Coronavirus: staying sane

For most outdoor swimmers, a cool dip means better wellbeing. In fact, it feels like a need for staying phyiscallly and mentally well. So, how can we adjust to a life where a dip is not possible?

Isolation and social distancing, we are in unknown territory where life as we know it has shrunk down as small as the boundaries of our homes and gardens. Some things are easier to give up than others, but swimming outdoors isn't one of them, especially when you've come to rely on it to keep you sane.

So, what can you do to look after your health and wellbeing? I have broken down the components that make swimming outdoors so therapuetic to work out how to look after ourselves when we can't get to a swimming spot.

Getting active

Part of the benefit of swimming outdoors is the same as any exercise. When you get into cold water your heart rate raises, your blood pressure increases and your brain responds to the cold by releasing feel-good hormones. The same happens when you physically exert yourself. Research shows that like swimming in cold water, exercise also reduces inflammation in the body and this leads to better heart and lung health, reduced chances of illness like cancer and diabetes, better longevity and better immunity.

NHS guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. That's about half an hour a day five days a week. This could be walking, gardening or vigorous vacuuming! But if you can push it a bit so you raise your heart rate and feel out of puff, then you'll be getting more benefits.

Up your active minutes by:

  • Going for a run -- try the One You Couch to 5k app: I didn't believe I could ever run, but I can!

  • YouTube workouts -- I love The Body Coach and Pop Sugar

  • If you swim because it's low impact, search for low impact workouts like this one

  • Online fitness programmes -- Davina McCall is offering free subscriptions during isolation

  • Kitchen disco -- put on your favourite tunes and dance

Getting outside

You swim whatever the weather, so get outdoors whatever the weather. There are many benefits to being outdoors. For a start, vitamin D is best got from sunlight. In the UK, you'll get the most of the sunshine vitamin by being outdoors for around 20 minutes at midday. When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes vitamin D from cholesterol. The sun's ultraviolet B (UVB) rays hit cholesterol in the skin cells, which makes vitamin D.

Natural light is better for your vision and mood, as is looking into the distance. We use our short-distance vision too much by looking at screens so much, so take every opportunity to look ahead of you towards the horizon as you would when swimming breaststroke outdoors. When you swim and when you walk in a natural environment, you are also using proprioception making judgements about your body and its movements in the terrain ahead of you; the natural environment is naturally more challenging which has greater benefits for your brain.

Studies show the benefits of being outdoors for reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as levels of inflammation. Studies also show a profound effect on levels of anxiety and depression. In fact, spending time in a natural environment seems to be an incredible cure-all, and when you can't swim in it you should at least spend time outdoors in gardens, forests and fields as much as you possibly can.

Getting mindful

One of the wonderful benefits of swimming is being in the moment. Whether you're dipping in the winter or swimming meditative lengths in preparation for an outdoor swimming event, it's very hard to think about anything in particular.

Meditation takes some practice, but it is worth replicating that mindful state. You can use apps like Calm to help you, or simply find a spot where you won't be disturbed and focus your breathing. Why not find a spot outside and visualise your favourite swim? Imagine each stroke and listen to the sounds around you. Don't worry if mundane or worrying thoughts enter your mind -- acknowledge them and let them pass through.

Yoga is another great practice for calm and meditation. What's more, it helps you grow in strength and flexibility, which will support your swimming when you get back to it. Try following this Yoga for Swimmers video.

Getting wet

So, we can easily replicate the benefits of being active and being outside, but what about that cold water fix? When you can't get to your swimming spot, you have to accept that you'll be getting different components of your outdoor swimming benefits in different ways and the bit where you get wet will probably not include swimming.

However, research shows benefits for your mental health from cold water. These involve stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system and more specifically, a part of this system called the vagus nerve. This is the longest nerve in your body connecting brain to gut, heart and lungs. Vagal tone is vital to your mental health; better vagal tone means that your body will better recover from stress. Deep breathing, humming, singing, changing, laughing, meditating, exercising, massage, omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics and cold water are all ways in which you can improve your vagal tone and therefore your mental health.

Here are some ways that you can recreate the thrill of the chill:

  • Turn the shower to cold for the last two minutes -- this is good for your hair and skin too

  • Run a cold bath -- the advantage is that you can make it as cold as you like

  • Invest in a paddling pool -- you can get huge pools that you can pretty much swim in, but even a small pool in the garden gives you the double whammy of cold water and outdoors

  • Find a local watercourse -- a paddle in a stream or pond that seemed unswimmable can suddenly appear very appealing! Just make sure that you consider your safety and the local ecosystem, remember too that the water may not be bathing quality, so shower well afterwards.

This is just a pause

At the moment, we have an obligation to keep a physical distance, but it won't always be like this. We can use this time to become less busy and therefore reduce some stress and also reconsider how we live our lives. It is also time to explore other ways of looking after our health and wellbeing and also strengthen our bodies and minds ready to return to swimming when we can.

Above all, try to have fun! Look for fun and exciting ways to keep active, get outdoors and stay sane. We'll be swimming together in no time!