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Seasoned winter swimming

It’s funny what you miss and what you look forward to. A few days ago, I swam down at Swinford Bridge, near Eynsham, and did a fairly comfortable 450 meters in 6 degree water, around the three red buoys that mark the shallows, with barely a slight shiver after getting out. Looking back to the start of November, 6 degrees in the water felt cold, and while the after-swim shiver was real enough, it was also the shiver of anticipation for the winter swimming in the months ahead. Then, in November, my mind’s eye roved across the winter landscape, saw the snap of ice underfoot at the water’s edge, saw crisp frosty mornings lit by the low December sun, and the blue, blue, light bathing bleak nature in January. My mind’s eye saw me swimming at Eynsham Lock deep into the cold season, against a backdrop of tall skeletal trees sinewing and snaking into the clear blue sky. My mind’s eye was editing winter, inevitably – there are stunning days like this of course, but also many, many, days of wet skies and grey mornings, when it is difficult to work out exactly if or when the sun has risen. But you still swim; you wouldn’t not swim.

Already in late August I had been looking forward to winter swimming, looking forward to the cold penetrating my overcoat of body fat, penetrating to my core beyond my body proper, to my soul. In late August, I sensed a slight change in the air, when it was still summer, still warm and when the water was at its warmest. This change was like the very first note of a new key in a jazz tune, sounded tentatively, preparing the observer for the passage ahead. When jazz is played with fluidity, the new-note-blue-note goes from mind’s eye to memory, and to all the changes you have heard before, in your many years of listening to jazz.

With my ten years plus of swimming in all seasons, I can’t stop myself anticipating, already in August, how the jazz tune of winter will be played. Nature can be a crazy jazz-player though, and while often calm and considered, it can throw you some new variations as a winter swimmer – every winter is different. The cold, when it comes, comes both gradually and sharply. Steadily, as the water temperature drops, your vascular system, the physiology that makes your blood flow through and keep you alive, is steadily challenged. Your muscles are slow at temperatures they are unaccustomed to. Your breathing in the water changes – it has to. It becomes calmer, slower, connecting body to mind and mind to body, almost second by second as you begin to swim. The cold, as it penetrates, is welcoming, and you welcome it into your body. I see this as welcoming the coming winter into my body, like inviting in a good house guest, one that I know better with the passing of years.

Winter swimming is one of the most humbling things you can do, because you can’t succeed if you try to fight the coldness of the water. But you can gain and grow as a person if you welcome it, and learn how it affects and changes your mind and body.

It sometimes tries to trick you, and that is why you must always be mindful, careful. If the water temperature drops by 4 degrees over a few days and you haven’t swum in a while, you might get in the water expecting to do what you did a few days ago. And if you push and do what you did a few days ago, fighting the cold in the process, you may suffer. After-drop is real and needs to be felt and understood personally - every body is different. You have to learn to be humble, to do less when it is right to do so, because long-term you will gain and grow. I swim every day across winter, because I can stay attuned to what is happening in nature through my body.

This winter, for the second year, I welcomed the cold into my body while swimming with no wetsuit, no neoprene gloves or socks, often no swim-cap either. My body remembers this annual houseguest, fondly, happily, warmly. My winter-swimming vascular physiology, my winter-swimming muscles, become tuned. My brown fat is triggered after winter swimming, often hours later, giving me a warm glow that is far better than any central heating. It takes time for your body to learn to trigger brown fat into burning hot after a cold challenge; in my case it has been several years. Now I have it, I never want to give it away – feeling the burn after a winter swim. I am not the hardiest of winter swimmers by far – I know many much more accomplished than me – but I want to winter-swim for the rest of what remains of my life.

The other day at Swinford Bridge, the water temperature had risen from 2 degrees a few days previously to 6 degrees. It felt almost tropical I thought, knowingly fooling myself as I swam comfortable in the water. Like jazz, the song of this winter’s swimming had just started playing its last notes, heading toward resolution. The subtle change in the seasons’ key signalled the coming of summer; yes, already in February. A summer of hope and promise for sure, and of swimming long again. But I was missing winter already.

Stanley Ulijaszek is Professor of Human Ecology at the University of Oxford and Director of the Unit for Biocultural Variation and Obesity.

Looking back on my meetings with Stanley in many different swimming locations has always been an intriguing experience.

We have met in mid-winter in cold waters, we have glided passed each other like tankers in the night in local lakes. Both of us have marvelled at the full moon from our night swims.

We have discussed the love of early summer morning fresh crisp golden sunny dips. Essentially our hearts lament on the experiential connections with the surroundings and the internal connection of our inner worlds.

Stanley is very much involved with all aspects of swimming, being actively involved in OSS Thames Oxford and his continued swimming in different locations, 65 Swims at 65 years old.

Swimmingpod is a wonderful podcast series from Stanley Ulijaszek, where he speaks with outdoor swimmers of many persuasions, about their swim-projects, how they got into swimming and what the get out of it.

Darrin Roles


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