Let’s face it, wild swimming seems to be the new craze that has taken the UK by storm over the last couple of years but with good reason! If you’re a nature lover, then immersing yourself in some cold water that makes your toes and fingers tingle can not only be a jubilant and exhilarating experience to make you smile from ear to ear but can also provide both physical and mental health benefits. It’s a simple, low-cost hobby that everyone should try at least once.
What is wild swimming?
Swimming has always been popular in the UK but when public swimming pools closed during those fateful Covid lockdowns, outdoor swimming was rediscovered. Outdoor or wild swimming as we like to call it now, is nothing new. It’s an age-old practice that has been around in the UK for much longer than we realise; today people are flocking to their local lakes, rivers and the seaside to get in on the action and discovering for themselves why so many people choose to submerge themselves in the cold.
According to Oxford Languages, wild swimming is defined as; the practice or activity of swimming for pleasure in natural waters, typically rivers and lakes.
The standout line there for me is for pleasure; it really doesn’t need to be anything more than that if you don’t want it to be. You might not need the physical or mental benefits. You might not need to be able to swim in an open water competition. Jumping in cold water in a beautiful location is fun, encourages you to explore new places and can help you discover inner bravery and resilience that you never realised you had. As long as you are happy and have fun, then nothing else really matters.
The physical health benefits.
- Soothe muscle aches
- Reduces pain and inflammation
- Can boost your immune system
- Can improve circulation
- Can improve sleep and recovery
The mental health benefits.
- Increases the production of mood-boosting hormones
- Spending time with friends or making new friends
- Builds mental resilience
- Can boost our self-confidence
How to start wild swimming; things I’d want to know if I was a beginner.
- Cold showers are your route in
I know, I know, who actually wants to stand under a cold shower? It’s not fun and it’s not relaxing but what it does offer is a chance for your body to get used to the cold. Start by just turning your shower down to as cold as you can manage for as long as you can manage to begin with; it might only be 10 seconds but that’s OK. Your body will start to get used to the cold and you’ll build up tolerance quickly.
- How to find wild swimming spots
Wild swimming spots are in abundance and you can probably find a body of water to dunk in quite local to you. Social media, word of mouth, Google searches, books, blogs, checking maps and exploring areas will all help you find the perfect spot.
- Clothing/wild swimming kit
Hats, water gloves and shoes, wetsuits, long sleeved swimming costumes, bikinis, underwear or in your birthday suit. It really doesn’t matter how other people are swimming, just do what’s best for you. You clothing will change with the season and will depend on how you feel in and out of the water.
Swim kit checklist:
- Costume/wetsuit/bikini/underwear – your choice of swimming clothing
- Toweling poncho to get changed under and to dry off with
- Dry robe – a good addition in colder weather
- Water shoes – to protect your feet from unseen dangers (rocks, glass, branches) under the water
- Beanie hat for colder seasons
- Water gloves and shoes
- Warm drink for after
- Change of clothes
- Tow float (see safety advice below for being seen in the water)
- A sense of adventure!
- Getting over that “cold water shock” and actually getting in.
OK so you’ve decided to give wild swimming a go. You’ve found your spot, changed into your swimmers, prepared all your clothing to change into, got your warm drink ready for after, hyped yourself up thinking it would be a breeze, dipped your toes in and thought “HECK THIS! IT’S FREEZING.” Believe me, we’ve all been there but it’s all a mind game and getting in takes patience, self-control and self-trust. You will be OK.
- BREATHE: controlling your breathing is incredibly important because it stops us panicking. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth in slow controlled breaths BEFORE you get in the water. Once in the water, continue with this calm and controlled breathing as you submerse yourself further into the water. Try not to pant or quicken your breathing.
- GO SLOW: walk in slowly, don’t leap. This can cause you to panic and lose control of your breathing. Walking in allows you to get out easily if you need to.
- Deciding how long to stay in the water for.
In all honesty, this is something that will differ from individual to individual and it’s really important to listen to your body. Listening to people discuss how long they’ve been in the water for can be daunting when you first start so it’s important to remember that this is YOUR journey. Don’t time it, just submerge and get out after a short time to begin with. If you think you can stay in for longer then go for it but you want to make sure you get out before you start to feel uncomfortable.
- Ignore the pressure from others around you.
Finally, there can be a lot of pressure and judgement with wild swimming. As with anything else there’s always ‘the experts’ who like to make you feel like you’re doing it wrong. On a recent swim at Ullswater in the Lake District with some friends, we leapt in, releasing squeals of euphoria and joy (a natural reaction that doesn’t disappear for me no matter how often I swim). After a bit of swimming a lady made her way over and laughed announcing “I see you don’t do this often, you should try it in winter like me. If you think this is cold then you haven’t got a clue.” I didn’t respond, as much as I wanted to, but I can never understand the mentality of making an instant judgement. For all she knows, I might be a professional cold water swimmer. I’m not, but that’s not the point. There’s judgement in all sports and sometimes it can make us feel like we aren’t worthy or need to stop before we start properly. Truth is, the only way to start, is to just start. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks and judgement like this really says more about them than you.
- Warming up after the swim
As tempting as it is to rush home and jump in a hot bath, it’s really important to warm up naturally as a hot shower can cause your blood pressure to drop dangerously low. Instead, get changed straight away, wrap up warm, have a hot drink and do some star jumps!
Swimming is a fun and enjoyable outdoor activity but every year there are a number of water-related accidents so it’s vitally important to be aware of the risks and follow proper safety measures.
- Hypothermia and water temperature
Open water is cold and deep and even in summer, hypothermia is a risk. That’s why it’s important to acclimatise slowly (hello, cold showers!) and get out the water long before you start to get the shivers or feel overwhelmingly cold.
Signs of hypothermia;
- Teeth chattering
- Fumbling hands
- Slurred speech
- Hidden risks
There can be many hidden hazards in bodies of water including reeds, rubbish, broken bottles, shopping trolleys, fishing wire and sharp rocks so careful entry is required. I like to wear water shoes on all my swims for this very reason. Check for obstacles as carefully as possible before getting in the water.
- River/water current
Check the flow of the water by throwing a stick or branch into the water and watch how fast it flows downstream. You won’t be able to outswim a current so avoid fast currents. Always make sure you have an escape plan too.
- Sewage and pollution concerns
This is something to be aware of but it’s not just raw sewage to be concerned about, you also need to be wary of agricultural run-off. Some main rules to follow include not swimming after heavy rain, look at the water (you can often see toilet roll floating around) and don’t swallow water. Surfers Against Sewage have an interactive map where sewage alerts are highlighted around the country.
- Blue-green algae
Blue-green algae can be a dangerous substance to you and your pet if you’re planning on taking your dog for a swim too. Found around lakes in summer it can cause a rash, eye irritation and sickness.
- Being seen
If you’ve ever watched a wild swimmer out on a lake or in the sea you’ll know how teeny tiny they look and how easy it is to lose sight of them. With more and more of our UK lakes having boats and jet skis whirring around, a tow float should be one of your ‘must by’ items. The float is attached to a chord you can attach to your body and it floats along behind you making you really easy to spot. Consider a bright swimming cap too for extra safety.
Wild swimming can be the most exhilarating activity and the feeling of euphoria never dies. Enjoy the process and you’ll soon find yourself with more resilience and mental strength than you ever realised. And if not, at least you can say you had a right good time jumping in some waterfalls! Happy wild swimming adventures!