There have been many unexpected upshots from the pandemic, one of which is the rise in open water or wild swimming in the UK. You would think, for a nation so preoccupied with and plagued by the rain, that it wouldn’t be big step to be fully submerged in chilly lakes, streams, sea and natural swimming pools. Yet at no time has cold, open water, or wild swimming been more popular than it has in lockdown.
“According to Outdoor Swimmer magazine’s annual report, searches for the term “wild swimming” - which refers to “swimming (or dipping) in rivers, lakes, pools, the sea etc; typically in more out-of-the-way locations with no lifeguard supervision,” according to magazine founder Simon Griffith - increased 94% between 2019 and 2020.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out why this fitness pastime has gained traction over the past 18 months. In a bid to get outside during lockdown, find ways to exercise that don’t require a gym or close proximity to other people, wild swimming has joined walking and running amongst the top fitness trends of 2020-21.
Of course, it isn’t a new phenomenon. The benefits of bracing waters have long been heralded by cultures around the world. Anyone who has a passion for the sea will know the liberation that comes from a dip - and if we’re going to go wild swimming, what option do we really have in the UK other than to embrace the cold?
What are the benefits of wild swimming?
Well, aside from being a comparatively simple concept, assuming you have access to a suitable swimming spot, wild swimming is cheap alternative to heading to a heated indoor pool. There’s no cost for jumping in the sea - just the means to get there and appropriate swimwear. It’s also a great way to explore the great outdoors, whether you’re getting to know your home area better or exploring holiday destinations from a whole new perspective. Lots of people have found it to be beneficial for both physical and mental health as well.
- Obviously from an exercise point of view, it’s simply great to be moving.
- Swimming is an excellent way to work the whole body whilst supporting the joints.
- From a mental health perspective, it’s meditative and makes you feel much more connected to nature.
- There’s a sense of exhilaration that goes with the cold water that can help relieve stress - sometimes referred to as a ‘cold-shock’ response.
- You are totally disconnected from the white noise of modern life - phones, electrics, everything.
- The cold forces you to be mindful of your breathing and really be in the moment.
- There are indicators that show the cold water reduces inflammation - which is good for physical and mental health.
- It can actively boost our levels of the happy hormones.
“There are physiologically-based hypotheses that suggest that swimming regularly in cold water results in a cross-adaptive anti-inflammatory response. This is beneficial because some mental health problems [such as depression] are thought to have an inflammatory basis.”
What do you need to be aware of when outdoor swimming?
- The cold water can be a shock to the system and can make it hard to swim, so make sure you’re getting in and out of the water safely and take appropriate precautions. Wearing a wetsuit can help with cold exposure and taking dry clothes and a warm drink to have post swim will help.
- Know your limits.
- Research appropriate safety equipment and let someone know where you’re going or, even better, go with a buddy.
- Be aware of water cleanliness and avoid toxic algae or industrial waste areas - yup, we need to take care of our environment.
- Don’t jump off rocks unless you’re 100% sure of the depth of the water.
- If you’re swimming in the sea you must be aware of currents, rip tides and swimming in areas where there are boats. Wear a bright swimming cap so you can be more easily seen.
- Take a look at these tips from the Royal Life Saving Society.
Top tips for wild swimming
- If you’re new to the game or want to make it a bit of a social occasion, there are open water swimming groups you can join. You can find out more from the Open Water Swimming Society.
- Invest in good kit - it will last a while and is important for keeping you warm. A dry robe for example, can be a game changer, especially if you plan to continue into the winter!
- Don’t swim in canals, urban rivers, stagnant lakes or reedy shallows.
- Don’t swim alone.