Something happens when you start swimming in cold water. Recently a friend posted a call for help on what to do on her umpteenth attempt to give up smoking and my immediate response was 'start open water swimming'.
I'm still a relative newbie, but even for the year I've been swimming, it's irrevocably transformed my life.
So first let's clarify one issue: by cold open water swimming, I mean swimming according to English Channel Rules: one standard swimming costume, one swim cap and one pair of goggles. No wetsuit, thank you very much. In the cold open water swimming fraternity, wearing a wetsuit is the same as being a heretic. We'll let them swim with us, sure. We're a laid back bunch, and they need a group to swim with for safety. But a true-blue cold open water swimmer in a wetsuit? Heaven forbid!
So what is it about swimming in a cold sea that gets so addictive?
First, the water doesn't know how old you are. So open water swimming is practiced by all ages, genders and inclinations. It's a beautiful way to spend an hour, braced by the water, surging with the swell and feeling enfolded by an energy that is entirely beneficial for the soul. Why on earth pay for therapy when you can do cold open water swimming?
Second, you need to get to a point where you are fit enough to be relaxed and confident in the water. So don't start in the sea. Do laps in a pool. Get fit again. Get confident in the water. On calm days, spend time in the ocean to get your head around the cold, but stay close to the shore where you feel safe. The sea should become your muse and healer, not your adversary.
Third, when doing swims away from the shore, always swim in a group. That way, if you cramp or if anything happens to you physically, there are people to help you. Swimmers watch out for each other and always make sure everyone is ashore who left. The more experienced swimmers offer massive inspiration and confidence to new swimmers who may feel uneasy when venturing away from the shore.
Fourth, your health will improve and you will lose weight. I've lost 15kg and moved from suffering from hypertension and on chronic meds, to having normal blood pressure, no more meds, and feeling far more positive about my health and weight. Cold open water swimming is one of the few sports where your body is spending energy in two ways at the same time: you are burning calories by the sheer physical activity of swimming, but second, you are burning additional calories as your body attempts to keep your core warm.
Five, the cold is a head thing. Here in Cape Town, South Africa, we swim in water that varies between 9 deg C (48 deg F) to 15 deg C (60 deg F). The more time you spend in the cold water, the easier it becomes. Your brain learns to deal with it. Make it a habit and it becomes easier.
Six, you get high. I mean it. Cold water causes the blood to rush to your core, away from your limbs as your body strives to keep vital organs warm, and then after the swim it does the reverse, and sends blood back to the limbs again. This rapid movement of blood, and the absorption of minerals from the water (cold water is much higher in nutrient minerals than warm water) and the sheer pleasure of ocean swimming, create a sense of euphoria after the swim. I must warn you, it can become addictive, but what a wonderful addiction. It's free, it makes you strong, fit and healthy and it makes you high - where else can you get a combination like that?
Seven, always recover properly. After an hour of so of swimming, initially swimmers have violent tremors once they are out and the body warms itself back up again. With experience, your body gets more used to this recovery and the tremors become less, but some veteran and champion swimmers, with names in the record books, still shiver after each swim, so it's normal. Make sure you remove your wet costume, put on dry warm clothing, and have a hot chocolate to warm your core. Not coffee - it's a diuretic and the last thing your body needs to do is dehydrate.
Eight, you make cool friends. There's something about cold open water swimmers. I have not come across one who could be considered arrogant or conceited. Their sport is not one that is widely recognised (although Ice Swimming is about to become an Olympic sport but more about that later), so you only find out indirectly that some of the most laid back and humble swimmers in the group are legends in their own right, with multiple Robben Island crossings, ice miles, and some even with English Channel crossings to their name. It's not about the achievements. It's about the act. It's about having the courage to try, and then learning to stretch yourself, physically, mentally, even spiritually.
It starts by a small paddle in the bay and it ends with doing things people until recently thought impossible: swimming a mile in water below 4 deg C (39 deg F), with some swimmers doing it in water under 0 deg C (32 deg F). It's about what the human body and spirit is capable of, and learning that we haven't even scratched the surface.
You can do far more than you think you can, that much I do know.
Next blog: my first Robben Island crossing.