with autumn shuffling out the back door like a guilty lover, as winter rattles its keys on the front step, the swimming forums of the internet begin to fill with talk of temperature, shivers, flasks, (even more) cake, cold water galas and the wetsuit vs skins debate. I'm not about to get into that one - it's a broad church as far as I'm concerned, this cold water swimming lark and folk are welcome to worship at it wearing whatever they like.
Cold water swimming has been gradually attracting more swimmers over the last few winters, helped along by recent media coverage of potential health benefits no doubt. I like to think it's about more than that, however. We lead a centrally heated lifestyle, in the main. We skip from heated building, to heated transport, and back again with very little opportunity to actually feel cold. There are some hardy sorts who exercise outside throughout the year, but runners and walkers tend to work up quite a lot of internal heat, so feeling properly cold to the core isn't something that most of us will experience often if we are lucky enough to have a roof over our heads.
So I like to think it's about the challenge, about re-learning how our bodies and brains respond to adversity and finding out what we can overcome. When people find out I like a cold swim it takes a little while for the conversation to move on from the sideways looks and exclamations of 'you must be mad'. Sometimes it never moves on from that. But when it does I can talk about the moments where you stand at the edge of the water in the cold air, still dry, screwing your courage to the sticking post and wondering whether this will be the time that you fail to get wet; the rush of blood to the core when you overcome your fears and get in; the spike in blood pressure that sets your heart agallop and has you gasping for breath for a few, brief, seconds as your brain catches up and reasserts some control via your endocrine system.
If they're still with me I can evangelise about the firey sensation that bathes your skin in false warmth; the absolute focus needed to continually mentally examine every inch of your body for tell tale signs that enough really is enough. Your brain will lie to you about when enough is enough, but your body never will. Learning to understand what your body tells you is one of the greatest pleasures of this game, for me. Achieving the focus needed to listen to my body empties my mind of every other care.
By this stage, some people are even interested in actually giving it a go. So I judiciously stop. No need to put them off with talk of after drop. They don't need to hear about the shivers, or the fumbling or the chattering teeth. They'll experience that soon enough, but they'll feel ten miles tall at that stage and they really won't care about all that. And anyway, it passes. So I keep that part to myself and move on to the post-swim cake, coffee and chatter of the cold water swimming community. A community that is warmer than any water I've ever swum in.
If you're interested in trying it I highly recommend some additional reading first, and you won't get better than the Lone Swimmer. His writing is masterful, and his experience second to none. I have learned a great deal from that blog, and it can be moving and funny as well as informative.
And if you fancy a cold lido swim the best places for it, in my humble opinion, are Parliament Hill, Tooting (members only), Brockwell, Uxbridge (Hillingdon), Guildford, Buckfastleigh, Hathersage (boilers off in December) and Ilkley (members only). There are also tidal pools such as Walpole Bay, Clevedon and Bude to explore. If you're new to cold water swimming do swim in the company of others. It's safer that way, and I am here to tell you that the shivering is a LOT more fun in company.
Enjoy what the winter brings you, and please do share this blog post and news of the Lido Guide far and wide. The fastest way for you to have this book in your hands, is to help us get to the magic 100% funded figure.
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