The power of open water swimming and getting outdoors - Joanna Shimwell
The positive impact the outdoors can have on both mental and physical health is a subject that has spiked in huge interest in recent years. One person whose life has transformed since dedicating her time to adventure sports is dryrobe® ambassador and inspiring amateur athlete Joanna Shimwell.
Growing up on a family farm in Derbyshire, Joanna’s life hasn’t always been so outdoor driven. In the last six years, she chose to reshape her life, spending more time focussing on her love for outdoor activities and developing herself as an amateur athlete, and sharing her amazing experiences on social media.
In a recent chat, we found out the inspiration behind Joanna’s passion for outdoor sports, how she has overcome challenges of open water swimming in the winter, and what her top tips are for new swimmers.
When did you first take an interest in fitness and what sparked your dedication to adventure sports?
It was about six years ago, around 2015. I was having a bit of a hard time. I was a bit lost really now that I've got a bit of perspective on it. I was kind of unhappy with my friendship group.
My life was kind of just spiralling a little bit out of control. I was spending more money than I was making, and my partying was impacting my working week. I reached a point where it was like, enough. I just realised that I needed to get back to myself because when I was a child, I was always outdoors - I just kind of lost myself around sort of like 18 to 25.
My friend from home that I went to school with was always into outdoor stuff - cycling and all kinds of different things. She gave me a bike that she had spare and said, ‘Why don't you just start cycling?’ So that's when I started riding my bike to fill the time that I would have spent either recovering from the weekend or out in the city, spending money in a bar.
It gave me a good sense of purpose and then it just went from there really.
So I started posting stuff on Instagram around that and shared being outdoors, being out in nature, and getting away from the sort of toxic environment that I'd immersed myself in - thinking that was happiness and quite clearly it wasn't.
Was there anything that inspired you to first start open water swimming in particular?
The first girl I went swimming with, I was following on Instagram and she lived in the Peak District as well.
She was mainly doing more long-distance running - I was doing a bit of running, but not like the long distances she was doing. She did a bit of biking, but maybe not as much biking as I did. And then I saw that she was swimming in the winter. And I just messaged her.
I said, ‘I really, really want to do this. Can I do it with you? Because I feel like it would be nicer to do it with somebody.’
We agreed to meet at a really early time - about six o'clock in the morning. And I thought this is crazy that we're going to do this and what if it's really cold and I can't handle it.
But, we had this beautiful sunrise swim, it was an absolutely perfect morning to introduce yourself to cold water swimming. There was steam coming off the water, there was frost, the sky was pink. We just had a really good giggle and I drove to work on a complete high.
That was the first time that I met her in real life. Now we're still friends and still go swimming together - so social media has been really a big part of how I got into the things that I do today.
You have previously spoken about the beauty of experiencing locations from the water. Where has your favourite location been and why does it resonate with you?
It doesn't happen so much nowadays, but I really enjoy traveling to new places.
For me, traveling somewhere is to go hiking in the mountains, go cycling in the mountains, go swimming in the lakes.
We did it in the Lake District and a bit in Scotland. And I just had my heart set on going to Europe in the winter on a road trip to go to the Italian lakes and to be at Lake Como for Christmas.
I'm really into journaling and visualisation, so I wrote that I wanted to be at Lake Como for Christmas and somehow, without actually really planning it, we did actually spend Christmas Day at Lake Como.
If you've seen, or you've been to Lake Como, you know that the mountains there and the scenery is just out of this world. For somebody who wants to experience the best cold-water swimming locations, it was surreal that we actually managed to make it happen and exactly as I wanted it to happen - at Christmas. It was a very memorable, mind-blowing, and amazing experience - I will really treasure those memories so much.
You swim all the way through winter - how did you overcome challenges that come with cold water swimming?
I think that the mental toughness aspect of cold water swimming is something that really appeals to me. During the summer, swimming is different. It doesn't require the same amount of talking to yourself and saying that you can overcome things.
For handling life and for being good at a discipline, you have to have mental toughness and I really admire anyone that is able to exercise discipline because that's something that I strive for as well.
So the thrill of cold water for me was always about being able to prove to yourself that you can do something that perhaps you think you couldn't do.
Once you get going, and once you do it, the exhilaration factor and the fact that you proved to yourself that you can do it make me keep going, and I don't want to wimp out.
Obviously, there are health benefits, but I think that there are real mental benefits by putting yourself through it. So that's what I know deep down and that's what makes me keep coming back.
I think that in doing that repeatedly, it's made me feel like I can actually handle tough situations in day-to-day life better because I'm more resilient, as I've consistently proved to myself that I can overcome the things that I find scary - but in a measured and controlled environment.
I particularly have enjoyed the cold water people that want to swim in the winter - it’s quite a fun little community. Maybe in the summer, we won't contact each other, but in the winter, it’s like, ‘are you up for another winter doing crazy things?
It's really nice to have this sort of thing in common, the thrill of the cold water and the challenge of doing it. You might have stunning conditions. You might have really challenging conditions, but either one way or the other, it's going to be memorable and it's going to be rewarding.
What helped you to grow in confidence when you first started open water swimming and do you have any tips you would recommend to those who are just starting out?
I do get asked this and I'm always a bit cautious not to give any advice for anyone to be reckless.
I always say that the most important thing is to be able to tell yourself that you can. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I couldn't do it. I just couldn't get in.’ But, you just have to get in, and you have to learn to not listen to your doubts.
I think it's really important to be prepared, and make sure that you take clothes where you can dress quickly so that you've got an exit strategy - because it's all fun and games until you can't put your clothes back on!
That goes on to my next point, which would be not to go on your own. I didn't have any real worries about my swimming ability, but I still wouldn't have done cold water swimming in the winter on my own without someone being around because you need to learn how your body is going to respond. I think when you first experience serious mild hypothermia, you need to have people around you, so maybe do it in at least two or three people groups, and preferably not all novices.
You live on a family farm in Derbyshire. Is farming a lifestyle you grew up with and what is it about it that you love?
Apart from uni, I've lived at the farm all my life. It can be a hard lifestyle - there's a lot of commitment all year round and it's very hard to switch off from that.
It’s definitely a challenging lifestyle and you have to be prepared to have periods of time where you can't really have any real social life, or normal holidays the way that other people would. People invite you to things and you can't really go because you just can't do anything during a certain period of time. Like lambing, for example, you just have to be at the farm 24/7 to make sure that everything's okay.
But, being outdoors every day is really, really rewarding. And, being in a location where I'm so lucky that I've got all these nice things around me - like open fields, there's a river a mile away and I can go out into the Hills every day and still fit in work. So that aspect is just amazing really. Not many people I think get to experience it. People tell me, ‘Oh, I'd love to have the opportunity. I'd love to have that.’ So I feel like I'm really lucky that I've grown up here.
How do you think being active affects your mentality?
I feel that people can get stuck in a bit of a negative cycle when not being active, where your body doesn't feel good and then you don't feel like exercising.
When you incorporate some kind of activity into your day, then you start to feel that you have more energy and you probably sleep better at night. So you feel more like getting up in the morning, then doing a workout or, or doing some sort of training.
So I think you just kind of have to get the ball rolling, and then you're going to be in a better headspace. I think the sort of discipline and routine of exercise is such great habit formation that enables you to kind of stick with things and be a little bit more disciplined. Maybe if you're disciplined in exercise, you can probably naturally let that roll into being more disciplined with what you're going to eat or just learning how to be disciplined and do the things that you sometimes don't feel like doing.
You have to just keep reminding yourself that if you want to feel good and you want to be in a good headspace, then you have to keep that commitment. That means for me, I don't really drink anymore because I know that if I say yes to drinking, then I probably would say no to exercise the next day. And then I’ve started the ball rolling in the wrong direction. So I just feel happier and healthier in my own headspace if I lead a lifestyle that revolves really around using my free time to be in the outdoors and be active.
What are you looking forward to over this next year?
We'd like to go to the Lake District or to Scotland and swim in some lakes there because we've not been to any lakes in Scotland or the Lake District this year.
And we also wanted to do a bit of swim running. We did a little bit of it this year, but only short journeys at home around the rivers where we do like a point-to-point swim and then a little run. And we said, we'd like to go and do that somewhere else and do swim exploring.
We’d like to do swim exploring because that was really the motivation to get better and more confident in the water. We just went to Wales for three days and we did a little walk around the coastal path and I was like, ‘Ooh, if we could swim from this beach and then we could make it to that beach over there, then we could spend our time on a deserted beach where there's no one around and then we could either walk back or swim back.’ And afterward all afternoon I kept going to Nick. ‘That was so fun, I really want to do more of that. It was so cool.’
If we hadn't spent the time to kind of get a bit more confident in the water, then we wouldn't have been able to do that. So it was really fun to do that.