Hundreds of thousands of people enjoy cold water swimming every month for lots of different reasons. Some love the low-impact exercise or want to feel closer to nature, while others take the plunge to seek relief for menopause symptoms. Here we share keen swimmer Gayle O’Brien Kennedy’s story, who swam outside regularly in perimenopause to ease her menstrual cramps and sore muscles.
When I first began my journey into outdoor swimming, menopause didn’t feature in my thinking. I was in my early 40s at the time and the symptoms that would soon plague me had yet to appear.
I was initially drawn to outdoor swimming’s purported benefits including increased metabolism and improved mental health. I have always preferred exercising outside and outdoor swimming seemed like a natural choice, yet it wasn’t as simple as ‘decide then do’.
I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to hack it, that I wasn’t cut out for the hardness and bravery required to get into a lake in March.”
What if it was just too cold? What if I had a panic attack in the middle of the lake. What if I couldn’t warm up afterward and spent the rest of the day shivering under my duvet?
Joining a local open water swimming club was a huge factor in overcoming my fears. Their sessions included on-site wetsuit hire, marked courses and lifeguards on kayaks. I went with a friend who had been swimming with them for a year and she talked me through what to expect.
She said cold water would come into the wetsuit but it would soon warm-up and I might feel dizzy when getting out as the water drained from the wetsuit. Urgh, no problem!?!”
I started slowly, doing just one 400m lap of breaststroke, barely putting my face in the water. I was slow and cold, but warmed up. I was also nervous, but it faded when the sun came out and dappled the lake’s small waves.
Amazing menopausal symptom relief
What I learned that day has remained true, putting your feet in is still the hardest part. The cold water literally takes your breath away but you get it back. As I head into perimenopause, the benefits of open water swimming are amazing.
Perimenopause affects each of us differently with seemingly no rhyme or reason as to which symptoms will hit and when. Mine have been periods so heavy that I’ve been caught short in restaurants and menstrual cramps so debilitating that I feel them from my head to my heels. Hot flushes come and go without warning and my body often feels bloated and weighted like it isn’t mine anymore.
I feel like my body has been taken over by some internal beast with a string of vendettas to claim.”
As these symptoms came harder and faster, I have actively used outdoor swimming to help. I try to swim 2-3 times a week, but I have found myself adding extra sessions when I need relief from a day of hot flushes, want my heavy and cramped body to feel weightless, and when my sore muscles need a shot of cold to make them less inflamed. Outdoor swimming is also the perfect remedy when I need just a half-hour of quiet when I am literally uncontactable.
I now really look forward to cold water swimming as part of my exercise and mental health mix. Even though swimming for me has always been more of a mental health exercise than a physical or endurance one, I have become noticeably fitter and faster in the water. More recently, I have overcome my small fear of swimming in the sea and I’ve been lucky enough to expand my swimming repertoire in Kent, Devon and Wales. I hope to spend the coming months exploring new rivers and beaches.
For me, outdoor swimming is here to stay. My experience is that there isn’t a single symptom of perimenopause that outdoor swimming doesn’t soothe. I don’t think I could ask for more.”
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Outdoor swimming tips for beginners
Interested? If you’re looking to start outdoor swimming, either to relieve symptoms of perimenopause or for any of its other benefits, here’s Gayle’s advice:
- Find your local community. Look for other like-minded peeps – Instagram and Facebook are great for finding out who is swimming near you and where.
- Keep watch. Always make sure the water is calm, never swim out of your depth and always plan your way out.
- Start slow. Don’t feel you need to swim fast or far. Just do what is right for you, whether that’s training for a triathlon or simply looking at the water. Swim your own swim.
- You are genuinely not judged. I have never come across a more welcoming and truly for-all activity than outdoor swimming. It is truly a sport for all shapes, sizes and ages.
- You don’t need a wetsuit. I started with one, but I don’t use it anymore. For one, I’m lazy, but I also prefer to feel the water on my skin. When it gets colder I wear neoprene swimming gloves and shoes (a quick Google search will yield many results), which can be used with or without a wetsuit.
- Get a tow float. Get a tow float. These handy inflatables attach to you with a belt and serve a number of useful purposes. If you get tired, you simply hold onto it for a bit. If you’re in open water, it makes you more visible to the lifeguards. Most have waterproof compartments for keys and phones.
- Be flexible as seasons change. Be flexible as seasons change. In the summer, I tend to swim for about half an hour. Some people do more but half an hour is enough for me). In the autumn, winter and early spring, I get out earlier rather than later, mainly to ensure I stay safe and confident. You don’t need to swim for long to reap the benefits. I once did a dip in my local river in February that lasted all of eight minutes.
- Dry off quickly. Quick-dry towels are a god-send – they are light, absorbent and easy to move quickly across your body. The sooner you can get out of your suit the better – some use a towelling poncho to take their suit off while maintaining their modesty, or if you feel like splurging, get a dryrobe or similar to put on when you get out – it pulls the water away from your skin, dries you quickly, and helps keep heat in.
- Watch for ‘afterdrop’. Especially in colder weather, there are a number of easy but essential precautions you can take to make sure you don’t suffer from afterdrop. This is when your body struggles to warm back up after being in cold water. Bring a hot drink and a small snack so that you warm up from the inside. Invest in a woolly hat to keep the heat in your head. Put your feet into something warm and cosy. I use an old but trusty pair of Uggs.
I live near the sea and swim often but although I’ve been to the Lake District more than 10 times in the last 20 years, I’ve never once thought about going in the water. This summer I swam in four lakes, including Wast Water, Ullswater, Coniston and Rydal Water. It felt amazing and each lake offered spectacular views and different characteristics. It was the highlight of my holiday.”
Health benefits of outdoor swimming
Gayle is not alone in enjoying health benefits from outdoor swimming. Many people enjoy cold water swimming during menopause. Scientists are beginning to understand its benefits:
Swimming is an excellent form of exercise whatever the water temperature. It combines cardio and resistance training to give you a great, all-round workout. This in turn helps with your overall fitness, weight management, muscle mass and bone density.
Menopause symptom management
Exercise can also help to control menopause symptoms including mood changes and possibly make your hot flushes less intense.
The cold water itself seems to have additional benefits too. Cold water swimming seems to improve a number of risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as including blood pressure. A small study found improvements in the way insulin is produced and responded to by the body, which could be of interest if you struggle with high blood sugar or diabetes.
Another study suggested that immersion in cold water could help to decrease pain levels, so you may find it helpful if you struggle with menopausal aches and pains. Improvements have also been found in mental health and general wellbeing.
These studies are promising, but doctors still don’t have enough evidence about these benefits. Likewise, we also don’t know which water temperature is most effective or which groups of people could get the most out of cold water swimming.
How to swim safely
While having fun is often the main aim, it’s important to remain aware of the risks of swimming in open water, such as in the sea, lakes and ponds. Regardless of how strong a swimmer you are, cold water can be dangerous if you don’t prepare correctly.
Cold water shock can happen when water temperatures are below 15 degrees celsius (59F) – unfortunately this includes most seawater around Britain for much of the year! Cold water shock isn’t something you can control or “power through”.
Even strong swimmers should take care by following this advice:
- Use a wetsuit for swimming in cold water. They provide buoyancy as well as protecting you from cold water shock.
- Take time to acclimatise to the cold water in the shallows before starting your swim
- Plan your exit. Ensure that there are steps, a gentle slope or other ways to get out of the water quickly and safely if you get into trouble
- Take a flotation device such as a tow float with you
- Swim with a friend and ideally in an area with lifeguards
Learn more about safety and open water swimming via the RLSS.
If you have any medical conditions or risk factors, such as for heart disease, speak to your doctor before taking up cold water swimming.
The best approach to outdoor swimming is one that works for you. If you enjoy cold water swimming and can do it in a safe way, fantastic! If you dread the thought of open water and shudder at the idea of pondweed tangled around your ankles, you might want to get these health benefits from other types of exercise or healthy habits.