so many amazing experiences to be had.
One of my favourites includes the Kenwood Ladies Pond at Hampstead Heath in London. It’s a natural bathing pond and has a female lifeguard year-round. It’s an oasis in the middle of London. Otherwise, you can find the nearest RNLI lifeguarded beach to you on the RNLI website.
Of course, it’s important to ensure you swim in places where the water is clean, not just beautiful. Some of the most inviting spaces might in fact be hazardous. The Safer Seas app by Surfers Against Sewage is invaluable in this regard because it gives real-time water quality service updates. This basically means you can find out whether the sea is full of human poop or not before you decide to go in. Delightful, I know!
As an environmentalist and sustainability advocate, I’ve always been concerned about the state of our water and I’m always trying to teach people about it. I find that taking people wild swimming and immersing them in nature really helps.
Awareness really is the first step to protecting our waters. Once you know and care about your local blue spaces, you’ll be more inclined to protect them from pollution, sewage and such like. It’s amazing what one short dip can do.
GO FORTH AND SWIM
Hopefully, by now you’re feeling convinced. Maybe you’ve already given it a go and you’re ready to go back for more. This time, why not take someone new with you and spread the word…? No, not that word!
Main Picture Credit: Zoe Morton