FEATURES,  View from the Water

2018: A good year for swimming outside

Picture credit: Katia Vastiau

In a year of difficult and divisive politics in the UK and elsewhere, of ever-mounting evidence of human-generated climate change and brutal, on-going armed conflicts in many parts of the world, outdoor swimming has provided a few rare moments of better news in 2018. For me, perhaps, the most significant of these is the growing recognition of the mental health benefits of swimming outside.

Those of us who regularly swim outside probably don’t need to be told this – we already know it from our own experience. Even those of us who are lucky enough not to have had to face mental illness know that a bracing dip in a fresh stream or a splash in the surf can significantly improve your mood. While we don’t know of any full-scale scientific studies into this subject, 2018 saw the publication in the British Medical Journal of a case report that discussed “open water swimming as a treatment for major depressive disorder*.” The case involved a 24-year old woman who had been suffering depression since she was 17 who followed a weekly programme of open water swims that led to an improvement in her mood and eventually the cessation of her medication.

The patient described her experience as follows:

“I really did struggle with depression and anxiety and have tried everything, CBT, talking, several different drugs and nothing worked or I feel numb and in a chemical fog. Although I didn’t enjoy the cold to start with, the effect it had was like a weight being lifted off my shoulders.”

This was obviously a fantastic result for the woman individually and it also had a wider impact. The story was picked up by the mainstream media, hence raising awareness of the benefits of outdoor swimming and, hopefully, encouraging many other people to give it a go. The other thing we’ve observed, which isn’t just down to outdoor swimming obviously but we think it plays a part, is a growing willingness of people to talk openly about mental health and a reduction in the stigma attached to mental illness. We’re grateful to all the people who have shared their stories of dealing with mental illness for us to publish in Outdoor Swimmer.

The year has also seen at least three very impressive swims in (or in one case around) Great Britain. Two of these made the national press. The third was a much quieter affair but, in its own way, a huge success. Firstly, I’m obviously talking about Ross Edgley’s 157 day staged swim – swimming twice a day for six hours at a time – all around the coast. Despite finishing in November, with sea temperatures barely in double digits, a large crowd of swimmers joined him in the water for the final mile. The second swim was Lewis Pugh’s “Long Swim” along the English Channel from Land’s End to Dover. As well as a crowd of swimmers to greet Lewis in Dover after his 49-day swim, environment secretary Michael Gove braved the rain (albeit with an assistant to carry his umbrella) to see Lewis finish and hear his message asking the British government to do more to protect the marine environment.

The third swim that impressed me, although without the same publicity machines behind it as Ross or Lewis, was Lindsey Cole’s swim along the length of the Thames. While the Thames has been swum before (most famously by David Walliams), I’m pretty sure Lindsey is the first person to do it in November! She also swam large parts of it in a mermaid tail. Styling herself the “urban mermaid” and accompanied by a mermaid statue made of discarded plastic, Lindsey swam in water as cool as 5 degrees, sometimes wearing two wetsuits, and always wearing a wide smile. Along the way, she and her team fished out more plastic from the water and stopped at schools to talk about the importance of discarding less plastic into the environment.

Away from the UK, Cameron Bellamy completed an amazing circumnavigation of Barbados under traditional marathon swimming rules. The 96km swim took almost 41 hours of continuous swimming in, at times, very tough swimming conditions. Cameron succeeded in his second attempt having abandoned his first swim after 66km two months previously. There is now talk of him having a crack at Cuba to Florida in 2019!

On a more practical level, and perhaps more relevant for the vast majority of swimmers who are not striving to set world records, is the continued evolution of the events and swim challenge business. Event organisers are increasingly recognising that swimmers have a wide range of interests and simply swimming around buoys in lakes (like triathletes) just doesn’t do it for them. It’s great to see new formats being tried and new destinations being offered. While events selling out in minutes and the introduction of ballots for the most popular swims is frustrating for swimmers who don’t get in, it’s a reflection of a growing and healthy sport.

Looking forward to 2019, we hope to see continued growth in outdoor swimming and for it to be increasingly recognised as normal, not eccentric or extreme, to plunge into rivers, lakes, estuaries and oceans. We’d love as many people as possible to benefit from swimming therapy, whether it’s just some light relief from the every-day stresses of life or part of a life-enhancing treatment from mental illness. And don’t forget, swimming also keeps you fit and boosts your social life. What’s not to like (except for the cold, the bugs, jellyfish etc.)?

*Open water swimming as a treatment for major depressive disorder; Christoffer van Tulleken, Michael Tipton, Heather Massey, C Mark Harper

Stay up to date with The Dip, our free weekly outdoor swimming newsletter.

I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.