Why I Swim (and why you should too!)
Posted by admin written by Dr Nat Hills
Hi, I’m Nat, an ST4 Anaesthetics & ICM Registrar in NE London, and I’m writing this to let you into a secret. Well, it’s becoming less and less secret these days, but (and hear me out on this) I guarantee you: swimming is absolutely one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental well-being. It has for me personally, been a lifelong thread, weaving it’s way in and out of my life as a fish swims amongst the reeds, but as of two and a bit years ago it is very much here to stay. Let me introduce you to the wonders of swimming and the swimming community and how they may be able to help you too.
Me, fresh out of the pool after a mile swim at 12C.
About to dunk in the Hot tub at the P.H.I.S.H event having just won my 122m race at 7C.
I won't bore you with my whole swimming backstory, but suffice to say I have always swam and enjoyed it. But what I will tell you about is how I came back to swimming in recent years. After finishing medical school in Wales, I moved to the granite city, Aberdeen in Scotland, and for a brief stint I lived and worked on the wondrous Shetland Islands (another thing I can go on and on about if given the opportunity), surrounded by the bitterly cold and wild North Sea. Just getting up there on the ferry - or as it is nicknamed “The North Sea Rollercoaster” in Winter is an experience in itself that will leave you rocking in your bunk, praying in exasperated whispers into the deep dark night that the ship will survive the journey and that you might survive, at least for a bit in the cold waters, should the worst happen. In Shetland I dipped my toes in the sea and even bravely swam once on a cold April’s Day after I rushed home from work (The FY1 on the single medical ward). The water felt like a thousand knives stabbing into my skin all over, I’ll never forget it, and I certainly didn't stay in for very long at all, but myself and my two friends felt absolutely euphoric afterwards, even though I would have at the time described the experience as unpleasant at best.
When I moved back to Aberdeen I occasionally would take a dip in the sea, but I also started swimming again from time to time. One memorable occasion, now an Anaesthetics CT2, I corralled some friends into a bit of summer evening madness and we headed down to Cove to splash about in the harbour and try and swim around the headland a bit. We had to get out at an awkward place surrounded by rocks and sea birds circling angrily above as we had swam too close to their nesting area, and in hindsight it was probably a foolhardy swim, but again the euphoria was something special as we tucked into a fish supper afterwards. So swimming was an occasional frolic in the sea, or an easy kilometre in a gym pool. Oh and an Aqua Ceilidh as part
of the Stonehaven Folk Festival. But hardly a swimming enthusiast at this point.
Breaking a Leg and Staying Sane
The real change for me, came when I moved down to London to take up a clinical fellow post. I was more into my running and boxing at this point, and didn’t even think about swimming at all, that is until I broke my fibula running. (Successfully running a half marathon sub 2hrs on a fractured fibula is definitely something I would say is now a hard NO in my book).
I was frustrated that I couldn't run, let alone walk as I sat at home mostly, or hobbled about on crutches for two months whilst my bones knit back together. During this time a friend had mentioned
the Hampstead Heath Lido to me, and I’d already heard of the infamous ponds. I’d even been to the Lido on one occasion in the heat of summer: I had mostly sunbathed on the concrete and dipped in oh so briefly (OMG it was FAR TOO COLD). But now that I was stuck at home, frustrated I would lose my fitness and let’s face it getting a little tired of knitting and drawing (both also very relaxing pastimes) slowly thoughts of the lido returned. It was only a 20 minute slow hobble on my crutches to get there and so that’s what I did. Every damn day. I was lucky to only be wearing a removable boot at the time, and swam just using my arms until I was able to kick again. But I’ve since marvelled at people with limbs in casts determinedly entering the water for their swims with rather snazzy looking plastic covers. A broken limb isn’t a barrier!
Over that summer I fell in love with swimming again and swimming kept me sane, I met new friends by the poolside and got the best suntan I think I’ve ever had in my life. I kept swimming now that I was hooked, right into the autumn after work or before, and even tried my hand at the Swim Serpentine event (It tastes like duck sh*te if you wanted to know, but if you don’t put your face in, it's rather lovely). Swimming that summer gave me the mental resilience to get over my frustratingly slow to heal fibula, and last Winter it helped me get through a rough patch where I was working outside of London for 6 months and living half at home, half away. (And yes you read that correctly: Winter and Swimming)
Cold Water is a Cure (for some of life's problems)
After that first summer, now that I had been reintroduced into the way of the waters and was going more regularly to indoor pools, a swim in the heated London Fields Lido one bright sunny January
day, stressed out of my brains in my current role (Acute Medicine is not for me) made me think of my good old Lido. I wondered if it was still open, I knew The Ponds were and that people did swim year round, but I didn’t fancy pondy water. So a few weeks later I took my first proper cold water swim at the Lido, I think I swam a measly 5 lengths and then spent an eternity in the sauna, surrounded then by strangers, many of whom are now firm friends.
It gave me a buzz and I went back a month or two later when it was a bit warmer and swam a bit more. Thankfully the temperature soon warmed up and I was reminded of the summer before, how
great swimming had been and I made a pledge to myself that I would swim every single day of the year that I had the time to do it, because it just made me feel SO good. So I did, I swam every chance I got between March 2019 and the end of the year. I was addicted. Swimming had saved me the summer before from sitting, sweating, sulking and miserable at home with a hurty leg, and it had fast become my number one coping mechanism for a rough patch, stress, a hangover, a broken heart or just simply for fun. It didn’t hurt the way a gym workout did, it was refreshing and made me feel alive. And that summer was fantastic, pure bliss to rinse off the hot heat of London in cool blue waters - it was just the tonic. Feeling weightless, supported by the water gives your body a break and swimming lengths of a repetitive stroke can be like meditation on steroids - the water takes away some of your senses and so your focus is on your breathing and how the water feels, counting up and down the lanes, emptying your mind of everything else. I was also starting to get to know the community of the Lido, or as the Ponds-folk refer to them as “The Lido Lizards” for their ability to sit and bake on the concrete surrounding the aqua oasis of the only steel-lined Octogenarian Lido in London.
I heard stories about swimming through the Winter and thought….that sounds like quite a decent challenge, I might give it a shot. I had also watched The Ponds film, a wonderful documentary about swimmers through the seasons at the Hampstead Ponds. I highly recommend it, and if you’re unconvinced thus far then I think you should watch it. It turned my Aussie pal Jen from a straight up Lido denier (“I won't swim unless it’s at least 28C in the water, I’m Australian don’t ya know!”) into an avid water baby: “Please can we swim in the Ladies pond….on my birthday….Dec 4th”. (Sure thing Jen! We did and it was 4.5C that day).
All this spurred on my first Winter Swimming Season (2019). Plus I wanted to earn myself a “Royal Freeze” Swim cap for swimmers associated with the Royal Free Hospital and able to evidence a swim below 10C, a fun group initiated by a swimming hero of mine: Consultant Dr Nick Murch (Himself an avid swimmer, with a ridiculous number of swimming accolades - you can look him up he’s that good). I was absolutely determined to get through the Winter of 2019.
West Reservoir, a fab open water swimming spot in North East London. An Absolute haven after lockdown, but before the pools could open.
Slowly as the temperature dropped and I continued to swim regularly my body became more and more used to the chilly temperature. In summer the Lido is usually about 18-24C. In the Winter the temperature drops slowly and hits about 10C by November, and thereafter you’re into single digits until about March the next year. Everyone (the Seasoned Winter Swimmers) say that the temperature drops feel disproportionately large at multiples of 5. At 15, 10 and 5. I have to say I now agree with them - given that I now consider myself one of them, and have swum at all these temperatures.
The human body is however incredible. I have been absolutely amazed at how it can acclimatise to swimming in colder temperatures (I now avoid heated swimming pools). Recently research has even suggested a link between cold water and staving off Alzheimer's Dementia. The discovery of a cold shock protein in mice led to the search for this protein in winter swimmers at my very own Lido. Amazingly there in the blood of regular winter swimmers was RBM3, the cold shock protein, that has been shown, at least in mice anyway (!) to have some protective effects against neurodegeneration. Now if that could be proven in humans....wouldn’t that be an added benefit to write home about?
Me and my swimming partner in crime, Mimi. A friend made at the poolside when we both were wearing our orthopaedic boots after injuries.
But of course, cold water swimming has its dangers. The cold shock - where you take a sudden involuntary gasp of air into your lungs as you enter the water, can lead to drowning if you inhale water instead of air! Not to mention that your blood pressure rises as you enter the water (hello peripheral vasoconstriction), which may not be all that good for you if you have hypertension and fuzzy coronaries to begin with. The after-drop is well described too - where your core temperature can drop dramatically even after you have exited the water as the warm blood from your core redistributes to your peripheries. (My temperature was 35.2C today over an hour after my 30 minute swim at 10C).
Community at the Core
That first winter I was aided by new swimming friends and the lovely sauna to make it through. "Just swim what you feel is ok for you", "Try boots and gloves!", "Two hats!", "A length/minute per degree!", "Go on Nat, jump in after your sauna...it feels even more aaamazing!" (It did!). A cold swim was invariably followed by a heart to heart and a warm cup of rooibos chai tea in the great big wooden sauna box, which despite being quiet on the outside was a real hive of activity with the buzz of shivery swimmers brought together.
As I immersed myself in the waters and the community, I realised just how important swimming and in particular cold water swimming had now become to me. How I got angsty if I couldn’t go or get my planned swim in. Not only was it a physical boost, it was also a total mental reset. I could feel utterly crap walking to the pool, not wanting to go because I was grumpy, stressed or tired. But each and every time without fail the waters lifted me and I'd never regret going. It’s Jekyll and Hyde: You go in as one person, and come out as someone totally different, more in balance with the world, calm and just plain old satisfied deep down, like after a really good roast dinner. All the stress just dissolves away in the water and you wonder why you'd felt naff in the first play anyway. Actually, for me it’s a bit ridiculous at times...I usually come out of the cold water, a big beaming smile on my face, exclaiming “I am JUST SO HAPPY”. I am not sure I can really put it into words to do it justice, but there’s a reason swimming, and in particular cold water swimming is becoming more and more popular. For me the key is to be outside in natural light as well as the swimming bit, something about being under the changing sky that makes it extra special, and fresh air is never bad for you.
The second thing I found was the community. God love Swimmers, they are absolutely brilliant. I have found that a great deal of the joy I get from swimming is from these interactions with others. I have made friendships with people from many different backgrounds (swimming and sitting shivering in the sauna together is a great leveller), opening our hearts and minds over tea and vigorous discussions as we thaw out. Drinking coffee prepared by our favourite sassy Barista in the cafe, eating Amy the chef’s latest creation on the concrete slabs overlooking the pool on both hot and cold days (Beef Rendang on a Friday is the bomb). I've moaned along with strangers stuck in the queue to get in on a hot summer's day, flirted and laughed along with the lifeguards during bikini season. I've had some of the best and funniest conversations in the showers, completely nude, where no one gives a damn about how they look and everyone's body is beautiful as is. (It's taught me to love my body too). I’ve swam on members only events - summer and winter solstice celebrations - where everyone brings food and drink to share afterwards. I’ve made inspiring connections via social media (I run a swimming instagram account) which have led to swimming meet ups and enthusiastic swim-chats over porridge breakfasts and had some of the most fun opportunities. From friendly competitions, a day out swimming in Margate’s Tidal Pool, bringing new friends along and helping to inspire their own swimming escapades (people text me to tell me they've been for a swim, I love that), being timing official at swim races, triathlon swim training club, discovering West Reservoir during lockdown, chatting on BBC Radio London about swimming, and even a channel relay in the works for next summer!
It’s given me new reading and listening material, I’ve started exploring swimming in its wider context and found inspiration both for swimming and resilience: I’ve followed the efforts of Sarah Thomas as she became the first person to swim the UK channel four times in a row having recovered from breast cancer. I’m reading Ross Edgley’s Book “The Art of Resilience” about his record breaking swim around Great Britain. And a wealth of other lovely uplifting stories and films. Who would have thought that this little thing I did to make myself feel better could give me so much more than just an immediate post swim buzz? And it always gives me something to search for when going on holiday - where can I get a swim in? The most exciting place to date was swimming in the Oresund near Copenhagen at a fantastic swim spot called Kastrup Søbad. A giant snail-like wooden structure built out into the Waters.
I’ve met ordinary people going through the absolute worst experiences life can throw at you, who still, as Dory says….”just keep swimming”. People going through depression, trauma, grief, chronic pain, cancer, disability and the ups and downs we all experience in plain old “life”. The community is inclusive and caring, we #sharetheswimlove (The OSS hashtag that sums it up). I have swim friends I can call in a crisis, and more often than not, we’ll just head straight to the pool together for some swimming therapy.
Swimming spot in Copenhagen: The fabulous Kastrup Sobad. Of course I had a dip. 2019
They, their stories and the waters themselves provide you with a different perspective and the ability to overcome the bumps in the road.
A wise and learned swimming friend once wrote to me a letter over Christmas during my first Winter:
"Welcome to the long, cold, dark end of the year. I sometimes think that these last days get lost in the frenzy of Christmas and New Year celebrations, but there must be some privilege of holding the old year as it takes its last breath. When I first came to the lido, I started talking to a lady in the changing room. In one of life's best moments, she started talking to me. Later, she told me that ever since she'd learnt about cold water swimming, she'd seen the winter in a different light. Exactly the same blessing came to me. I was - I am - enthralled to learn that all of my life I was looking at winter through the wrong window, and that this is how the long cold days really look. And how they are! What a lot of living to learn that! And such a tiny thing, but so huge.”
We all have this one thing in common: The big blue rectangle of pure joy, with it’s glassy surface it is a different window to look through.
Everyone here just GETS it. Swimming is like breathing or eating. Go too long without it and you feel starved, hungry, desperate. But as soon as you return it’s like one big long sigh of happiness and relief.
In my Element. Photo taken by Paul Meyler Photographer and fellow channel relay team member.
So with all that said, goodness gracious well done if you waded through that lot - I have been called a swimming evangelist before - I do hope you might give it a try for yourself, swimming really can and should be for everyone. (But widening access is a tale for another day). But go on and give it a try, whether you're new to it or a seasoned pro, take a long swim or a quick dip in an indoor pool, a lake, a pond, the sea or a chilly lido, anything goes! Or perhaps you’ll look up Wim Hof, the “Iceman”, and start taking cold showers or getting in an ice bucket on a regular basis. Whatever you do I hope it brings you as much joy, healing and hidden blessings as it has brought me. See you on the water's edge!
P.S. As I write this on the eve of Lockdown II, with my pool and the other fantastic swim spots in London shutting down for the month I realise you may not be able to act on your newfound desire to get wet and/or cold (depending on your preference and level of intrigue). But in the meantime I’ll leave you with some Swimspiration in the form of books/podcasts/films etc to while away those long dark nights and a list of watering holes for future reference! (Sorry to those further away these are London based but there are many spots for swimming throughout the British Isles).
● The Outrun - Amy Liptrott
A book about alcohol addiction, escaping to Orkney and the healing power of cold water swimming.
● The Art of Resilience - Ross Edgley
Swim around the coast of Great Britain? In one go? Over 157 days? A memoir and lessons in resilience.
● The Lido - Libby Page
A heartwarming, easy reading novel about a Lido and the communitys efforts to save it and how it saved them.
● At the Pond - Various Authors
A selection of short essays/stories about swimming at the Hampstead Heath ponds
● Swim Smooth - Newsome/Young
A swimming technique book for those looking to improve.
● The Lido Guide - Pusill/Wilkinson
● Postcards from the Pool - Sally Goble
Stories about swimming: https://medium.com/postcardsfromthepool
● Wild Swim Podcast - https://www.wildswimpodcast.com/
● Swimout Podcast - https://swimout.net/
● West Res - a Swimming playlist created by a swimmer who will miss the Reservoir during Lockdown: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3fqSBdreRLwHQR7v9RiDV6?si=TLbdpmwMSlWyO0ZvMfH6Gg
● Swim Dem Crew Beyond the Blue
This short film sums up my entire feelings about swimming. It's so joyful.
● A Film Called Blacks Can't Swim
A film/documentary starring Ed Accura, a Black Briton whose fears and anxiety of not being able to swim and drowning is dramatized as he battles the stereotypes set by society.
● The Ponds Film - https://www.thepondsfilm.com/
The Hampstead Heath Ponds, year round.
● Lido - https://vimeo.com/313549923/description
A moving portrait of Parliament Hill Lido through the seasons.
● My Octopus Teacher - https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/81045007
An incredible beautiful, uplifting documentary about a man and his Octopus friend near the shores of South Africa.
● Ross Edgleys Great British Swim Mini Series - https://www.redbull.com/int-en/shows/ross-edgleys-great-british-swim
Pictures (all via Instragram):
● @swimfluencers - Myself & my friend post all about our swimming adventures
● @niall_verso - beautiful photos from the coast of Ireland
● @Shetlandseaswimmerselkie - photos and videos from a wild swimmer in Shetland (friend and former colleague and cake baker extraordinaire)
● @phthaloturquoisstudio - beautiful swimming themed paintings from a London based artist.
● @lexilainephoto - Stunning photos of an underwater world
● @stivesmermaid - Magical escapism.
● @tonicofthesea - Marine life photography
● @seastudio.ie - More beautiful photos from Ireland
● @skillsntalents - swimming videos to tasty beats
● @maria.svarbova - Wonderful retro, soviet themed swimming pool photographs
● @paulmeylerphotography - 12 degrees below swim portraits
● @Michelemoz - More mesmerising swimming paintings.
● The OSS: https://www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com/
A fantastic all round resource for outdoor swimmers
● Lindsey Cole - https://www.lindseycole.co.uk/
All about swimming with strangers & the time she swam the Thames as a mermaid to raise awareness about pollution and saved a cow...soon to be a book!
● Level Water UK
A UK based charity providing access to 1-1 swimming lessons for children with disabilities.
● The Transgender Swimmer
Eden has written and spoken about being trans and finding her people and place in the swimming community.
Cold Water Swimming Info:
● The Ultimate Guide from The OSS:
● Lone Swimmer:
● BBC News Article on the Cold Water & Dementia, written by a fellow Lidophile Justin Rowlatt:
Where to Swim Outdoors in London:
● Parliament Hill Lido, Hampstead Heath
● Hampstead Heath Bathing Ponds
● Park Road Lido, Crouch End
● The Serpentine Lido
● Oasis Lido, Tottenham Court Road Area
● London Fields Lido, Hackney
● West Reservoir Centre, Stoke Newington
● Royal London Docks
● Brockwell Lido
● Tooting Bec Lido
● Merchant Taylors - Watford
● Thames Lido - Reading
● Walpole Tidal Pool - Margate, Kent