Back in the days of my misspent youth, adventures included skinny dipping at some lake or another. Following a night of teenage hubris and cider boilers what better way to finish off the evening than a midnight dip by the light of the moon – doubtless illicit but nevertheless and probably for this very reason – intoxicating and great fun. These memories are most likely the very incentive now driving this current attraction I have for open swimming.
So here I am at Easedale Tarn on a cold damp November morning in 2015.
Easedale Tarn is a tarn in the Lake District, about two miles west of the village of Grasmere. It lies in a hollow about 910 feet above sea level. The hollow was formed by a small corrie glacier and is believed to have filled with water around 11,000 years ago when the ice finished melting. The tarn is one of the largest in the district, about 480 metres long and 300 metres wide, its outflow is via Sourmilk Gill, named after the milky white colour of its waterfalls, which runs east towards Grasmere.
Easedale Tarn is featured in the Grasmere Retreat in May as the designated place for our wild swimming activity and I am here (literally) ‘to test the waters’. We reach the tarn via Blea Rigg. During our ascent the weather turns cold and it starts to rain – the thought of stripping off to my cossie and little neoprene booties sends a shiver down my spine.
The water looks dark and foreboding and I quietly panic at what could lurk beneath the surface. On dipping my fingers in the water, I’m expecting to retract them quickly from the cold shock but surprisingly, its not that bad! Cold but not freeeezing cold. This is good news – I quickly get my kit off and without any further deliberation, marched in there. The aqua shoes are definitely ‘de rigour’ here as there are many rocks to negotiate around the edges of the tarn.
At One with the Elements
Once in the water I found it pleasant and refreshing and began swimming, close enough to the edge, to allow for cold adaptation safety. How wonderful to be at one with the elements and embracing nature in the raw. My senses sharpened and the scenery suddenly appeared intensely focused , time seemed to slow down and there was an ethereal quality to the vista and atmosphere – everything became very still and peaceful but I was acutely aware of how alive my body felt.
We all know swimming is a great exercise no matter where you do it but there are some extra benefits to swimming in the wild that you just won’t get from a warm pool or a dip in the Med. The combination of fresh air and cold water is a well known pick me up, has physiological health benefits, as well as a great way to get in touch with nature.
Benefits to your immune system
Scientists from the Czech Republic conducted experiments by immersing witting subjects in cold water and monitoring their physiology. They found significant increases in white blood cell counts and other factors relating to their immune system. You would be forgiven for thinking that jumping into freezing water is closer to having a heart attack than having fun but it turns out that this feeling of shock actually boosts your immune system.
Get a natural high
Winter swimmers talk a lot about the ‘high’ they get from cold water. The cause? Endorphins. Once out of the water and dressed I was a feeling quite euphoric!! I could become addicted so easily.
Endorphins are the body’s natural pain killers and, in the case of a cold dip, it uses them to take the sting away from your skin. So I was getting high on my own supply!! If you think that sounds dangerously close to the pleasure/pain barrier then you’re right. The other primary causes of endorphin release are pain and orgasm.
The cold will also stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and repair as this triggers the release of the hormones dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are thought to be contributors to feelings of well-being and happiness. Low levels of them are linked with sadness and depression. Couple this effect with the endorphin rush as you take the plunge and it makes for a very interesting and enticing adjunct to the ‘healthy lifestyle’.
When your body heats up your blood is brought to the surface and being cold sends it to your organs. The two extremes increases blood being pumped around the body – flushing circulation, exfoliate the skin and removing impurities, thus improving circulation, complexion and preventing cellulite. There is also evidence to support the theory that cold adaptation – which can be activated through open water swimming – may actually reduce the overall risk of a heart attack.
Swimming in cold water makes the body work twice as hard to keep you warm and consequently burning more calories in the process.
Enhances Sexual Drive
Last but definitely not least, research has found that when people are subjected to cold water on a frequent basis there is an increased production of testosterone and oestrogen in men and women respectively which had a positive effect on the subjects’ sex life.
Website www.wildswim.com lists places near you and notes advice from local swimmers. Also, the Outdoor Swimming Society has safety tips on its website & is part of the National Water Safety Forum, together with RoSPA & the RNLI.
Many of the ideas, scientific research and phrases used regarding the benefits, stated within this article, were constructed from the following –