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How swimming can help your mental health

Words by Rob Chilton

After a childhood scare in his school pool, Rob Chilton hung up his goggles. But, as he approached 40 and creaking joints a daily struggle, he got back in the water and rediscovered a new addiction that heals body and mind

My relationship with swimming has been up and down – mostly down. We started badly. One of my most vivid memories of primary school is taking my 14-metre swimming certificate, and when I say vivid, I mean it in a way that still gives me a shudder almost 40 years later – sometimes just the smell of chlorine takes me right back there.

I had ‘successfully’ completed my 7-metre test, swimming breaststroke nervously across the width of the school pool, panting with exhaustion as I desperately clung onto the other side. Now it was time for me to swim one full length of 14 metres. As my teacher Mr Charters looked on, I set off on my epic voyage. I started quite strongly (for me) but then glanced up and the end of the pool suddenly seemed like it was on the other side of the world. I panicked as I realised I was now floundering in the deep end and wasn’t able to touch the bottom. I gulped a mouthful of water and yelped. Mr Charters, not the most sprightly of chaps, grabbed a metal pole with a loop on the end and fished me out like a flapping halibut. The damage was done; me and swimming were over.

I splashed around in my teens on holiday, mostly just to cool down, but I never actually swam lengths. I tried once or twice but, due to my poor technique, I found it utterly exhausting. I never knew how to breathe properly so I was basically doing an intense burst of exercise using all my muscle groups while holding my breath and frozen in panic mode.

Swimming clears the mind

I also developed a fear of waves – cymophobia – and deep water – thalassophobia. The fact that these things have proper names gives me some comfort as I know I’m not the only one. In my 20s I went on holiday to the surfing hotspot Hossegor on the south west coast of France. One afternoon I took a paddle just up to my waist but got viciously sucked out to sea and then given the washing machine treatment as I frantically tried to get back to shore. Weak and helpless, I eventually staggered ashore, badly shaken up by the experience.

Fresh water

And that was that until 2013. Sore and swollen knees from playing football and basketball told me I needed to take up a form of exercise that was more gentle on the joints, especially as I approached 40 years of age. I moved to Dubai and to my amazement found myself living in an apartment with a 30-metre lap pool that overlooked a golf course with a stunning view of JLT’s skyline. But I wasn’t using it.

A few months later I was slumped on a lounger on a beach in Skiathos and my eye caught a guy swimming in the sea. Swimming with rhythm and ease, he made it look so effortless it was almost hypnotic. Something clicked. I could do that, I thought.

I tried this calm form of swimming the very next morning and it worked. I wasn’t out of breath. As I swam freestyle I breathed every third stroke, alternating to the right and left. I didn’t try to swim fast, I just concentrated on my technique and my breathing. It was a revelation.

I came back to Dubai and bought a pair of goggles and – more importantly - ear plugs as I always hated the feeling of water slushing around my ear canals afterwards. The crucial piece of kit, however, was a pullbuoy, a figure-of-eight shaped float you hold between your legs as you swim freestyle. It essentially disconnects your lower body, meaning you don’t have to kick so you can concentrate on your arms, stroke rhythm and head position. The float also keeps your body higher in the water so you swim faster, the thrill of which I found addictive. I didn’t get as tired using the pullbuoy either, which meant I was able to swim further, get fitter and feed the buzz for my newfound hobby.

I took lessons for intermediate adult swimmers, arm-melting sessions of 60 minutes in a school pool that gave me stamina and taught me lots about technique. Now fully hooked and swimming for 20 minutes every day, I was eager for the next step up and started entering aquathlons all over Dubai – a run/swim event that is a triathlon without the cycling. Open water swimming, rather than pool paddles, was a different ballgame entirely and I had to learn how to ‘sight’: lifting my head every few strokes to make sure I was following the correct course. Glancing up at the Burj Al Arab during an aquathlon is a Dubai memory I’ll cherish.

Lower back pain can be prevented by pool swims

Future proof

Now 45, swimming is something that I am certain I will do for the rest of my days – it’s like finding a new best mate later in life. Good for all-over strength and toning, swimming gives me a body shape I’m happy with and prevents my daily battle with lower back pain. If I don’t swim for a few days (perish the thought) my back locks up. Plop into the pool and knock out a few lengths and I climb out feeling supple again.

But the most beneficial byproduct of swimming is the mental peace it gives me. I’ve read that the happiness people derive from swimming largely has something to do with being wrapped in water, which does feel comforting. I like the way that, when I pop in my ear plugs and strap on my goggles, I am in my own world. Unlike jogging or the gym, you can’t hear your phone or check your messages when swimming and nobody expects you to wave or say ‘good morning.’ If I swim in the morning, I’m energised for the day. But if I swim in the evening, I’m able to process the day and plan my schedule for tomorrow. I can’t tell you how many ideas I’ve had while swimming (where do you think this article came from?). Swimming is, quite simply, therapy for body and mind.

Luckily, I now have a pool across the street from my Dubai house, which I use most days. I couldn’t help but smile and remember Mr Charters at primary school when I asked the lifeguard how long it was: 14 metres.

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