I like to start the year developing new habits which will sustain me for the 12 months ahead.
After reading about the health benefits of cold water immersions, I decided my January 2024 challenge would be finishing my morning shower with a cold blast, starting with 10 seconds and building up to 30 seconds.
I must have subconsciously put this intention into the universe because on the 6th January a friend asked me if I wanted to go cold water swimming with her at the newly refurbished Tooting Bec Lido. This is the largest open-air freshwater pool in the UK and luckily, it's right on our doorstep.
I can’t emphasise how much that invitation transformed my January (thank you Alex Goat!). I am not going to tell you about the wealth of health benefits associated with cold water swimming - there are plenty of medical professionals already doing this - but unsurprisingly, many of the people I have met at Tooting Bec Lido are medics, which speaks volumes! Susanna Soberg's interview with Dr Chatterjee gives an informative overview of the health benefits of cold exposure.
What I will share is my experience and why, despite my efforts not to be an evangelistic ‘smug health nut’, I can’t bloody shut up about this activity!
Just to make this clear;
1. I am a reluctant swimmer, even on a hot summer holiday.
2. I fear water and am not a strong swimmer.
So getting into 1ºC water on a cold January morning filled me with dread, but I’d agreed to do it and I‘d set myself the challenge of creating new habits.
I knew from a friend about the need to control my breathing - cold water can literally take your breath away - and focusing on my breath proved a useful distraction as I descended the steps into the water. It was absolutely freezing, and I managed a width before getting out! But I returned, and soon I could manage two widths, then four widths. The coldest the water has been is 1.1ºC, the warmest is 6ºC. I now swim at the Lido at least 4 days per week and would make it every day if I could.
I was unprepared for the elation I would feel after swimming. The dopamine hit is extraordinary, and lasts for hours. The fresh oxygenated blood that is pumped around my body gives me a profound mental clarity - my brain fog instantly disappears. The autopilot I can naturally default to is replaced by a level of consciousness that still surprises me. Stressful moments during the day, which might usually default to a defensive trigger or a negative ‘bite’, feel much calmer. I now notice my buttons being pressed and can decide to respond differently. It is an unexpected joy.
As a result, I am completely addicted! I have decided to have swimming lessons so that I can improve my stroke and enjoy the water more. The beauty is you don’t have to be a brilliant swimmer, or be super fit, or have strong joints to enjoy the health benefits of cold water swimming, and the time commitment is low - I spend 2-8 minutes in the water (1 minute for every ºC), 5 minutes doing yoga stretches and 15 minutes in the sauna.
Warming up afterwards is incredibly important and here’s when my developed nesting skills come to the fore.
Here are my tips:
1. I never go to the pool without my real sheepskin hot water bottle. I place it on top of my clothes to warm them whilst I am swimming; then I tuck it into the waistband of my trousers once I am dressed!
2. I have a big flask of my favourite tea waiting for me – Clearspring Japanese Genmaicha tea, which I love because it has a mellow nutty taste.
3. I do some deep squats and a speedy round of sun salutations after my swim to warm up internally.
4. I return home to warm slippers that have been wedged under the radiator to keep toasty.
5. I work at my desk wearing a cashmere hat, thick wool socks along with my slippers, I perch on a sheepskin seat pad, often with a wool blanket on my lap… and I have never appreciated these cosy comforts more!
6. I eat a warm and nutritious breakfast after my swim. My current favourite is overnight soaked porridge with walnuts, cinnamon and apple, from Deliciously Ella's new book Healthy Made Simple
If anyone is tempted to give this brilliant activity a go this spring, get in touch. I’ve met a wonderful community of people through my swimming, all who have kindly passed on their tips on how to get the most from this experience.
And anyone lucky enough to live near Tooting Bec Lido, give it a go and come and say hello!
The South London Swimming Club Choir singing their club song.