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Taking the Plunge: Open Water Swimming

1 March 2022

6 mins

From a very young age, I have loved water. I learnt to swim in the sea whilst on holiday in Menorca and went on to swim competitively for my local swimming club, the Leicester Penguins, until I was a body-conscious teenager and other distractions kicked in.

When one of my friends mentioned open water swimming (OWS) over two years ago it was something that piqued my interest. At the time it all felt a bit out of my comfort zone – I hadn’t got any of the kit, where would we go, how would I fit it in and how cold would it be?!

Fast forward to September 2021, life had changed dramatically. We were all navigating the impact that the pandemic had on our working and social lives. Just prior to the pandemic my mental health hadn’t been in the best shape, and heading into lockdown things just got steadily worse, until I accepted that I needed help. That help included looking at exercise, and whilst I dabbled with running for a time (unfortunately it was something that was personally triggering) I looked for something new – cue OWS.

Race Hub in the Six Hills, Leicestershire, run an ‘Induction and Skills’ OWS course during the summer, and luckily me and two friends managed to attend one of the last sessions of the 2021 season. In this lesson, we learnt all things OWS including how to put on a wetsuit, what happens to your body in cold water and how to avoid ‘after drop’ (a phenomenon where your body temperature continues to drop even after you get out of the water) and the art of warming up steadily to avoid shivering and ultimately getting hypothermia.

After a few initial expletives we were all in the water and learning how to acclimatise. It was a bit like having a whole body ‘brain freeze’ moment, we all looked at each other wide-eyed and nervous, but after a couple of minutes, our cores were warming. We were swimming past ducks with geese flying overhead, and we all had huge grins. It was amazing, exhilarating, crazy but brilliant!

We’ve pretty much been every week since that initial session; our small group of three has expanded week on week and we’ve met some truly lovely people. OWS has an amazing community, people are so warm (unlike the water!) and welcoming. The Race Hub café is full of yummy delights for that post-swim warm-up, it is lovely to finish a swim with a hot chocolate and catch up with friends.

You can also hire wetsuits from Race Hub so you don’t have to commit to getting all the kit until you are sure OWS is for you. After a few weeks, I opted to get an entry-level wetsuit (around £100) which has been brilliant and as the water has become colder, boots and gloves have been added to the kit list, along with a dry robe and hot water bottle to keep dry clothes toasty whilst swimming.

We also swim at Stoney Cove in Stoney Stanton, a spring-fed disused quarry popular with divers and swimmers. It is a beautiful venue, referred to by one of my friends as ‘a bit like swimming in the Italian lakes’ (I’ll take her word for it).

If you’re brave enough to put your face in the water, you may catch a glimpse of a Helicopter, Galleon, and many other underwater wrecks. As with Race Hub, the people we’ve met along the way have been so friendly – I’ve bumped into old school friends in addition to meeting some really inspirational people (especially those swimming in ‘skins’ aka costumes in water temperatures of six degrees!)

Since starting OWS we’ve been involved in all sorts of themed evening swims too – from glowing in the dark on Halloween to celebratory Boxing Day dips with mulled wine and mince pies.

The physical health benefits of OWS are many, but by far for me, the mental health benefits are incredible. There is something about getting into cold water, with nature all around you, that feels so wonderfully exhilarating and ever so slightly bonkers. It has given me a sense of peace and allows my busy and anxious mind to calm. My friends Lisa, Helen and Emma have also found the wellbeing experience invaluable, here are some of their thoughts too:

“It slows everything down and stills the mind; I become very peaceful and totally relaxed for the rest of the day.”

“It’s meditative, clears the mind, and makes me physically relax for the rest of the day, and makes me feel calmer all week. I love that cold water, tingly refreshing feeling, it’s amazing what the human body can do. It’s a physical and mental challenge and there are fewer of them as you get older. It’s good to grab one.”

“I’ve always been a swimmer, but open water swimming is so much more than exercise. I love the different challenges, how cold the water is, how long can I stay in, can I go without a wetsuit, can I do my wetsuit up? I love the calmness (even in choppy water); being ‘in nature’ where the ducks and birds think that you are one of them! The water is so invigorating, and it is all you think about for the time you are there. The pre and post swim chat and hot drink with friends and meeting other friendly and enthusiastic swimmers with ideas of where to try next is also such a big part of the overall feeling of mental and physical wellness.”

My advice for anyone considering OWS would be to go for it! It has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s helped me in ways I never thought possible. In practical terms, you do need to be a competent swimmer and some venues insist on you using a tow float or swimming in groups of two or more – wearing a brightly coloured swimming hat is also a must. There is a great Facebook group called ‘Leicestershire Open Water Dragonflies’ who are a really friendly group, and like most Facebook groups you can ask questions and get supportive responses.

So, after reading my story are you ready to take the plunge? If you’re curious I am happy to talk to anyone interested in learning more, you can contact me here.

Happy swimming!

Ali Freer
Head of Brand, Creative and Print Services

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