Swimming can be a hugely helpful tool in managing fibromyalgia symptoms. Until recently, it had been a few years since I’d swum in open water for one reason or another. I find this type of swimming not without its difficulties, but I do always feel a sense of joy and achievement after I have swum in a natural environment. In this post, I wanted to share some of my own (non-medical) experience with swimming in open water and some of the things which affect me swimming with fibro.
Why is open water swimming beneficial for chronic illness?
Aside from the fact that pool swimming can become a little monotonous, there’s a bucket load of studies, as well as countless personal testimonies describing how open / cold water swimming can help with health issues, including many symptoms of fibromyalgia such as pain, anxiety, depression and migraine. Here are a selection of links to articles extolling the virtues of swimming in the open:
My own experience of open water swimming with fibromyalgia
I love being out in nature and swimming, so open water is, for me, a chance to combine 2 of my favourite things. It is amazing being so close to nature, for example finding a curious coot and her babies watching from less than a metre away or seeing swallows swooping low over the lake as you swim along on a crisp, clear summer’s morning.
I also find that the experience of being in the open water is so all-encompassing that it does take my mind away from pain and mental health issues, even if only for a short time. There’s just so much for the brain to deal with – the change of temperature, looking where you’re going, the natural environment and the physical act of swimming, that you have no option but to be mindful and immersed in the present. I always feel uplifted after I have swum in open water, the aquatic equivalent of a runner’s high perhaps?
I find open water swimming to be a friendly and inclusive activity. Turn up to most swim sessions and there will be a complete mixture of abilities from lithe Ironman triathletes and Channel swimmers to leisurely lady swimmers with flamboyant headgear, but no matter who you are, the atmosphere is positive and upbeat, and it feels ok to be there and to take part, even with a broken body.
As open water swimming was something I only started doing post fibromyalgia diagnosis, it’s also significant for me as it reminds me that I can still take on new physical challenges even living with chronic illness. And that sense of achievement can be quite hard to come by if you are struggling with fibro.
And the downsides…
So are there any downsides? Well, for me, yes there are.
Bearing in mind that most of the time, I feel like I have the body of the tin man, I find that putting on a wetsuit and taking it off at the end of the session incredibly tiring. Without the assistance of my husband, there is no way in the world that I would be able to put on and take off a wetsuit as my body is just so stiff and painful and even with his help, it still feels like a big deal for me.
Before you say, “why don’t you swim without a wetsuit”, well I feel the cold. I mean really feel the cold! My last swim for example, the water was 19c. Most of the other swimmers were were saying how warm the water was and even if they started off swimming in a wetsuit, many ditched them after a couple of laps. But me, well I was sporting thermal swim socks, thermal hat and gloves on and I was still cold to the bone after swimming a mile! I know that many of us fibro warriors struggle with temperature control and I certainly do. I have a very narrow range of temperature in which I feel OK without being too hot or too cold, not just when swimming. This is something I need to bear in mind, so I only tend to venture into open water during the summer months.
Finally, depending on where you live, it can be quite an effort to actually get to a safe place for open water swimming. Again, this needs to be factored in for those of us with fibro, or any chronic illness as travelling to and fro consumes more of our precious spoons.
So, whilst I absolutely love open water swimming and am always grateful that my body allows me to participate, I do find that the whole experience is really tiring, taking into account the travel time, getting into and out of a wetsuit as well as the actual swim itself. As such, it is something I like to do every once in a while and would certainly do so more often if I lived nearer to a venue. I’d definitely recommend giving it a try for a pain-killing, endorphin boosting and a chance to try something different.