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Wild Swimming & The Menopause

Morag Bootland
6th Apr. '21

The explosion in the popularity of wild swimming has been widely reported, in fact the chances are that you already know someone who swims in open water. While wild swimmers come in lots of different shapes and sizes, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of women around my age who have become devotees to taking a regular dip. It got me wondering if this is in some way linked to the menopause?

I’m 46 and perimenopausal. The hot flushes are yet to come, but the bouts of anxiety, stress and self-doubt that this phase of womanhood brings, undoubtedly accentuated by the strange times we are living in, are certainly evident.

Anyone who has experienced hot flushes probably doesn’t need a doctor to explain the benefits of immersing themselves in cold water. But there is actually very little scientific knowledge of why cold-water swimming makes us feel so good. Some theories are based around the fact that throwing ourselves into icy water puts stress on the body and the more we do it, the more acclimatised to it we become.

So, we teach our bodies to cope with stress. There are also proven anti-inflammatory benefits to cold water immersion, so it can certainly help to reduce aches and pains.

If there was a prescription drug that could provide the mental and physical health benefits reported by many wild swimmers then there’s little doubt that doctors would be hailing it as a wonder drug. So, what exactly is it that attracts so many women of a certain age to this extreme activity?

Vicky Allan is a journalist and author of Taking the Plunge, Still Hot and For the Love of Trees. She swims regularly at Portobello and Wardie Bay. Vicky lost her brother five years ago and at the same time as dealing with her grief, she began her journey into the menopause.

Photo by Anna Deacon

“I’m now well into the post menopause phase. I remember in the year my brother died, I thought ‘I haven’t had a period in ages’. As the year went on, I had a little drip of a period and then never again. I was caught up in my feelings of grief, which of course could also have been menopause related symptoms. I couldn’t really tell one from another but it was pretty clear at that point that I was entering the menopause and looking back it seems obvious that I had probably been perimenopausal for some time.

I did at one point google ‘can grief cause the menopause’ because I was troubled by how both had come at the same time. I felt that I was too young, but at 45 I wasn’t, I was just at the younger end of a normal spectrum. Dealing with the menopause and swimming really did come wrapped up as part of the same phase of my life and both were linked to this grief phase for me.”

Vicky felt as though she had been catapulted into the menopause, with a varied range of symptoms she would regularly turn to Dr Google to find out why she had a rash on her breasts, sore feet or feelings of anxiety.

“I didn’t go on HRT, although I did consider it. I don’t have any issue with it, although it’s interesting that I still haven’t done it. I was keen to find a physical way of engaging with being in the menopause. I wanted to be right in my body and find some strength in it while I was being troubled by all of these different symptoms. For me, swimming was definitely part of that. One of the things I was really enjoying about cold water swimming was this idea that I would get into the water and although my temperature had been going up and down all the time, I’d just go ‘ahhhh I’m really cold’ and afterwards I’d feel that there was no chance of a hot flush all day.”

Interviewing women for Still Hot – the book she wrote about the menopause with Kaye Adams – Vicky became aware that many women experiencing the menopause took a very proactive approach to this stage of their lives. Some were swimming, some weight-lifting and some running ultra-marathons. It seemed that there was a tribe of middle-aged Amazons in the making.

“The menopause is a wake-up call. It is like a mini-death inside you. You are aware that your eggs aren’t there any longer and it makes you aware of how long you might live. In the face of that I really wanted to enjoy being a physical person, and I became conscious that I had a window in which to enjoy still being that physical person. I’m a big advocate of getting outdoors, but wild swimming takes it to another level, you’re doing something that’s pretty extreme.”

Wendy Davidson works in HR and lives in the New Town, she is 55 years old and has been swimming on and off for the past four years. Since 2020 she’s been hooked and now swims every weekend. As her awesome sweater proudly declares she has the ‘Menopause in Progress’.

Age is the thing that got me started swimming. I grew up by the sea, at Cruden Bay in the North East, so I used to swim as a child. At my age I try not to shy away from opportunities. I’m not going to sky dive or anything like that, but I’m not going to say no to experiences. I felt like my life was moving too fast and swimming was just one of those things that I fancied giving a go. It felt like something free, somewhere there was space.

“I think it is down to the menopause. I know it’s not an end, but you do feel like your youth is at an end. Rightly or wrongly, and I think it is wrongly, that’s how we see it. I wanted to prove to myself that I was still young in body and mind and that the menopause wasn’t going to stop that. I have become really passionate about trying new things and that’s only happened in the past few years. Swimming is one of those things and that is definitely an age thing. I never miss a weekend.”
Wendy feels the mental benefits of wild swimming as well as the physical, reporting that no matter what mood she’s in when she goes swimming, she’s guaranteed to be in a good mood when she comes out of the water.

“I always laugh when I’m in the sea. I sing too, even when there are other people there. Your inhibitions go. I feel so young and like the world is my oyster, it’s such a bizarre thing. I come out feeling alive, my head is clearer and I grin all the time. These feelings don’t stop, no matter how many times you do it.

“The menopause made me feel drained and heavy. I started running again in 2016 and challenged myself to run every day in 2017, which I did. Sometimes I’d feel like my legs were so heavy, but I don’t feel that in the sea. It’s so different. While I’m running, I think about what I need to do at work and plan meals and things, but I never, ever do that when I’m swimming. I’m always really focused on my body and how it feels.

“I wouldn’t be doing this when I was in my 20s or 30s, but it’s something that feels right for me now. Being close to nature and dealing with my symptoms in my own way. I don’t see myself stopping swimming ever. All of my holidays this year are geared around places where I can be close to lochs or the sea so that I can swim. It’s what I want to do.”

Fiona Archibald-Rushworth is 54 and lives in Balerno with her husband and two teenage daughters. She works as a Pupil Support Assistant and had dabbled with wild swimming before embracing it fully in 2020.

“It really started on the last day of a holiday in Oban, we had been boogie boarding a lot and the wetsuits were nice and dry. The sea was flat calm and I kept thinking, ‘I want to get out there, but my wetsuit is dry and it’s not good to get it wet when we’re going home.’ So, I just went in in my swimsuit. My two daughters decided they would come with me and it was such a different experience for them. I was swimming up and down feeling refreshed and loving it. But they couldn’t breathe with the cold. When I came out, I felt great, there was no shivering but the girls took a good 20 minutes or so to warm up. I thought this was really interesting as height and body-wise we’re not that dissimilar. But I was hooked from then.”

Fiona swam a few times in Threipmuir Reservoir in the Pentland Hills, but Christmas saw her receive gloves and boots which opened the door to new experiences.

“On 1st January there I was chipping my way through the ice. It’s a challenge getting in, trying to avoid the shards of ice. There have been some people who have been cut by it. I like the challenge of getting in and getting under the water and getting out again without getting too cold. It’s great fun.

“It takes you to a different place. I find the minute you go in it empties your mind of everything else. I think when you’re in the water you are there, you’re in the moment and for a good 24 hours after you’re still buzzing from it. I went into a waterfall yesterday and it was just amazing. I fell asleep last night with the last thing I thought about being the water gushing over my head. The buzz you get afterwards is incredible.”

And while Fiona is yet to enter the menopause, she does feel that her age is linked to her passion for wild swimming.

I don’t think I’d have done this when I was younger. I’ve always loved the water, but swimming through ice! I think for a lot of women it’s a time when their children are at a more independent level. They’ve done the nappy changing and done the school run and are ready for some me time. I’m looking forward to meeting other wild swimmers because I’d like to join a swimming group when lockdown allows.

During my life there have been mother and toddler groups, PTA groups, but I’m now at an age that I have more ‘me’ time, so I can join groups that I want to join. I appreciate the freedom that wild swimming gives me. I will carry on swimming, definitely.

 

Huge thanks to Just Eat Cycles for sponsoring this article. With hire points all across Edinburgh, it’s the best way to see the city whilst benefiting mental and physical health! Don’t miss their Spring offer of 4 week pass for just £7.50! Available to buy in App until 30th April. Get on that bike!

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