Wild swimming has made me better at my job
It was still dark outside when my alarm went off and I suddenly remembered what I’d agreed to.
After pressing snooze and almost cancelling, the braver voice inside me won and I unpeeled myself from my duvet and into a cheap wetsuit.
This was the latest in a series of comfort zone challenges I’d set myself. I’d been feeling at a bit of a crossroads, so when my neighbour mentioned he was going to swim in a Leeds lake at the crack of dawn the next day, I found myself saying yes.
I’ve been wild swimming since spring this year, and I can honestly say it’s been mind-altering. I’d swam in the sea during a British holiday last year and been shocked by how alive it made me feel. I’d plunged into Ilkley Lido when the sun was coming up last summer and fallen in love with the characters I met there, who all had a story to tell and really seemed to have life nailed.
I’ve never been strong in the water, I can’t even do front crawl. But the idea of swimming outdoors represents freedom to me, and that’s something I chase in everyday life – especially during lockdown. Being in nature is also the biggest mood booster for me, so that’s what forced me to get out of bed that day.
The first bit is the worst. I’m a faffer, paddling around at the edge and wondering if I will or I won’t - I’m in awe of those who just dive straight in. The cold water snaps at your toes and ankles like a crab, your heart is in your mouth and everything in you wonders what on earth you’re doing, but there’s something that makes you do a deal with yourself and know that it’ll pass.
And then once you’ve dipped your shoulders into the murky waters and got through the reeds grabbing at your calves, you are filled with what I can only describe as pure joy. The coldness subsides and every cell in your body and brain feels invigorated. You feel like a superhero for overcoming your fears, and that feeling doesn’t leave you.
The mental and physical benefits of swimming outdoors are attracting more and more devotees. Cambridge University recently discovered a potential link to slowing down the onset of dementia. Other studies have found it significantly decreases symptoms of anxiety and the menopause for women, and that cold water immersion activates a whole host of health rewards, from a stronger heart to a more digesting gut.
Whilst I’m lucky that I don’t currently have those kind of conditions to cure, I can say that swimming outdoors in lakes and the sea has made me happier, braver, calmer and more able to cope with what life throws at me. If there’s a difficult situation at work, I find myself now leaning in to discomfort, rather than shying away from it; just like plunging myself into a freezing lake. It’s an endurance test, and a skill you can take into many of life's stressful situations. It’s given me mental resilience – and nothing beats the feeling of having had a proper adventure before you’ve even started your working day.
It’s reset my mind and body and makes me feel strong. When we were little, my twin sister always ran outside to stand in the rain while I watched from the radiator by the window, thinking she was mad - but now a swim in the sea during a torrential downpour is top of my to do list.