New England hosts USMS Open Water National Championships at Lake Willoughby

Contributed by Alana Aubin, NELMSC Communications Chair, and Laurie Hug

Wave 2 of the Sprint-Distance Open Water National Championship begins. (Photo by Rick Osterberg)

Wave 2 of the Sprint-Distance Open Water National Championship begins. (Photo by Rick Osterberg)

WESTMORE, VT – More than 100 USMS swimmers gathered at Lake Willoughby, Vermont August 16-17 for the 2019 USMS Open Water National Championships. The event was hosted by the Northeast Kingdom Open Water Swimming Association (NEKOWSA), as part of its Swim the Kingdom Week, with support from the New England LMSC (NELMSC). 

On Friday, 93 swimmers took to the water for the Sprint-Distance National Championship, a 1-mile buoy course off the lake’s North Beach. The water was around 70F and a southerly wind caused 1-2 foot waves. The race was run in three waves of 30-32 swimmers each. The top six in each age group took home a custom “woodal” and National Champions also garnered a jug of Vermont maple syrup.

Ildiko Szekely, Jessica Stokes, Jennifer Downing, & Alana Aubin before the 1-mile race. (Photo by Rick Osterberg)

Ildiko Szekely, Jessica Stokes, Jennifer Downing, & Alana Aubin before the 1-mile race. (Photo by Rick Osterberg)

In wave one, Kim Elsbach posted the fastest time (23:24) to earn the national title in the women’s 55-59 age group with nearly a minute lead over the 60-64 champion, Karen Einsidler. New Englanders Tracy Grilli, Ann Swift, and Margaret Haskins filled out the next three 60-64 spots, while Martha Wood was the 55-59 runner up. Joel Feldmann (65-69) and Cynthia Needham (70-74) both took third in their age groups.

In the all-male second wave, Stuart Cromarty emerged from the lake first in 21:08 to take home the national title in the men’s 55-59 age category with Rob Allen not far behind to earn the 50-54 title. Guy Davis took first in 60-64 while Douglas Sayles (50-54) and Tom Phillips (45-49) grabbed second in their age groups.

In wave three, Ildiko Szekely produced the overall fastest time of the day in 21:05 after a tight race with Mackenzie Leake, who became the 25-29 champion. Szekely won the women’s 40-44 age group, followed by Jessica Stokes and Jennifer Downing. Alana Aubin (25-59), Kimberly Fry (35-39), and Karyn Scherer (45-49) each picked up second place in their age groups.

The start of Saturday’s Lake Willoughby crossing. (Photo by Rick Osterberg)

The start of Saturday’s Lake Willoughby crossing. (Photo by Rick Osterberg)

On Saturday, 82 athletes completed a 5-mile Lake Willoughby crossing, swimming South to North for this year’s Long-Distance Open Water National Championship. Conditions were similar to Friday, with water 68-70 degrees and a tailwind from the south pushing swimmers along and creating waves up to a foot. Upon finishing on the sandy North Beach, swimmers and their escort kayakers were treated to a pig roast. Winners took home beef jerky and more custom woodals.

Eric Nilsson took the overall win and men’s 30-34 title in an astounding 1:36:21 while Mackenzie Leake picked up her second national title of the weekend by winning the women’s event (and the 25-29 age group) in 1:45:57.

Swimmers and kayakers make their way across Lake Willoughby. (Photo by Rick Osterberg)

Swimmers and kayakers make their way across Lake Willoughby. (Photo by Rick Osterberg)

New England athletes dominated the women’s 40-44 division with Jessica Stokes, Jennifer Downing, and Laurie Craigen sweeping the podium. Jennifer Olsen and Merin Troutman were the top two finishers in the women’s 45-49 group. Jessica Moore and Janelle Guyot were second and third in the 35-39 group while Tracy Grilli led Nancy Johnston, Margaret Haskins, and Joanna Florio-Jeffereys in positions 2-5 of the 60-64 division. Cynthia Needham (70-74) and Alana Aubin (25-29) each finished second while Martha Wood (55-59) was third.

On the men’s side, Mike Broglio and Christopher Graefe went 1-2 in the 45-49 age group while Douglas Sayles (50-54), Phil Schoepke (55-59), and Guy Davis (60-64) each won their age groups. 

Both days, several lucky participants won an extra prize—a custom-embroidered TYR Alliance backpack, FINIS duo underwater MP3 player, or USMS apparel—provided by the NELMSC via bib number lottery. Athletes in both races admired the beauty of Lake Willoughby and competed in the spirit of the Northeast Kingdom: No lanes, no lines, no limits.

NEKOWSA will host next year’s USMS Ultramarathon-Distance Open Water National Championship at Lake Memphremagog on July 25, 2020.

Swimmers just before starting their Lake Willoughby crossing. (Photo by Phil White)

Swimmers just before starting their Lake Willoughby crossing. (Photo by Phil White)

Swim Strong: Multiphase Dryland Series for Masters Swimmers, Phase III


Contributed by Stacy Sweetser, ASCA & USMS Level II, SweetWater Swim Studio & Chris Brown, CSCS, CCET, Endurafit Training and Rehab

Welcome back to our progressive dryland training sequence, Swim Strong. Now that you have progressed through Phases I & II, you are ready to introduce the use of resistance bands and add a challenge to the traditional side plank in Phase III. Read Phase I here and Phase II here.

Resistance bands are simple training tools you can take with you anywhere (pack them in your swim bag!). Despite being simple, they are powerful tools that increase load on the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in addition to working range of motion. When using resistance bands, it is important to remember that form is the main priority, not working to failure. Due to the fact that the resistance intensifies as the band stretches, choose a band with a lighter resistance (we use ¼ - ½ inch for our clients). Here is a link to some of our favorites.

The goal of this series is to increase a swimmer’s range of motion while building strength, mobility and athleticism. This fundamental movement pattern work aids in injury prevention, tightens connective tissue, and improves swim mechanics and strength. Dryland training, at the pool and at home, is a valuable addition to any swimmer’s routine regardless of age or fitness level. 

Use the following Phase III exercise routine as your dynamic warm up before each swim, at home, or before other activities. Allow 3-5 minutes 3x/week. Feel free to alternate days while revisiting exercises from Phase I and Phase II. On the pool deck, use a kickboard as a cushion for your knees, ankles, and forearms when appropriate.

A dynamic warm up increases blood circulation and fires up muscles soon to be engaged in the water. Think, “RAMP Up!” before you start up. (RAMP = Range of motion, Activation, Muscle Pliability.)

Do not force movements in this routine and build repetitions and time in exercises gradually. Remember, when using resistance bands, focus on form and do not work to failure.

Band Pull Aparts

Why do it? The band pull apart is a great drill to focus on strengthening the upper back and posterior (rear) shoulder. Think of these as the “posture muscles”. These groups are extremely important in allowing for shoulder mobility and helping to maintain a tall, neutral spine.

How to do it well: In a tall kneeling position (both knees on the ground), start by pulling the toes under the shins. Press the hips forward and raise the band to chest height with the palms facing upwards as depicted by the green arrows. Pull the band outward with the elbows remained in a straight (not locked) position. Complete 2-4 sets of 10-15 repetitions. Watch video example here.

Common mistakes: The most common mistakes are starting with the back rounded and the arms raised above the shoulders, extending or arching the back, and shrugging the shoulders during the pulling phase as depicted by the red arrows.

band pull aparts.jpg

Side Planks with Hip Dip

Why do it? The side plank with hip dip is a great drill to focus on the obliques, outer hip, and shoulders.

How to do it well: Start with the elbow directly under the shoulder and the feet in either a stacked position or heel to toe position with the hips in a neutral position. In a slow, controlled manner, draw the abs in and lift the hips towards the ceiling then return to the floor. Complete 2-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions. Watch video example here.

Common mistakes: The most common mistakes are starting with the hips too high, the elbow not aligned with the shoulder, and the shoulders rounded forward.

side planks.jpg

Bent Over Band Rows

Why do it? The band bent over rows is a great drill to improve the spine stabilizers and strengthen the upper and mid back.

How to do it well: Standing on the band with the feet hip width apart, slightly bend the knees, stick the butt back, and draw the shoulder blades together creating a strong, neutral spine. Pull the band upwards and imagine bringing the hands towards your pockets with the elbows straight up. Return the arms to a straight position. Complete 2-4 sets of 12-15 repetitions. Watch video example here.

Common mistakes: The most common mistakes are standing with the knees straight, rounding the spine, and allowing the elbows to pull outside.

band row good.jpg
band row bad.jpg

Superman Band Press

Why do it? The superman band press is a great drill to strengthen the posterior chain, including the paraspinal muscles, lats, posterior deltoid and rhomboids all while improving mobility of the shoulders.

How to do it well: Start by lying face down with the hands towards the end of the band with the palms facing down. Push the toes into the floor and extend the knees while pulling the band slightly higher than the head. Put tension on the band while pulling the band behind the head until the elbows reach the end point. Return the arms to a straight position while keeping tension on the band. Complete 2-4 sets of 8-15 repetitions. Watch video example here.

Common mistakes: The most common mistakes are extending the back and allowing the chest to leave the floor, pulling too much tension on the band, and not bending the elbows as the band comes behind the head.

around the world - good.jpg
superman band press bad.jpg

Learn more about Stacy & Chris:

Stacy Sweetser, ASCA & USMS Level II Coach: SweetWater Swim Studio | Facebook | Instagram
Chris Brown, CSCS, CCET: Endurafit Training and Rehab | Facebook | Instagram

New England Athletes Swim and Socialize at FINA Masters Worlds

Contributed by Mindy Williams, NELMSC Pool Sanctions Chair

New England Swimmers connecting between the warm-up pool and the competition pool on day 3. L to R: back: Kysa Crusco, Bill Davis, Mark Kiel, Len van Greuning, front: Emily Cook, Mindy Williams

New England Swimmers connecting between the warm-up pool and the competition pool on day 3. L to R: back: Kysa Crusco, Bill Davis, Mark Kiel, Len van Greuning, front: Emily Cook, Mindy Williams

GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA — There was so much to be impressed by at the FINA World Masters Championships in Gwangju, South Korea August 5-18, 2019. The venue was spectacular, featuring a 50-meter state-of-the-art competition pool, an adjacent diving well, and two on-site warm-up pools (both 50-meter), one indoor and one outdoor. The facility, the existing natatorium for Nambu University, was renovated for the FINA World Championships and held spectator seating for close to 10,000 people. Between races, there was the option to hit up the Marketplace: a row of food trucks, beer tents and vendors just around the corner from the pool.

Kysa Crusco celebrating her 800 Free after dominating her heat.

Kysa Crusco celebrating her 800 Free after dominating her heat.

Many of the Masters swimmers stayed at the “Athletes’ Village” accommodations, just a 10-minute shuttle ride from the pool and a neat way to immerse oneself in the spirit of the event. The Athletes’ Village consisted of a half-dozen brand new apartment buildings housing visiting athletes from all over the world, plus a dining hall, convenience stores, a recreation room, and several offices staffed with volunteers eager to help the foreigners with their transportation and site-seeing needs. There was an entertainment venue as well, and the event organizers had a nice menu of South Korean artistic performances for their visitors to enjoy each night. And to quench the thirst of all the accomplished Masters swimmers, there was a “vivid beer party” each night at the dining facility—simply a few taps of tasty Korean brews.

Mindy Williams showing some Team USA pride after the awards ceremony for the 400 IM.

Mindy Williams showing some Team USA pride after the awards ceremony for the 400 IM.

With just over 4,000 participating athletes, the impressive element of having 3,000+ attentive volunteers was very noticeable. There were smiling, welcoming faces at every turn, eager to help the athletes find their way and make their visit to Gwangju a memorable one. Like any World Championship, having the common ground of sports and health was an easy way to make new international friends. I found myself in the ready room before races with swimmers from all over the world who were friendly, chatty, and all the while focused on the races that loomed. After a few days of racing, the faces behind the blocks became more and more familiar, and contact info, swim caps, and selfies started to be exchanged with ease! 

There was wonderful camaraderie among the New England swimmers as well. We enjoyed many meals together and donned our Team USA t-shirts each morning at breakfast and onto the podium. We enjoyed cheering for one another and sharing stories of interesting travel and excursions. There was no lull in entertaining anecdotes about visiting South Korea. Training for Fukuota 2021 will commence as soon as the 13-hour jetlag subsides!

New England entourage having a beer while waiting for a cab to a traditional Korean BBQ joint. L to R: Kysa Crusco, Mark Kiel, Mindy Williams, Seth Grady, Bo Hatfield, Len van Greuning, Liz MacBride, and "No Seat Pete" - a new British friend

New England entourage having a beer while waiting for a cab to a traditional Korean BBQ joint. L to R: Kysa Crusco, Mark Kiel, Mindy Williams, Seth Grady, Bo Hatfield, Len van Greuning, Liz MacBride, and "No Seat Pete" - a new British friend

Musings from my Summer of Open Water Swimming

Contributed by Jennifer Downing, NEM-CRM

SAA Boston Harbor Swim

My favorite day of the year happens each July—the Swim Across America (SAA) Boston Harbor Swim. This year’s event was particularly special in that we honored long-time Event Director extraordinaire and my dear friend, Kitty Tetrault, after 30 years of incredible service. When Kitty asks you to help the only answer is “of course!,” so I promised I’d be back from my family vacation in time. Each swimmer is asked to raise at least $2,000 to help fund quality-of-life clinical research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and pediatric oncology research at Mass General Hospital for Children Cancer Center. Collectively we raised over $260,000 this year for these terrific institutions.

The Harbor Swim takes the form of a “relay” with two boats dropping their 8-12 swimmers in alternating, 15-minute heats over the course of the day. While most swimmers complete 4-5 heats on average, a select number of participants are designated as “angel swimmers,” meaning that they volunteer to do extra heats and keep any swimmers company who may be less comfortable in the ocean. I was lucky enough to complete 15 heats as an angel swimmer this year, totaling just over three hours in the water. Mother Nature gave us a bit of everything: the morning started with fog and misty drizzle, but by the return leg we had blue skies and sunshine. We also had the benefit of a strong tide on the way out, so we arrived at the Boston Light very quickly and were able to enjoy a more leisurely trip past Georges, Lovells, Gallops, Long, and Spectacle Island as the weather improved. Major kudos and thanks to Kitty for a stellar career, and please consider coming out to one of the Boston-area SAA events in the future!

Kitty Tetrault

Kitty Tetrault

SAA swimmers making their way back to Boston

SAA swimmers making their way back to Boston

Misery Challenge


Two days after SAA Boston Harbor, I headed north to the 5th Annual Misery Challenge, a multi-sport event offering a 3-mile or 1.5-mile swim (new this year), SUP, row, or kayak. Each year Race Director Josh Crosby makes this event bigger and better, bringing in local sponsors and raising awareness for Humans for Oceans. The event is named for Misery Island in Manchester, MA and the swim consists of a lollipop-shaped course heading out through the Manchester Channel to the island and back. The tide was high and the water temperature was great, but the sun glare on the return leg made sighting a real challenge. Plus, the buoys seemed nicely closer together at the start but were spread further apart as you got into the course; I guess that’s half the fun of being a “Challenge Finisher!” This was my 4th time doing the 3-mile and I was pleased to finish 8th non-wetsuit overall, as the 4th female and 1st in my age group.

Swimmers coming into the finish at Misery Challenge

Swimmers coming into the finish at Misery Challenge

Nubble Light Challenge


Continuing up the coast a bit further, I found myself three weeks later in York, ME for the Nubble Light Challenge, a 2.4-mile swim to benefit the Maine Chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Although the ocean was unseasonably warm by early August, a mid-week storm and strong off-shore breezes sucked all the warm water out to sea just days before the event. That meant on race day that we were faced with 56 degrees in the “Gut” (the narrow passage between the peninsula and the Nubble Light island), and sub-60 for the entire swim. In addition to the cold temps, we faced a cross-wind that caused “washing machine” action for much of the second half. I love days when the ocean has “personality,” but this race was not for the faint of heart. Race directors Bob Reed, Bob Fernald, and Jennifer Zorn and their safety crew did a great job monitoring the course and had stressed early on that wetsuits were encouraged. One hundred thirty swimmers finished the race, and of the 18 “skins,” most were fellow members of the Nahant Knuckleheads or L Street gang, so we were a small but mighty bunch. This was only my second time doing the swim, but I will definitely be back for more! Eric Nilsson (overall winner, and “skin” swimmer, no less!) shared drone footage taken by his dad. It truly is a beautiful spot, even if the aerials don’t do the waves justice.

Hearty cold-water swimmers after the Nubble Light Challenge

Hearty cold-water swimmers after the Nubble Light Challenge

Kingdom Swim Draws a Crowd to Lake Memphremagog

Contributed by Charlotte Brynn, NELMSC Open Water Chair


NEWPORT, VT — The 11th Annual Kingdom Swim was held on Saturday, July 27th under sunny skies at Lake Memphremagog in Newport, Vermont. In 73-75F waters, swimmers raced the 1 mile, 5 km, 10 km, 10 mile, or 25 km Border Buster event to Canada and back. U.S. Masters Swimming clubs from around the nation were well-represented, with 120 swimmers coming from California, Texas, North Carolina, Florida, New Mexico, and more. Many New England LMSC athletes posted top finishes.

Shipp, Davis, and McMahon after the men’s Border Buster

Shipp, Davis, and McMahon after the men’s Border Buster

Onos, Brynn, and Andrews after the women’s Border Buster

Onos, Brynn, and Andrews after the women’s Border Buster

NELMSC Vice-Chair Guy Davis (GBM), 60, won the men’s 25 km Border Buster race in 7:28:16, taking home a beautifully hand-carved Vermont walking stick. Bill Shipp (UMAC), 66, was runner up and third place went to Martin McMahon (CONN), 56. Twenty-two-year-old Melissa Andrews of Franconia, NH won her own Vermont walking stick by finishing first in the women’s Border Buster in 7:33:44. Runner up was 53-year-old Charlotte Brynn (NEM-STOW) and third place went to Abigail Onos, 24, of Arlington, VA.

Men’s 10-mile podium finishers Borgatti, Breital, and Spiegal

Men’s 10-mile podium finishers Borgatti, Breital, and Spiegal

In the 10-mile race, 52-year-old Robert Breital of Philadelphia, PA finished first overall in 4:43:27, followed by Christopher Borgatti, 42, of Byfield, MA. Steven Spiegel, 58, of Amherst, MA took third place in the men’s division. On the women’s side, 40-year-old Puranjot Khalsa (MESC) placed first, besting Britt Hulbert, 50, of Bar Harbor, ME and Ruth Gilgenbach, 35, of Lawrence Township, NJ.

In the 10 km race, Mark Loftis (PSM-MIR), 59, stormed away from the field to emerge first in a time of 2:48:36. The women’s 10k came down to the finish with Jocelyn Stephen, 43, of Toronto, ON besting 39-year-old Hilary Sullivan (NEM-SIMM) by only 21 seconds to take first in a time of 3:17:35.

Sheldon Katz, 60, of South Burlington, VT finished first in the 5 km event, with second place going to Dane Krampitz, 62, of Groton, MA. In the women’s field Teresa Holland (NEM-YNS), 50, finished first in 1:31:58 and Cara Hancy (NEM-JSC), 40, was second. Katz also won the men’s 1-mile event in 23:35 while 58-year-old Karen Harrison (PCAT) won the women’s event in 25:14.


Next year’s Kingdom Swim will be held on July 25th, 2020. The 10-mile Kingdom Swim race will be the 2020 USMS Ultramarathon-Distance Open Water Championship. Other Kingdom Swim courses include the 25km Border Buster, the 10km Kingdom Swim, the 5km Kingdom Swim, and the 1-mile Kingdom Swim. Mark your calendar & set a goal to compete and enjoy the beauty and friendliness of open-water competition in the scenic Northeast Kingdom of Vermont!

Call for Nominations: Frank Wuest Open Water Swimming Award

Contributed by Tara Mack, aka "TMack", NELMSC Awards & Recognition Chair 

Congratulations to all on the awesome open water swimming that has already happened this year — such a great way to spend a summer day! As you continue with your swimming endeavors and reflect on your season, please consider nominating someone who has made a difference in your own open water swimming experience.

The Frank Wuest Open Water Swimming Award was established in honor of Frank Wuest to recognize outstanding contributions to open water and Masters Swimming in New England. Frank demonstrated an extraordinary passion for the sport of swimming and a deep commitment to its community. This award may be presented annually based on sportsmanship, mentorship, camaraderie, love of sport, hard work, event participation, promotion of swimming, and more. Nominees must be currently registered members of the NELMSC.

Click here to submit a nomination. Please note that nominations for this award close on September 22, 2019. Thank you for being a part of such a great sport and for taking the time to nominate someone special for this recognition.

Swimmers at the start of the USMS Long-Distance Open Water National Championship at Lake Willoughby. Photo by Phil White.

Swimmers at the start of the USMS Long-Distance Open Water National Championship at Lake Willoughby. Photo by Phil White.

Glennie Rises at Second Annual Glen Lake Swim

Contributed by Gary Girolimon, Race Director


GOFFSTOWN, NH — The Glen Lake Swim, Episode 2: Glennie Rises, held on August 11th, attracted swimmers from throughout New England and beyond. The U.S. Masters Swimming-sanctioned competition featured a one-mile and a two-mile race. The weather could not have been more perfect, with 80 degree air temperatures and 74 degree waters.

The first of three swim waves heads out from the start.

The first of three swim waves heads out from the start.

Glennie, the friendly lake monster, is the mascot of the event. Glennie and similar lake monsters such as Champ of Lake Champlain, Memphre of Lake Memphremagog and Winni of Lake Winnipesaukee, are part of Native American folklore, so it was fitting that Chief Paul W. Pouliot of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People made an offering to the aquatic life before the race start.

All swimmers took home a "Piece of the Beast," a Glennie tooth finisher medal. Many swimmers reported seeing Glennie on the waters, but the creature kept its distance and did not interfere with the race. There were abundant awards and raffles, separate scoring divisions for wetsuited and “skins” athletes, and a very unique Jurassic Park Glennie t-shirt for all participants.

After the swim a mini-expo was held at the site featuring local artists, salsa dancing and Glennie-themed kids' activities such as coloring and face painting. After the awards ceremony, the celebration moved to the Harpoon Brewery-sponsored party at Village Trestle in Goffstown.

The event is organized under the umbrella of the Granite State Health and Fitness Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit, and all profits from the event will be used to to promote aquatic safety, to enhance health and wellness, and to promote area recreational opportunities.


One Mile - Skins


  1. Aileen O'Connell 30:11

  2. Rachel Modlinsky 30:16

  3. Alexis Dwyer 31:58


  1. Parker Wheat 26:06

  2. Michael Giraldi 26:59

  3. Abhinav Sridhar 27:41

One Mile - Wetsuit


  1. Kelley O'hara 39:10

  2. Andrea Bonito 39:12

  3. Kristine Decourcey 39:13


  1. Patrick McDeed 27:12

  2. Matthew Stundtner 31:13

  3. Timothy Collard 32:36

Two Mile - Skins


  1. Katharine Radville 55:57

  2. Madison Guay 58:10

  3. Abby Brethauer 58:54


  1. Frans Lawaetz 58:00

  2. Sean Carter 58:38

  3. Gil Rosenberg 1:04:30

Two Mile - Wetsuit


  1. Jocelyn Nokes 55:14

  2. Molly Zahr 58:40

  3. Linda Watts 59:20


  1. Stuart Cromarty 49:04

  2. Nic Ohman 50:29

  3. Adam Langmaid 55:44

Drowning the Demons: Could swimming be a viable cure for depression?

Drowning the Demons

Could swimming be a viable cure for depression?

by Elaine K. Howley

When my sister died, I blamed myself. She was just three-and-a-half years old, and I, the big sister at age 8, had been the bone marrow donor in the last-ditch effort to cure her aggressive leukemia. It didn’t work, and in my kid’s brain, that failure translated to my failure.

I fell into a dark depression. The adults around me were well aware, quite concerned, and worked hard to help me understand the complexities of oncology. But it took a long while before I came out of that tailspin. It also took me finding something else to refocus this misplaced energy and feel better: swimming.


I threw myself into club swimming. I took out my anger and frustration on the water. I was never blazingly fast, but I did well enough to earn some accolades, enough to buoy my battered self-confidence. Tapping into a competitive fire I’d not found before helped smooth out the deepest troughs of my grief and despair. Swimming helped lift my depression, and it seems I’m not alone.

A recent case study published in British Medical Journal Case Reports made headlines around the world for detailing the experiences of a 24-year-old British woman named Sarah who has severe anxiety and depression. In an attempt to ditch the drugs that she said made her feel foggy, she took up open water swimming with the encouragement and supervision of Dr. Chris van Tulleken at the University College London. After just a single session, Sarah’s symptoms improved, and over the next several weeks of regular open water swimming, she was able to taper off her medications. Two years into the program, she’s still drug- and symptom-free, a remarkable outcome from cold-water swimming alone.

The study was the first of its kind to examine the effect of open water swimming therapy to treat depression, and while these findings are still anecdotal, Sarah’s results are promising and may well encourage larger studies to prove the efficacy and mechanisms of how swimming can alleviate depression. And those findings can’t come soon enough, as so many people around the world are struggling with depression. What’s worse is that many people don’t get any treatment at all.

Everybody in the Pool!

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, depression and anxiety are the two most common mental health disorders in America, affecting approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. More than 18.1% Americans are living with an anxiety disorder and 16 million—nearly 7% of the population—are living with major depression. Many people have both conditions simultaneously. A 2019 report from Mental Health America, a nonprofit founded in 1909 that’s dedicated to addressing the needs of people living with mental illness and promoting good mental health in America, reported similar findings, noting that more than 44 million American adults (18.07% of the population) have a mental health condition. MHA also noted that more than 56% of adults with a mental illness received no treatment. If exercise could be used as medication, would it improve those figures?

How Exercise Helps with Depression and Anxiety

Although it’s not entirely clear exactly how exercise alleviates depression, science has known for some time that it does make a difference. According to a 2004 review in the journal Current Psychiatry, “exercise has been shown to be more effective at reducing depressive symptoms than no treatment, occupational therapy, cognitive therapy, health seminars, routine care, or meditation.” Exercise has also been favorably compared with medications in treating depression. Though study subjects typically engage in land-based activities such as walking or biking, it seems likely that swimming could induce similar benefits.

One thing we do know is that exercise triggers the release of endorphins—feel-good chemicals produced by the central nervous system that work like painkillers. Endorphins engage the same neurotransmitter receptors as opioids, and are responsible for the sensation known as runner’s high—a sense of euphoria that can result after a certain length of time working at a certain intensity level. The time and intensity needed to trigger a runner’s high varies by individual. Running is not the only exercise that causes this feeling—most any intense activity can induce it.

Howley with her husband, Mark, and Mr. Bear after she finished Catalina Channel, her first major channel swim, in 2008.  Read more about Mr. Bear here.

Howley with her husband, Mark, and Mr. Bear after she finished Catalina Channel, her first major channel swim, in 2008. Read more about Mr. Bear here.

Exercise also encourages the brain to create more of several other neurotransmitters that also regulate mood—noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine. An increase of these chemicals has been associated with improved mood. Simultaneously, vigorous physical activity increases steroid reserves, allowing your body to better counteract stress. It’s no secret that stress can greatly exacerbate the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

More recent research has found that vigorous aerobic exercise also promotes the creation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that promotes nerve cell survival and promotes the growth of new cells in the brain. It’s been implicated as helping to stave off the arrival of age-related cognitive decline and dementia. Depression is a major symptom of dementia, so it’s believed that BDNF might be protective against depression as well by creating new neural pathways.

Regular physical exercise also helps you sleep better at night; insomnia and poor sleep are distressing symptoms very commonly associated depression and anxiety disorders. And, it boosts self-confidence—getting in a good workout provides a sense of accomplishment that can color the rest of the day. Although it can be a complex undertaking for swimmers with body image issues to don a suit in public every day, studies have found that overall, exercise improves body esteem in patients with body image disturbances.

For most of us Masters swimmers who train with other people, there’s a social piece of the puzzle, too. Connecting with others, particularly when you’re engaged in a physical activity together, has been shown to boost brain health and mood and is increasingly being recommended as a way to combat dementia. Socializing while depressed can be challenging, as a major symptom of depression is isolation, or removing oneself from social settings. But taking some of the thought out of socializing by simply turning up to an organized workout could make connecting with others and finding like-minded friends to support us through the dark times easier for many people dealing with depression.

Taken all together, there’s a growing body of evidence that any form of exercise helps ease depression. But swimming may yet have one more ace up its sleeve as the superior depression-beating option—the water itself. Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist, made waves in the field of psychology with the release of his bestselling 2001 book “Blue Mind: How Water Makes You Happier, More Connected and Better at What You Do,” which detailed the psychological effect being in or near water can have. In short, he wrote that water calms and soothes the human psyche, providing cognitive and emotional benefits that may be challenging to exactly quantify but that are very real all the same. Researchers at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom have picked up this thread and are studying how something as simple as watching a video of the ocean while exercising on a stationary bicycle might elevate mood.

How about cutting out the middleman and getting your exercise in the sea instead?

An Ongoing Therapy

At its core, exercise is good for the body. And what’s good for the body is good for the brain, too. Because depression and anxiety are disruptions to normal brain activity, it makes sense that something like exercise—that has demonstrated benefits for the body—would support the brain, too. While science tinkers with the exact dosages that help individuals with different types and severity levels of depression and works out the specific mechanisms of how it all works, I’ll keep putting one arm in front of the other, knowing that my own body of evidence says swimming is a major help for keeping my mental health above water.

Elaine K. Howley is an accomplished marathon swimmer and freelance journalist who is a member of the New England LMSC.

The piece was supported by the New England Masters Swim Club (NEM).

Photos provided by Elaine K. Howley. Header photo by Andrew Malinak.

USMS Summer Fitness Challenge is on Now!

Contributed by Emily Cook, GBM, NELMSC Fitness & ALTS Coordinator

Ah, summer in New England! A time for swimming outside and getting the most we can out of every drop of sunshine. What better time to be recognized for your swims and to support swim lessons for adults?

USMS and Smarty Pants Vitamins are hosting the 2019 Summer Fitness Challenge July 15-31. The challenge is a 2-kilometer swim that can be done in any manner desired: straight through, as a member of a relay, with fins, and even during practice times or open water swims!

Fitness Challenge Rules:       

  1. No grumpy pants…

  2. Register.

  3. Swim!

Event proceeds support the USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, a critical force in providing life-saving swim lessons for adults.

There is even a non-USMS member option so everyone can participate! New England was one of the highest performing LMSCs in the last Fitness Challenge. Let’s show the country we can do it again!

Register online for the Summer Fitness Challenge now through July 31st.