A Beginner's Guide To Wild Swimming

Wild swimming involves swimming in natural spaces such as rivers, lakes and the sea. It has risen in popularity in the last few years as more and more people have reaped the benefits of taking a cold water dip. But swimming in open water can be dangerous, so if you've never done it before or haven’t done it for many years, it can be quite daunting. In this guide, we’ll give you an introduction to wild swimming and inspire you to give it a go. 


The Benefits of Wild Swimming

First things first, why should you give it a go? Research into the benefits of wild swimming is still limited, but there is both scientific and anecdotal evidence that suggests it can boost both physical and mental wellbeing:


1. It’s a great form of exercise – Swimming is not only a great cardiovascular workout, but it works almost every muscle in your body. What’s more, when you’re wild swimming, the water is usually cold, which means you’ll be using up even more energy shivering to keep you warm. 


2. An immune booster – It has been suggested that exposure to cold water immersion can trigger an increase in white blood cell production which helps boost our bodies immune response.


3. Reduces our stress response – When we expose ourselves to cold water, it can trigger a stress response in our bodies. Repeated exposure over time can gradually reduce our stress response to both the cold water and other stressful situations.


4. A natural pain reliever – How many of us grab the ice pack when we pull a muscle? Swimming in cold water can have the same effect, soothing muscle pain and reducing inflammation. Many people with arthritis claim that regular swimming helps them manage their pain.


5. An endorphin rush – Cold water swimmers often get the same ‘high’ runners feel as the exercise causes your body to release endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, which give you a buzz.


6. Focuses our minds – Something about immersing ourselves in cold water helps us focus on our mind in the present, allowing our brains to switch off from the noise of our everyday lives.


7. Gets you out in nature – Wild swimming offers you a unique chance to get into the great outdoors while exercising, giving you double the benefits.


8. Find like-minded individuals – It’s not unusual to form strong friendships when you meet people who are brave enough to head into freezing waters with you, so it’s a great exercise to try if you’re looking to meet new people and form new bonds.


What kit do you need for wild swimming?

The great thing about wild swimming is that you don’t need loads of kit to get started. If you’re swimming in warmer conditions, all you need is your swimming costume or trunks. We’d also recommend wearing a brightly coloured swimming cap. Not only will it help keep you slightly warmer, but it will ensure that you are more visible in the water.


In cooler waters, it’s best to invest in a wetsuit, at least until you get more acclimatised to the cold. Those planning to swim regularly throughout the year may also want to consider buying specialist swimming gloves and boots to keep extremities warmer and a dry robe to help you warm up when you get out.

When’s the best time to go wild swimming?

Although you could give it a go any time of the year, late spring to early summer is the best time to start, as although the water is still cold, it will have started to warm up a little. With gradual acclimatisation, over the spring and summer months you’ll soon adjust and be surprised by how warm the water feels.

Where can you swim?

In the UK, the majority of people who wild swim will head for a lake, river or sea. Which you choose may depend on what’s nearest to you and your preferences. For example, the water in a lake tends to be much calmer than the sea or some rivers, so is good for building confidence in open water. But your ability to float (buoyancy) is better in seawater because of the salt, making the sea the place to head if you’re looking for a more relaxing swim. 


There are plenty of well-documented wild swimming spots across the UK. We recommend heading to where you’ll discover a range of places to give wild swimming a go as well as helpful advice about swimming in the location.


But always remember, the number one priority when choosing a spot to swim  is your safety. If you don’t think the water looks safe to enter, then don’t get in.  


Tips For Staying Safe In The Water

If you’re walking near a dazzling lake on a hot day, it can be tempting to jump in for a swim. But, swimming in open water can be dangerous, and there are several things you need to take into account before you take the plunge.


1. Check the current – Before swimming in open water, you need to check the current. To do this, you can throw a stick or branch into the water, and if it floats off faster than you can swim, then you'll struggle to beat the current upstream and you should avoid the water.


2. Assess the area – Before entering the water, check for obstructions that could pose a danger. It could be natural barriers like reeds or man-made rubbish and debris.


3. Plan several exit points – You also need to look out for several places you can get out, should you need to exit fast. Riverbanks can often get muddy and be slippery, making your exit harder.


4. Gauge the depth – If you want to jump or dive into a body of water, then you need to check the depth. The best way to do this is by getting into the water and checking whether you can touch the ground or how deep it gets.


5. Dress appropriately for the conditions – When new to cold water swimming, it’s best to wear a wetsuit until you acclimatise. Cold water shock can occur when the water temperature falls below 15°. It weakens your arms and legs, making it harder to swim. In extreme conditions, you may also want to consider wearing a swimming hat and special wetsuit gloves or socks.


6. Cover any open wounds – Open water can be polluted, so it’s important to protect yourself from infection by covering any open wounds with a water-resistant plaster. 


7. Don’t stray too far – Know your limits and stick to them. Open water isn’t the place to push yourself, it's best to stay close to the edge of the river or lake or the shore to reduce your risk.


8. Know the signs of hypothermia – If you start feeling foggy or get excessively tired, your teeth start chattering or you’re shivering, you need to get out of the water, remove your wet things and warm yourself up with gentle exercise. A brisk walk will usually do the trick.  


9. Swim with someone else or let someone know that you plan on going swimming and how long you’ll be. If you don't return at the allotted time, they can raise the alarm and make sure help comes as soon as possible.


10. Never be tempted to drink alcohol when going swimming. It impairs your judgement and coordination, which is never a good combination in the water.

Get Inspired

For more tips on wild swimming why not head to the outdoor swimming society where you'll find loads of advice and inspiration or if you’re in need of some motivation to take the plunge, then we recommend you take a listen to the swimout podcast.

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