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The Comedy of Errors

We Tried Wild Swimming in Colwick Park...

13 May 21 words: Emily Thursfield

While your morning trip to Colwick Park might usually be reserved for a brisk dog walk, fitness group Whole Health are encouraging nature lovers to experience the beauty spot in an entirely new way. Is wild swimming the cure to all physical and mental ailments, or just a quick way to lose your toes to frostbite? Our Assistant Editor, Emily Thursfield, finds out… 

I’m standing waist-deep in a lake at Colwick Park, my feet blue and searing with an icy pain. The water temperature is a crisp six degrees, my bare arms are fighting the breeze and a duck just floated past. I’m wondering why on earth I decided to come here. 

I’m sure nobody needs a reminder of how, in the midst of a national lockdown, we all turned to nature as a means of comfort. Fifteen minutes on a park bench became as restorative as a weekend spa trip, and we’d happily risk getting caught in the rain if it meant breaking free from our WFH desks. But as of late, there is another reason that Nottingham locals have been flocking to Colwick Park to brace an hour in the British elements. 

Wild swimming – also known as open water or cold water swimming – is a ritual that’s been practiced for centuries. Some historians go as far as to say it’s a part of our DNA – that as our species was busy evolving into humans, we became semi-aquatic coastal waders of the Indian Ocean. Though recently popularised by clubs such as Kentwood Ladies Pond in Hampstead, or glamorised by publications such as Vogue and Women’s Health, wild swimming is not simply a fad designed to make you look cultured on Instagram. Studies have proven that exposure to cold water not only betters your physical health  – benefits include improved circulation, reduction in chronic pains, potential weight loss and even preventing dementia – but your mental health too. 

It’s for these reasons that I’m standing waist-deep in a lake at Colwick Park, wondering if I’m ever going to regain feeling in my toes. Since the age of sixteen, I’ve suffered from chronic leg pains and fatigue thanks to a bad spell of glandular fever, coupled with an unabating tendency to overthink. For the past decade, my antidote of choice had been a soothing bubble bath at the end of a long day, but my curiosity, paired with a long-lasting love of the sea, got the better of me. So here I was, cowering near the pontoon, hanging on to my tow float for dear life. 

“We've had loads of anecdotal evidence from people telling us their cold water swims have helped with depression, and people who suffer from severe arthritis who say it’s helped with the pain,” says Cat Wynne, one half of the Whole Health team who run the Colwick dips. “We’ve also had people going through bereavement that have found it really comforting to be in the water. It’s helped people in lots of different and unexpected ways, which has been cool to see.” 

Whole Health run swim, bike and run sessions designed to provide nature lovers with both the physical and mental benefits of exercise. Launched by former triathlete and coach Cat and coach and channel swimmer Justine Wales (aka Wales), the pair began to offer triathlon training and various coaching, adding these outdoor swims to the rosta in March 2020 when they were offered the location by a contact at the City Council. As summer 2020 hit, things really took off. “I think it was a bit of a perfect storm for us that the pools were closed,” says Cat, “because on top of people not being able to get out and swim, wild swimming was becoming more popular in the public consciousness, so we had loads of interest.”

And this interest doesn’t seem to have wavered as the country opens back up. On the same day I took my plunge, there were around thirty others doing the same. Albeit, much more prepared than I was. I watched as numerous swimmers arrived at the lake, donned neoprene gloves and booties and glided gracefully into the water without pause. They emerge up to twenty minutes later, safe in the warmth of their changing robes and acting as though they hadn’t put themself through a gruelling physical challenge. 

You don’t have to think about the past or the future; you’re fully in the moment, focusing on relaxing your breathing and staying calm.

“Our biggest demographic is women between the ages of forty and fifty,” says Cat, “although I think our oldest swimmer is around eighty. But we really believe that the water is for absolutely everybody. We have people who come to train for long-distance events, but also young club swimmers too. A lot of these people have always been pool swimmers but they’ve been converted during lockdown. It makes a change from just following a black line along the bottom of the pool – there might be a goose flying over your head, or sometimes the water is choppy and waves splash in your face.”

And Cat was right – this is a world away from my usual lane in Victoria Leisure Centre, yet it’s only fifteen minutes down the road. Though the prickling in my toes persisted, so do I  – and I find myself sinking lower into the depths as I take a moment to admire the setting. Surrounded by hundreds of trees, including a lovely willow that forms a secret nook in the water, the spot feels secluded and peaceful. After some cheerleading from Wales, who is patrolling the pool in a kayak, I finally lift my feet off the floor and set off from shore. 

The physical benefits alone are enough to get me going. NASA studies have proved that, over a twelve-week period, repeated cold-water swimming leads to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, a slimmed chance of blood clotting, and an increase in testosterone/oestrogen – collectively known as ‘cold adaptation’. Whole Health’s members even include long-COVID sufferers, who take part in the hopes it will shake up their immune systems.

But their most popular session by far is the one I’m attending: the Mindfulness Dip. Everything I’d read about the effects of wild swimming on poor mental health was echoed by the swimmers around me, each raving about its ability to turn down the noise of your thoughts and centre your attention on your breathing and your body. The shock of the cold really gives you no choice. Cat agrees: “It’s just really exhilarating, and the resilience it leaves you with just lifts your mood up,” she says. “You don’t have to think about the past or the future; you’re fully in the moment, focusing on relaxing your breathing and staying calm. You feel everything so intensely in the water, and that’s what makes it such a mindful activity.”

There aren’t many activities that can successfully take my mind off upcoming deadlines or jam-packed to-do lists, but I think these cold-water fiends are onto something. Having to use so much brain power to control my rapid breaths almost mimicked a meditative state, and soon enough I was swirling around in small circles, basking in the silence the soak had provided me. While Wales had predicted I’d only last five minutes, I swam back to shore after a solid fifteen feeling a little more zen. 

So, was risking hypothermia in a city park worth it? I won’t pretend it was all plain sailing – following my exit, my limbs were so numb it felt as though my brain had been placed in an entirely different body – but by the time I was on my way home I was on the sort of endorphin high I’d not felt for years. While I can’t yet speak for its ability to soothe my aching muscles indefinitely, I’ll soon find out… as I think I’ve caught the bug. “People have really genuinely become addicted to it,” laughs Cat. “I think partly because of the adrenaline rush, but also because of the community that we’ve built up here. People have got to know each other through attending, and it’s formed lots of new friendships.”

And community is what the Whole Health team are keen to keep building. With a permanent office now on sight, permission from the council to deck out the surrounding area, and fresh coffee in the form of Wired on Wheels, Nottingham’s journey with wild swimming is only just getting started. Whether you’re interested in pushing yourself physically or simply want ten minutes of uninterrupted ‘me’ time, Cat, Wales and I will be waiting for you, tow float in hand. 

You can enjoy daytime, early morning or mindful swims by becoming a Whole Health Member for just £25 a year. Sessions are then booked by redeeming credits. 

whollyhealthy.co.uk

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