Taking the plunge: the thrills of open water swimming

Image description: sunrise over Port Meadow 

Bubble… bubble…breathe. Arms stretching out, thwacking, slashing, gliding. You see nothing except your pale hands pushing down into the black void below. Your freezing brain seems to thrash around in your skull as you rotate to breathe on either side. Long weeds creep up from below to wrap themselves around your ankles like demonic fingers, trying to suck you down into the abyss. Or perhaps that’s just your overactive imagination.

Only a few minutes after clambering into the icy water, the initial shock to the system begins to subside. Your body adjusts. You take deeper breaths. Your surroundings become more accommodating. The hard, cold water becomes a blanket, softening deliciously as it rolls around you, warming up that critical layer in your wetsuit between neoprene and skin. 

When you stop after ten strokes to reorient yourself, you look up to see a calm autumn evening flourish before you. Every sense is heightened. Your body is buzzing. You become more aware of the crisp, blue sky, the languid lilac sunset, the glassy, shimmering quality of the water’s surface. 

There is an appeal to your insignificance against the vast, unabashed hulk of nature. Its stillness and supremacy. At last, some context. None of your cares or concerns matter and as you float and stretch and glide, you feel at peace because you’re part of something bigger than you.

None of your cares or concerns matter and as you float and stretch and glide, you feel at peace because you’re part of something bigger than you.

It’s easy to see why open water swimming has become so popular over recent years. During the pandemic in particular many have turned to the sport for its myriad physical and mental benefits. It can help weight loss, aid strength and endurance, build immunity, but most of all it can make you happy. 

The colder the water, the bigger the shock, the greater the release of ‘happy hormones’: adrenaline levels skyrocket and one report finds that swimming in temperatures of 14 degrees Celsius increases dopamine levels by 250 percent. The stress regulating hormone cortisol is released from your adrenal glands while a surge of endorphins in the brain provides pain relief and gives a sense of euphoria. For thrill-seekers the happy hormone hit is unrivalled, except for maybe jumping out of a plane or being chased by a lion.

Open water swimming is a perfect example of cold water therapy. Its most famous advocate, Wim Hof, aka “The Iceman”, a famous Dutch adventurer who once climbed Everest in just his pants, passionately believes that cold water immersion can help to stimulate the immune system to ward off illnesses like the common cold, something we could all do without in a hectic post-pandemic Oxford. Czech scientists even discovered that regular cold water swimming boosts immunity by increasing your white blood cell count.

As human beings accustomed to staying inside, swimming inside, and keeping warm, the idea of the cold, the wild, the unexpected, is daunting. However, the best thing about open water swimming is that instant dopamine hit when you first take the plunge and your body is under stress. It’s about forcing yourself to do something you don’t always want to do. 

It’s about forcing yourself to do something you don’t always want to do. 

When you enter cold water, your heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, you hyperventilate, and those things are potentially dangerous. Yet once your breathing becomes more regulated and your body adjusts you will find that exposing yourself to forces beyond your control and shattering that initial barrier fosters self confidence. You feel strength through adversity. 

There are a couple of things to consider in order to ensure a smoother experience. You should always have a swim buddy in case you run into any difficulties. To avoid getting too cold, you should wear a swimming hat so you don’t lose warmth through your head. Neoprene shoes and gloves are also a good idea especially if you’re considering winter swimming. Some suggest you should only stay in the water for as many minutes as there are degrees celsius. 

There are a number of places you can go to swim in Oxford besides obvious student hotspots like Hinksey. A little further outside the city centre you’ll find Wallingford Beach, Minster Lovell, and other areas in the Cotswolds. Though many students raised qualms about harmful levels of E. coli discovered in Port Meadow in May, this remains a top spot for swimmers. It’s hard to believe how clear the water can be compared to other murky waterways which snake through Oxford. 

Whether it’s for a quick morning dip, a float down the Cherwell, or a longer full winter monty, I’d recommend anyone to take the plunge and give it a go. As ever, all the best things in life are on the other side of fear. 

Image credit: Antony Steele on Flickr