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  • Conor Hillick

Lessons from a Month of Sea Swimming

On Christmas day, I did my annual dip in the sea with my mates in Donegal. I went again a few days later and again on New Year’s Eve. From NYE I thought, “Let’s go again tomorrow and see how long I can keep going”. The difficulty would be having to drive out to Seapoint / Dun Laoghaire every day, on top of my busiest work period and while fitting in training. About half way through January I decided I’d aim at making it all the way to January 31st. I posted a picture of my ‘swim’ every day on Instagram (more on why later), with lots of “keep it up” messages in response and even more “Why!?” messages.


Before I go any further my sea swim would be a 2-5min dip in the water, only rule being that I had to dunk my head under at least 3 times.

In the words of James Smith

“A swim is for the body; a dip is for the soul”

Why sea swimming?

I was watching some Wim Hof videos over Christmas and that kind of peaked my interest. Really it came down to two things, the mental challenge and how good it makes you feel after it. As soon as you set foot in the Irish Sea your whole body starts to tense up and your mind races with thoughts of “What the hell are you doing?”.


Overcoming the mental challenge

January 2020, a mild winter for Ireland but still fairly cold with a water temperature from 8-10 degrees. For perspective, apparently you lose body heat 25 times faster in water than when on land and dry. I swam in three areas; Buncrana, Donegal; Seapoint and Sandycove/40ft, Dublin. Before even getting to the sea your bare feet touch the cold ground and your legs start to cease up a little. Your mind starts to question what you’re doing but you walk forward anyway.


You quickly realise you have to just go for it. Waist deep, shoulder deep and then get your head under as quickly as you can. In the first 30-60sec you have to quieten your mind, block out the little voice that’s saying, “Get me outta here!”. We’ve got millions of sensory receptors and at that moment they’re firing!! As you settle in you start to control your breathing, it’s still absolutely freezing but you start to learn that it’s manageable, you’re not going to die, and soon, you get comfortable.


Time to jump out, the air that was ‘baltic’ before you got in to the sea weirdly feels a little warmer. This freezing water that you build up in your head before getting in suddenly wasn’t so bad. You don’t just feel ok, you feel fantastic. You’re feeling pretty smug about yourself and if your me you grab a quick selfie or photo with your mates to tell social media (again, more on why later).



How to Build Habits

What started out as just a bit of fun ended up teaching me much more than I expected. I learned how to improve my own mental toughness, how to overcome a challenge, that the ‘pain’ really is temporary. I learned how to build habits. How small acts help to build those habits. I learned, yet again, that it helps to stay accountable and that’s where Instagram keep in handy for me.


Making it out to Seapoint each night was maybe the hardest part of my challenge, sometimes driving out at 10pm just to fit it in. It wasn’t necessarily the smartest thing but to me it proved that if you really want to do something, you’ll find a way.

Rewards - The Sauna

When you’re doing a challenge or building a habit, it makes it easier to complete it by having a reward at the end of it. I genuinely just got a kick out of doing the challenge but it was made even easier at the weekends with Fad Saoil Sauna @ 40ft, Sandycove. This is a must try experience in 2020, the hot and cold contrast is almost euphoric physically and mentally. If you're trying to build an exercise habit, maybe find yourself a reward, this could be a new pair of trainers after the first month or a treat each week.


Learnings

Mental Health

- The cold water never really gets any easier but you become better at learning how to deal with it.

- You quickly learn that no matter how hard a challenge is, if you persevere you will come out stronger

- You feel f#ckin amazing after it. You just feel bloody great mentally and physically. It’s good for you

Habits & Obstacles

- Building a habit is hard. For me this was a challenge of going until I couldn’t. It meant driving out to Seapoint at 10pm some evenings. I had to fit it in around work or whatever else I had going on while also making time for my training. Squeezing it in whenever I could is no different to someone trying to build the habit of going to the gym or any form exercising.

- I learned that the first step is just getting there. Once I got there I was always going to get in. The same applies to exercise

  • Put my towel & shorts in the car = Put gym gear out / in car for next day

  • Get in car and just drive to the sea = Get in car and drive to the gym

  • Once there you’re going to action it. Start small and build

  • I started on a 2min dip = start on 20-30mins of exercise (if you do none)

  • I built up to 5mins = Build up to one hour (etc)

Accountability

  • Instagram. I posted a selfie every day after my swim.

  • It wasn’t for the attention or ‘glory’ but actually for the accountability

  • I would post with a "#" of what day in a row it was. By doing this others knew I was doing the swims and they would also know if I failed. I knew that as soon as I stopped then my friends would also know I stopped. That held me accountable. On the nights I was tired and thought “meh, could just stop now” I knew others would know I didn’t make it. It’s weird but as humans we need some sort of accountability, it just helps when things get a little harder.



If you haven’t got in the open water yet this year, I highly recommend that you do. If you can’t swim just go somewhere with friends who can and go to your waist. Get in at calm waters and take your time. Stay somewhere you can stand and sit down to get your head under. It’s going to suck at first but you’ll learn a lot about yourself and feel all the better for it! Get yourself to Fad Saoil Sauna and reward yourself for overcoming the cold water with a 20min sauna session.


By the way, I failed on day 29. I ended up with a vomiting bug that ruled me out of my last 2 days, disappointing but I still had a blast in trying.

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