It was nostalgia, not a desire to clear my head that first drew me to outdoor swimming in my 30s. I’d grown up close to water and spent my childhood at the beach, neck deep in the North Sea. The seaside’s effect on my mood became evident when I moved away and was saddened to no longer be greeted every morning by calming waves. I found some old photos taken on a beach where I am cold, wet but grinning widely. And so, after a period of increased anxiety as an adult, I decided to take the plunge to see if I could get that smile back. Along the way I discovered a community of likeminded souls who enjoy the soothing qualities of the sea.
My quest for swimming buddies started on social media. I searched wild swimming hashtags, discovering groups in my area filled with the familiar faces of former schoolmates and colleagues. Women of varying shapes and abilities, who swam at sunrise and sunset, regardless of the weather. I bought a new swimsuit, brightly coloured swim cap and headed to a Sunday afternoon meet-up close to home. I was nervous to disrobe and run into the sea with a bunch of strangers but I needn’t have worried. I was welcomed immediately, offered a cup of tea and given an encouraging squeeze when I whispered that I was scared. My anxiety had left me a quivering, jittery mess but when I walked into the water I could feel my rapid breathing slow down. As I focused on my breath the water enveloped me like a hug and I felt calm for the first time in weeks. I bobbed about for half an hour and left the water exhilarated and in love with the sea again.
Through Instagram I discovered photographer Anna Deacon, who recognises the benefits of wild swimming for her own mental health. "I definitely see wild swimming as a time for me, it is my self-care," she says. "I have a very busy mind and find it hard to switch off. I have always been quite an anxious person and tried various forms of mindfulness with no success. In the water you are so in the moment that you can’t focus on anything else, just being there, being hyper aware of everything around you, how your body is feeling, and it calms my mind enormously."
Anna is working on a book with journalist Vicky Allan that combines her photography and love for wild swimming. "I started photographing swimmers last September after experiencing emotional, mental and physical burnout. I decided to take a break from my commercial photography to work on this project. I was fascinated by all the brilliant people I met on swims and their stories so I started asking them if I could take their portrait, swim with them and ask them about themselves. I started an Instagram page as a place to put the stories and the project grew from there."
Vic Leeson, a trauma therapist, also reignited a childhood memory of outdoor swimming by taking an introduction to open water swimming course. "It felt amazing to be back in a natural waterway but I felt restricted by the wetsuit and the guided supervised sessions. Thankfully a friend who had similar intentions discovered a local wild swim group. We were greeted at our very first group swim with big smiles, open arms, chatter and a post-swim picnic of tea and cake. It was October 2017 when I started but I’ve kept on swimming year-round ever since."
Research to demonstrate a scientific link between wild swimming and mental health is in the early stages, with one study reporting outdoor swimming as an effective treatment for depression, but scrolling through social media, it’s clear that there are thousands of people swimming in lakes, lidos and the sea for the effect it has on their mind as much as their body.
Vic agrees that the mental health link to wild swimming cannot be ignored: "My professional experience as a trauma informed therapist has taught me how the connection between mind and body can be integral to recovery and restoring wellbeing and there is nothing as mindful or as bodily connecting as an outdoor swim. My post-swim euphoria is heightened by my sense of achievement of doing something outside of my comfort zone along with the camaraderie of my fellow swimmers. I’m left feeling like I have given my body and mind the space it needs and that sense of wellbeing remains throughout the day. When I don’t swim regularly I am much less emotionally resilient and feel out of sync with myself."
If you’re planning to give outdoor swimming a try, Ella Foote, Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) Swim Champ has some advice for newcomers: "Before trying outdoor swimming for the first time, do some research for your own safety. If you don't live near the sea, don't fret. The OSS has a Wild Swim map which is basically Google Maps for waterways. Enter your location and you will find a mixture of spots, for anything from a casual dip to an endurance swim – even in big cities like London (a new location opened just this week). The RNLI website has a section which details beaches with lifeguards on patrol and gives information on water quality and litter levels in the area."
"Even in summer you need to be wary of water temperature. If you leap into water without acclimatising first, you can be affected by cold water shock which can cause gasping for air and lead to panic. Ease yourself into the water to give your body a chance to get used to the temperature. Be aware of potential hazards and make sure you can get in and out of the water with ease. Take layers for after your swim, you are likely to be cold when you exit the water. Don’t swim alone – take a friend with you."
I’ve now been to many more meet-ups and the swimmers I’ve encountered online and IRL are such a warm, inclusive bunch. The OSS Facebook group has over 35,000 members and posts pop up from across the country every few hours – from a simple "I’m going for a swim here, anyone fancy joining me?" to advice on kit, safety and tips for novices. Lifelong friendships are formed in the water, heartwarming stories are shared and achievements of complete strangers celebrated. If you’re unsure about giving it a try, seek out a local group, go to a meet-up and surprise yourself. It might just change your life.
For more information and advice on outdoor swimming
Taking the Plunge: The Healing Power of Wild Swimming for Mind, Body & Soul by Vicky Allan and Anna Deacon will be out November 7. You can pre-order here.