The idea of wading into icy waters can be a daunting one; in fact, before living by the sea we thought open air swimming was reserved only for daredevils (and those in tropical climates!), but the truth of the matter is that wild swimming really is for everyone. Not only does wild swimming give you the opportunity to get out into nature, it can have some hugely positive health benefits too. So, whether you've always wanted to plunge into unknown waters, or you're simply dipping your toe into the idea, our ultimate guide to wild swimming is here to help you...
So what is wild swimming?
Essentially, wild swimming (or open air swimming) is swimming outdoors in natural bodies of water. This can range from rivers to lakes to lidos to the sea. It doesn't matter whether you swim in salt water or fresh water - the choice is entirely up to you! Wild swimming isn't a new concept; people have been swimming in natural bodies of water since the dawn of man. In fact, many of us probably spent our childhoods paddling in the sea or wading through a river. Wild swimming is all about connecting to nature and swimming with a purpose. Enjoying the many benefits that natural water can have on our bodies is one of the main reasons that many people choose to go swimming outdoors. Virtually all indoor swimming pools in the UK are chlorinated to help kill germs and bacteria, which can be damaging to our skin and eyes as well as having other negative health impacts. However, fresh, natural water has numerous positive health effects due to the lack of chemicals, the cooler temperature and the connection to nature.
What will wild swimming do for me?
Boost your mood. Swimming in cold water releases endorphins, the chemical that makes us feel good. The shock of the cold water leads our bodies to produce lots of endorphins which in turn makes us feel euphoric - this is why we often get the giggles when being submerged into cold water! Swimming itself is also a form of exercise, and exercise has been shown to increase happiness. A Prague study discovered that cold-water immersion can increase dopamine levels by 530%!
Increase your metabolism. The effects of cold water on the immune system have been extensively researched over the years, and it has been proven that the cold water helps to boost your body’s white blood cell count. In turn, this will help to improve your immune system, helping to prevent illnesses and increase your wellbeing.
Reduce pain and inflammation. Cold temperatures are often used to provide pain relief, how many times have you reached for an ice pack (or bag of frozen peas) after an injury? This is because the cold has been scientifically proven to help to reduce swelling, in turn reducing pain. In fact, immersing yourself in cold water after exercise can reduce inflammation and pain for up to 24 hours after the workout! Many swimmers praise outdoor swimming for helping to relieve their chronic pain, however this is subjective to every individual and we would always recommend talking to your doctor first.
With all of these benefits (& more!), we're sure you can't wait to get started on your wild swimming adventures. As with any new activity, it is important to be prepared and assess the risks. Here are the main questions you should be asking yourself before a swim to ensure you are swimming safely;
Is the water safe? This question is key. The water may be unsafe to swim in for many different reasons. Firstly, ensure that you are legally allowed to swim in the location you have chosen. If the water is located on private land then you are not permitted to swim in it. If you are swimming in the sea, look out for tide times and always try and swim when a lifeguard is on duty. Wherever you are swimming, keep an eye out for wildlife that could pose a risk to you, such as jellyfish. Make sure to stay aware of your surroundings and remember that there may be other people using the water, such as people in boats or people going fishing. Also make sure the water isn't stagnant, and that there's no sewage in the water. For those just starting out, a lido is typically the safest option.
Have I acclimatised? Going straight into icy 10°C waters usually isn't a good idea! It is best to try and build up your tolerance to the cold water and there's a few ways you can do so! Firstly, you could try incorporating cold showers and baths into your daily routine. It is also easiest to start your wild swimming journey in the summer months when the water is warmer as this will allow your tolerance to build up gradually.
Am I dressed appropriately? It is essential that you have warm, dry clothes to wear both before and after your swim. Staying in wet, cold clothes is very bad for your health. Everyone feels the cold differently, and so everyones swimming attire will be individual to themselves. To start off, we recommend a good quality swimming costume, swimming cap or wooly hat & swimming shoes. Some swimmers will also wear gloves, goggles, a balaclava and even a wetsuit - the choice is totally down to you! If it's particularly cold, it's a good idea to keep your extremities covered. Wearing bright colours is encouraged as it will help to locate you should you get into any trouble.
Can I call for help? Always make sure you have the means to call for help. Let someone know that you are going for a swim and always swim with a buddy, if you can. Make sure to take a fully charged mobile phone in a waterproof pouch and a whistle to attract attention. You might like to download the RYA SafeTrx app, which can track your swim and alert emergency contacts if you fail to return home on time. In case of an emergency, call 999 and ask for the coastguard.
Can I warm up afterwards? Getting warm & keeping warm for at least 20-30 minutes after your swim is essential. Make sure to take plenty of towels, some warm, dry clothes and a flask of hot tea or soup. Get changed as quickly as you can once you are out of the water, put on lots of layer and make sure to keep your head, hands and feet warm. Make sure to keep your body moving as this will also help you to warm up faster. Eating sugar can also help to raise your body temperature, so why not share some cake with your fellow swimmers?
For further advice, you can visit the RNLI website here.
Stay safe & happy swimming!