If you want to reap the benefits of better sleep, increased happiness, a boosted immune system and the ability to manage long-term health conditions, then outdoor swimming might be the hobby for you.
Generally, there are two types of outdoor swimming: open water (which refers to events and races) and wild (unsupervised locations in seas, rivers and lakes etc).
According to The Outdoor Swimming Society in the last year, 7.5 million people in the UK ventured into the water outdoors and a recent report by Outdoor Swimmer Magazine found that 75% of new outdoor swimmers said they wanted to continue swimming outside throughout the winter. However, as the cold weather sets in, is it still OK to plunge in?
‘You have three elements when it comes to outdoor swimming,’ says Professor Greg Whyte OBE, a world-renowned sports scientist who trained both David Walliams for his 21-mile swim across the English Channel and Davina McCall for her 506-mile ultra-triathlon.
‘Exercise itself leads to an increase in a whole range of hormones, including the happy hormones like dopamine and the sleep hormone prolactin, which is linked to Rapid Eye Movement (REM), restorative sleep. Exercise creates dramatic changes in hormones, both through the physical activity itself and in the recovery stage. Then, if you take exercise and do it outdoors, we have a heightened response to those hormones and get more bang for our buck.
‘We don’t have to work any harder or longer, just being outside in the “green gym” is enough. If you then add in something like the cold, this is a potent physiological stimulus.’
What you need to know about open water swimming
Swim England, RLSS UK and British Triathlon have issued the following advice for anyone considering going open water swimming:
Think about the water temperature and weather. Plan your exit before you get into the water and consider currents, tidal flow and wind direction.
Have the right equipment
Wetsuits help to manage exposure to cold water and insulate against the cold. They also keep you buoyant. Wear a brightly coloured swim hat and take a tow float and whistle to attract attention.
Know your limits
Manage the impact of cold water shock by entering the water slowly, making sure you have control of your breathing before starting your swim. All open water swimming should take place in water at 11 degrees or above, unless you are an experienced and competent cold water swimmer. Never swim alone and swim parallel to the shoreline.
If you do get into difficulty, it’s important you don’t panic. Stay calm and float on your back until you can control your breathing and then continue to swim once again or signal for help.
According to Greg, a lot of research recently has been looking at outdoor swimming for depression. ‘It can be very effective at reducing depression,’ he says.
‘It’s not a replacement for therapy, but it works alongside it. It can also be beneficial to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as this is mostly associated with the reduction of natural light. By swimming outside you’re increasing your exposure to the sun and the added benefit is the reflective load you get on water — it acts like a mirror and intensifies the natural light load. For various reasons outdoor swimming is a really great antidote to SAD.’
An autumn dip sounds like a great wellbeing booster, but how do you go wild swimming safely? The Art Of Wild Swimming England And Wales and The Art Of Wild Swimming Scotland are the ultimate guides to being a safe, responsible, environmentally aware swimmer.
They include everything from how to get started and what kit you’ll need, to the best locations and information for winter swimming. ‘Cold is the bliss and the bane of swimming outside,’ says Vicky Allan, who co-authored the guides with Anna Deacon. ‘For some of us it’s why we’re there — that buzz that cold water shock can give us — for others it’s something we endure because we love to swim in open waters, but there’s no doubting that cold is an issue.
‘On the west coast of England and Wales, the sea is at its warmest in the autumn, but lakes and waterfalls can be particularly chilly in winter. Generally, we advise you to listen to your body and follow how you feel, rather than thermometer measurements and charts that tell you how long to stay in according to temperature — but also with an added warning of caution.
‘Keep it short, especially if you’re inexperienced and whether you wear a wetsuit or not is also up to you.’
Anna and Vicky say the perfect swim is a matter of finding the right place, knowing how to be safe, sourcing the appropriate kit and maybe even finding the nicest spot for a warm cuppa and cake afterwards.
Where to go: Best locations for wild swimming beginners
Hampstead Ponds, London
‘This enchanting spot varies hugely from season to season. If you’re after a quiet swim then avoid sunny days in peak season and enjoy it in winter before the crowds descend. Hidden behind the trees, this is abundant with wildlife. The women’s and men’s ponds are open all year and lifeguarded but you must purchase a ticket first. There are changing facilities and showers.’
Langland Beach, Wales
‘This is a winter favourite, best done at sunrise, when the early-morning cold means this popular beach is quiet. Check the surf first and aim for the middle of the bay to avoid the drag that can pull you out towards the right side of the bay.’
Loch Insh, Cairngorms
This is a perfect Scottish loch with beautiful pine, beech and birch forests around the edge and mountains behind. The water is dark and peaty but beautifully clean. For winter swims this place comes into its own as there is a great log cabin-style restaurant right on the water’s edge, with a fire, cakes, hot drinks and a killer view.’
Both swam during winter and even cracked ice to make a hole to get into reservoirs. However, they don’t advise that for beginners and Greg’s ‘golden rule’ is safety first, so check rip currents and tides, make sure you have the right equipment, never go swimming alone and get advice from experienced experts.
Of course, there are also dangers such as cold water shock and hypothermia to be aware of, too. ‘Cold water shock is caused by sudden immersion in cold water and can be triggered in water temperatures below 15°C,’ says Sarah Wiseman, an outdoor swimming coach.
‘The sudden cooling of your skin can cause you to gasp involuntarily. Your breathing rate can change uncontrollably and significantly increase. These responses can contribute to feelings of panic and inhaling water into the lungs directly.
‘Cold water shock can also increase the heart rate, and this can increase the chances of a heart attack. Therefore, don’t dive or jump into cold water and if you do find yourself struggling follow the RNLI advice to float for 60-90 seconds.
‘This is the time it takes for the effects of the cold shock to pass and for you to regain control of your breathing. You’re also likely to feel good when you get out of the water, but before long the cold hits and suddenly you’re chilled, shivery and heading towards hypothermia. That’s “afterdrop”: your body’s continuing fall in temperature that goes on long after you’ve left the water.’
The World Health Organisation define health as a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, which Greg says really incorporates the ethos of outdoor swimming.
‘Being outside in nature boosts mental wellbeing and, because you never swim alone, outdoor swimming ticks all the boxes as a great way to boost your health,’ he says.
To get started, here are the six essentials you should pack for your wild swimming adventure.
1. Rush Charge Trident Charger
In case of emergency, charge your phone on the go thanks to this Rush Charge Trident Charger.
Small and portable it can boost earphones, phone or tech travel essentials at high-speed — it gives 30 hours of talk time in just 60 mins.
Buy it for £29.99 from Rush Charge
2. Speedo Futura Biofuse Flexiseal Tri Goggles
These Speedo Futura Biofuse Flexiseal Tri Goggles have a soft flexible seal and cushioned fit around the eye. The Polarised lenses make this goggle ideal for open water swimming and triathlons.
Buy it for £33 from Speedo
3. Splendid beanie
Made of Polylana, a sustainable fibre with a wool-like feel and a significant low impact on the environment, this Splendid beanie is warm and breathable.
Buy it for £32 from DC shoes
4. Roxy Performance wetsuit
This Roxy Performance wetsuit is loved by surfers Caroline Marks and Steph Gilmore thanks to its warmth, flexibility and feminine fit. Roxy also has ecologically considered manufacturing processes.
Buy it for £249 from Roxy
5. Hydron Swim Gloves 2.0
Essential for keeping your hands warm, dhb’s Hydron Swim Gloves 2.0 are made from 3mm neoprene, have a non-slip print on the palm and a pull tab for ease of removal.
Buy it for £25 from Wiggle
6. dryrobe Advance
Make sure you’ve got your dryrobe Advance handy when exiting the water. Made from 100% recycled fabric, it has a durable weatherproof outer and super-warm, fast drying synthetic lambswool inner.
Buy it for £160 from dryrobe
For more advice about wild swimming, The Art Of Wild Swimming England And Wales and The Art Of Wild Swimming Scotland books are available to pre-order from Waterstones or Amazon now, £14.99
This article contains affiliate links. We may earn a small commission on purchases made through one of these links but this never influences our experts’ opinions. Products are tested and reviewed independently of commercial initiatives.
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