Unexpected Benefits of Wild Swimming

The surprising lessons that keep me heading back to the beach for a daily ocean plunge mid-winter.

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Gillian Goerzen Wild Swimming
Me walking into the brisk ocean in December 2020.

When I joined my friend Dee in November for a hike and dip in Departure Bay, I had no idea it would be anything more than just something fun to do with my friend. Little did I know it would become the start of a really empowering ritual that has been a godsend to me during this challenging time.

Initially it was the rush of adrenaline that I loved. And that “badass mermaid” vibe it gave me for the rest of the day. But as I’ve sat with it and explored what is really so magical about it, I came up with a rather long list of unexpected lessons.

If you’ve been watching my swims (via my shares on social media) and you’ve thought….”why on earth…” this article might be for you. This blog is less about the physiologic benefits (I listed those here – and there are plenty!), and more about the surprise mental and spiritual benefits I’ve noticed.

Lesson 1: I can do hard things.

Walking into the ocean in the middle of a west coast winter is hard. It’s not the hardest thing I’m faced with in my life, but it’s just hard enough that I’ve got a near daily reminder that I can do hard things. That I’m capable, strong and resilient. Which kind of serves me EVERYWHERE. Because life, it’s hard. And if there were ever a time when I needed to be reminded that I’m capable, strong and resilient, it’s here and now in this pandemic. So when I need to pivot my business for the millionth time – I know “I’ve got this.” When I have to help my kids navigate a strange new school environment – “no problem.” When I’m up against a tough conversation – “deep breath, you can do hard things.” It’s just like walking into the water on a cold winters day, the first few steps are often the hardest.

Take home message: You are stronger, more capable and more resilient than you think.

Lesson 2: Just breathe.

Seriously. That’s it. Slow, steady, deep. Almost everything in life goes more smoothly when you slow down and deepen your breath.

Take home message: Breathe slowly and deeply (especially when you’re inclined to do the opposite).

Lesson 3: Overthinking gets me nowhere (good).

Early on I recognized that my mantra for wild swims was “don’t think, just do.” Because here’s what I know. If I stand on the beach just looking at the water, the likelihood of me going in is only going to go down. It’s not that I’m going to skip it (I’m far to stubborn for that), it’s just that I’ll build it up in my head and make a way bigger deal of it than it really is. I’m making it harder for myself (why do we do that, anyway?!). So I don’t think, I just do. This translates in a very real way to the rest of my life. Have you ever built up a situation in your head only to find that once you just “got on with it” it was genuinely no big deal?! Yeah, me too. ALL the time. Tough conversations, mundane (but challenging) tasks, difficult decisions – yup. I see you. I’m not suggesting we should be rash and not think things through – not at all. But once we’ve made the call, quit procrastinating.

Take home message: Don’t think, just do.

Lesson 4: Perception is everything.

Early on in my swims I met Lizzy. Lizzy goes in not once, but twice or often three times. And between each subsequent dip she does a little dance (more on that in lesson 10). So I tried it. And here’s what’s crazy. The 2nd and 3rd dips within 1 swim are almost always easier. Sure, it might be because my skin has gone numb, but this awareness absolutely shifts how I view the whole experience. My perception of the experience has shifted. Huh. And it always causes me to pause and ask….where else might perception be changing my experience? Um, everywhere?!! What stories am I telling myself about how things are going to go? How does that story influence my perception of the experience? Even further… is this story fact or is it thought? How often do I let my perspective taint my perception? And is that to my benefit? Stay curious.

Take home message: Be mindful of your perception and bias and how it influences your experience.

Lesson 5: Perception is ALSO ever-changing.

The temperature of the ocean fluctuates relatively little over the seasons and even less from day to day. When I first started dipping in November the temperatures were a balmy 8.7 degrees Celcius. Just this morning it was 6.2. I’ve certainly noticed the drop over time, but what has been even more interesting is how my perception of the temperature is often way off.

Why? Because my perception is influenced by a lot of factors – my body temperature, the ambient temperature including wind chill, and perhaps more surprising (or not) my mood and expectations. In the midst of a snowfall the other weekend I was expecting it to be super chilly and thus a short dip (I let my body guide my dip duration). But instead I was pleasantly surprised by the moderate temperature. Here’s what’s funny. It wasn’t moderate. It was 6.5. But it felt milder. HUH. Other days the opposite is true. What’s interesting to note is that it’s not just my expectations – but also my mood, and potentially where I am in my menstrual cycle when I dip. I haven’t quite figured out what the correlation is, but I’ve definitely noticed that there is a correlation. Stay tuned for future percolations.

Take home message: Perception is everything and ever-changing (it doesn’t really matter why). Just be present and roll with it.

Lesson 6: Slow down – sitting with discomfort is often best path to releasing it.

When I went the first time I did my typical “run in screaming and run the hell out.” Because, it was cold! But with time, I felt drawn to slow down. To walk in more peacefully and simply focus on my breath. Very early on, I embraced the ritual of releasing what doesn’t serve me with my dips. It felt cathartic. But what’s made that cathartic practice even more powerful is slowing down. Being truly mindful and present in the moment and not rushing through it. Which is a lesson I could afford to take with me from the beach. How often do we all just push through and rush those big feelings. What would the world/ our lives look like if we gave ourselves permission to simply sit with the tough stuff? No need to change it. Just be with it and then release when ready. Slowing down and releasing what doesn’t serve me to the ocean has been one of the most transformative parts of this practice. Because it has translated into me slowing down in every area of my life.

Take home message: Slow down and be with the tough stuff. Release when ready (you’ll know when that is).

Lesson 7: Some days NOT going is the best choice.

When I first started wild swimming, I felt compelled to announce that I was going to go for 30-days straight. It seemed like a good idea – right?! At the time I was mostly going solo and wearing flip flops (there is more than one lesson here). I was something like 17 days in. And it was blustery out. Before I even left the house my body said…not today. I ignored it. I got to the beach. The surf was WILD. Intuition said, let’s skip it. I marched on down to the waters edge. Determined, some might say stubborn (and a bit stupid). I lost my footing and fell in. Lost a shoe. Scratched up both hands, my butt and a leg on barnacles (this was before I chose my entry points more carefully). I was so damn scared to “lose my streak” I forgot to listen and honour my inner guide. Oh hey Diet Culture. I see you there lurking (I’ll address you more in lesson 8). At the end of the day I’m doing this because it makes me feel awesome – body, mind and spirit. Which means, that if at any point going doesn’t serve that bigger purpose, I skip it. And that’s ok. In fact, it’s great.

Take home message: Sometimes NOT doing the thing is the healthiest choice you can make.

Side note lesson: Be prepared. Wear the right gear. More on that in this article.

Lesson 8: Motivation doesn’t hinge on momentum – it’s bigger than that.

Ok, let’s address this “streak” mentality because it’s so pervasive in Diet Culture and I felt myself be pulled into it’s vortex (maybe you’ve felt it too?). It’s that “follow the program” and “don’t skip a day” or “never miss a Monday” thinking. But what if you’re unwell or simply need a day off? Why is it so damn hard to take a break? I think part of it is that we view motivation as this mysterious creature waiting in the wings. We don’t know when she’ll show up, so when she does we better stick to her like glue.

We’ve conflated the constructs of motivation with momentum, but it’s not really that simple.

Motivation is something more. I get how we got here (I used to think it too). It’s physics: an object at rest, stays at rest, an object in motion stays in motion. So just stay in motion and never stop and you’ll just keep trucking on. BOOM. But one pump of the brakes isn’t going to slow you to a stop. Just like one day off isn’t going to ruin your new habit. In fact, sometimes one pump of the brakes is exactly what you need to better view the scenery and take it all in. To really savour the experience and enjoy the journey. What if slowing down, and taking a break now and then is really what it’s all about? Plus, sometimes a day off helps you realize just how much you love being in motion. So yeah, screw the streak, and find your saunter.

Take home message: Taking a day off (any habit) isn’t going to undo the benefits of all the days that preceded it. And sometimes it’s exactly what your body, mind and spirit need.

Lesson 9: My body is awesome just as it is.

One of the things I’m doing with my swims is documenting them with video. Almost every day I film my dip and share it in my stories (on Facebook and Instagram). I started this in an effort to get more familiar with my body. During the last year my body has changed, and I was struggling to see my body without the pervasive lens of Diet Culture. My strategy (and a few others) worked. I’ve come to a much more comfortable, familiar place with my body (yay). But there’s more. Over time filming my dips has become a lovely way to celebrate my body. As I watch the video of the dip I can re-live the experience and the joy it brought me. And that’s kind of magical too.

Take home message: Your body enables you to experience your life – the joys, the sorrows and everything in between. It’s awesome. Find a way to view it through that lens!

Lesson 10: Shake that ass and celebrate this one and precious life.

Each time I dip you may (or may not) notice that I shake my booty at some point. Inspired by Lizzy’s liberated celebration of body and life, I’ve brought this booty shake into my routine and think it might be one of my favourite things about the dip.

In this one and precious life, we all ought to shake our amazing booty’s a bit more.

Because you know what, life is short. And we get to live it. So we’d better appreciate it. As I started this practice in November, my friend Meghan was losing her battle with cancer in the Palliative Care Unit. She was 36 years old. And she was taken from this world far too soon. Well before her time. So you know what? Each time I went to the ocean, I thought of her (and still do). Because you know what else? Meghan would have fucking loved this. She may or may not have dipped herself (I’m actually not sure where she stood on cold water, I wish I’d asked), but man, she’d have been there cheering us lunatics on with joy and likely a sweet sign with a super inspiring quote (while she picked up some litter, because that’s who she was). So you know what, this ass shake and dip is for you Meghan. I promise to carry on your incredible legacy and live my one precious life in the most extraordinary way possible.

Take home message: Live your one precious life with joy. It’s a profound gift.

Sometimes you don’t really know why you’re called to do something. Why inspiration comes knocking and doesn’t relent until you go for it. For me, that’s what wild swimming has been. Now I crave it. It’s not every day, but it’s most days. And it’s magical. Because of these lessons, and something I can’t even put my finger on. So, I’m going to tune into that and stay with it.

Peaceful badass mermaid, out.

*photo cred to Lantzville local and fellow early morning beach-dweller John Dunn. He took this photo and shared it in the community group (and commented that he even saw a mermaid this morning!). Thanks John!

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