If you’ve spent most of the Christmas period cocooned on the sofa drinking tea, the very sight of the hoards of wild swimmers descending into open water on New Year’s Day is enough to send shivers down your spine.
But for those who partake in the popular pastime, the experience is far from uncomfortable. The thrill of being in the water, however icy, coupled with the warmth of the swim community is enough to bring them back year after year, or even more regularly.
While there are risks to submerging in the cold water, which can lead to severe illness or death, many enjoy regular swimming without issue and report health benefits to body and mind.
HuffPost UK spoke to four keen outdoor swimmers about their experience.
Lewis Pugh, 48, endurance swimmer and UN Patron of Oceans, London and Cape Town
Over the last 30 years Lewis has swum in some of the most challenging oceans including the Antarctic, the North Pole and the Himalayas.
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“I can’t imagine swimming in a pool. I don’t want to be held captive in a 50m by 25m chlorinated cage. I want to swim under open skies. And down ancient fjords, and around wild capes, and past icebergs, and places where no-one has ever swum before.”
But his swims aren’t just about pleasure, they also have a great sense of purpose. Often wearing just his Speedos, Lewis swims to highlight the plight of the world’s oceans and to help protect them. In 2013, he was appointed the first UN Patron of the Oceans.
He swims every day unless he is travelling and while he is often on a mission or undertaking a great physical challenge, he also finds enjoyment in the community aspect of wild swimming.
“There’s nothing better than going to Hampstead Heath ponds in the middle of winter and going for a brisk swim. Stripping down into a pair of Speedos is a great leveller. The last time I went there I was swimming with a high court judge, an Australian backpacker, a plumber, and an advertising executive. All of us chatting and enjoying ourselves tremendously. Where else would you find that?”
Louise Jenkins, 51, manager, Llandysul in Wales
Aged 40, Louise had her world turned upside down after a spinal cord infection permanently damaged her sight, causing blindness in one eye and tunnel vision in the other.
“Living with sight loss I’m used to taking on challenges, all of which aren’t things I choose,” she told HuffPost UK. “Taking part in a cold water swim is a challenge I choose to set myself.”
The first time she took part in a cold-water swim was at Llangrannog on Boxing Day last year in an event organised by her local community.
Louise often takes her guide dog Trinity, a golden retriever and labrador cross, to the beach with her. Trinity loves the water as much as Louise, so it’s an enjoyable experience for both of them.
When asked about how she deals with the cold water, she said: “Standing on the beach waiting to go in is actually the coldest part, in comparison the water is warm. Once you’ve gotten over the initial shock you soon get used to it.”
On New Year’s eve Louise organised her own swim, inviting friends and family to take part and fundraise for Guide Dogs.
Calum Maclean, 29, broadcaster and filmmaker, Aviemore in Scotland
As someone who lives in the beautiful Scottish highlands, it’s no surprise Calum’s favourite places to swim are the lochs in the hills or wild coastline if he is by the sea. The more secluded and naturally beautiful, the better.
“Swimming always calms my mind and at the same time it lifts my mood, allows me to focus, find clarity and fires endorphins through my body,” he told HuffPost UK. “So it does relax me, but also invigorates me.”
He tries to swim several times per week, but admits this proves more difficult in winter when the days are shorter and weather is colder: “In summer I generally swim longer, and do find the process more relaxing. In winter it’s more of a shock to the system, and a much shorter experience but I enjoy both.”
For longer swims he wears a wetsuit and swears by neoprene socks and gloves in winter, but says that generally speaking it’s what you do for the first few moments when you get in the water, which is critical.
“I rarely jump straight in, especially if it’s cold. You need to allow the body to acclimatise, I find walking in which can take around a minute. It takes time for your body to become used to the cold, and I find regular, all-year swimming is the key. I often breathe deeply beforehand, and try to have a calm mind before entering the water.”
Suzanna Cruickshank, 32, lives near Cockermouth in Cumbria
Suzanna swims at least three to four times per week in the Lake District.
Swimming in open water coincided with a decline in her dad’s health. She eventually became his carer and he died in 2016.
Whether for ten minutes or two hours, outdoor swimming helped her deal with the stress and helplessness of the situation.
“Really cold water in winter gave me a release,” she told HuffPost UK. “The cold is so all encompassing it dissolved my anger, stress and frustration in an instant. I call it my positive self harm: the sensation is addictive but not damaging. It boosted my mood and stopped me from feeling helpless or depressed”
She started swimming with three to four friends, but now finds herself as part of a wider community of about 50 swimmers who meet regularly.
“It is a real mixed bag with dedicated triathletes, river dippers, run and dippers, swim hikers, long and short distance. We try and swim together on a Sunday but in reality there will be someone swimming somewhere nearly every day.”
Another benefit Suzanna has noticed is better body confidence. “Dealing with the cold water means my body is capable of something many people are not. I am enjoying a free, non weight bearing exercise that involves all the major muscle groups. I don’t feel superior but I do feel strong, athletic and I sleep better.”