Sometimes in life we have to do things we don't enjoy. Somehow it seems easier to do that when we are doing them for other people or we're getting paid!
But sometimes we have to do them for our own good and that can be more challenging, especially if these actions are the opposite of a lifetime of habits.
I'll give you an example: being hungry. There are two types of hunger: actual physical hunger and emotional hunger. Many of us have enjoyed feeding the emotional hunger over decades, and breaking that habit (to lose weight for example) is exceptionally hard. One reason for this is because it feels very uncomfortable to be hungry and to live through emotions without eating.
Aside from hunger, I also find being cold a hardship. In fact, I hate it. Don't get me wrong, I love being outside and I love hiking in the snow, but I make sure I have enough clothes on. Giving up warmth and comfort is hard!
So for me to decide to carry on open water swimming through winter, something must be wrong, right?
But I have been. Why?
Well for one, as I've mentioned here before, I have this stupid long-term-hard-to-cure condition with my pelvis, leftover from pregnancy (I was so pleased to escape the stretch marks but now I'd swap them for this in a heartbeat!). So as an active person banned from doing all my favourite things, I've needed "something" to focus my messy mind on or I might have murdered my entire family.
But I've also carried on because I do enjoy swimming and I want to be able to endure the Scottish waters for longer (10km) in the summer.
Sooooo - just like being a bit hungry helps you get into your desired jeans - being cold in the water is helping me not kill people.
But honestly I hate it. At no point when I'm in the water during the winter months do I think "oh that was lovely". I endure it for the greater good because I know it's helping my summer swimming and my poor circulation and my mood post-swim.
Having said all of this, being part of Vigour Events first ever Thrilled to be Chilled - featuring Scotland's first official Ice Mile - really was truly special and reaffirmed my decision to do keep practising something I don't really enjoy!
To be officially recognised by the International Ice Swimming Association, participants must swim a mile in "freezing conditions" i.e. under 5 degrees centigrade and in "skins", which means a swimming costume and no wetsuit.
Before I go any further I'll admit I did not do the full mile. In fact, I did something I've not done for about 10 years and chose the shortest distance - 450m - instead of the longest! And I did it in a wetsuit and neoprene socks and gloves! And I even sort of enjoyed it! I've talked here before about how incredibly hard swimming in freezing cold water is, physically and especially mentally. It IS painful and your body essentially shuts down - it's like swimming in mud. I'd never actually made the full 450m in training as my hands usually pack in first, but I was pleased to say I made it round and tried to go as fast as I could!
As usual, Robert and Kirsten and the team had gone above and beyond to create a unique experience - each swimmer had our own kayaker for safety and there was an ambulance and numerous medics on hand just in case - seriously, cold water swimming is fucking hard core. And I say that as someone who has completed ironman-distance triathlons, and given birth!
The support was incredible, but watching those ice milers really was one of the most special moments of any event I've been to. The physical pain of spending half an hour in that water and the strength of mind those swimmers have is incredible. Watching them get out can be unnerving, even for experienced swimmers. Intense shivering and dizziness affects most of them, maybe slight confusion, an inability to say much! As each of them finished, their team of supporters bundled them up in layers upon layers and plied them with food and hot drinks.
I felt truly humbled and in awe of those milers. We were all awarded certificates and beautiful trophies for taking part, although I must say I don't feel deserving!
The very best aspect of all of this is that we all know and respect how hard it is, and the community is incredibly supportive of anyone taking part. I'm used to the cut-throat atmosphere of triathlon where you're out to take on everyone in your group, you're racing hard, you're comparing your bike to the businessmen's £4000 speed machines, thinking about how good it will feel to blast past them on your crappy one, and you don't have much chat. Open water swimming, and especially cold water swimming just has a completely different atmosphere, and, whilst I had a nice wee unofficial race with a young lad in the water, it was never really about that (and I graciously accepted defeat!). It seemed everyone was there battling their own internal demons, pushing their bodies to the absolute limits of endurance (mine was a whole 9 minutes 😂), and proving that they could control those demons and achieve their goals.
So, sometimes we do have to do things we don't enjoy, and even if we never look back and say "oh I did enjoy that in hindsight", even if we say "actually I fucking hated that", the benefits are usually worth it. You're able to say "I didn't want to do that but I made the decision to do it anyway and here are the benefits". In terms of health and fitness, which these blogs are really about, it gives you the power and strength of mind to do it again - to be uncomfortable, whether that's by going for a run or living through a bout of the munchies, and the more you practice challenging yourself like this, the easier it becomes to create healthy habits. Even better if you can surround yourself with a supportive community to help you through.
I know I'll be back next year at Thrilled to be Chilled. I don't know if I'll be in a wetsuit but I know, at some point - maybe not when I'm in the water itself - but at some point I'll experience the benefits of it for my physical and mental wellbeing!
If you live in Scotland and want to try open water swimming, Vigour events run weekly supported training sessions all through the year. They also offer indoor coaching for stroke development, and host a series of excellent swimming events in glorious locations around the country. www.vigourevents.com
If you think you're ready to take a wee step to a healthier lifestyle, you don't need to jump into freezing cold water. I coach people in Glasgow at Inside Out Fitness and Nutrition Coaching in the city centre - an incredibly supportive community - and we have a 2-week free trial on offer if you are interested! It won't cost you penny, just a bit of your time and a wee bit of sweat! We also offer online coaching if you live a bit further away. Get in touch for more details: firstname.lastname@example.org