For those who are new to wild swimming, it can be hard to understand the appeal of immersing yourself in freezing cold lakes and rivers. However, the popularity of this activity is on the rise. According to the Outdoor Swimmer magazine's annual report, searches for the term "wild swimming" increased by 94% between 2019 and 2020. This surge in interest is no doubt due to the many mental and physical benefits associated with the practice of cold water immersion. It’s also a unique and exhilarating experience allowing individuals to reconnect with the natural world.
Whether you're looking to improve your overall well-being or simply want to try something new, wild swimming is an activity worth considering.
Wild swimming, or swimming in natural bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, and oceans, is an activity more and more people are keen to try. In fact Figures from Sport England in 2021 suggested over 4.1 million people were swimming in Britain’s open waters. But if you’re new to wild swimming it can be a bit intimidating to know where and how to start. Here are some tips to help you get going:
- Find a safe location: The first step in starting wild swimming is to find a safe location. Look for natural bodies of water that are easily accessible and have a gradual slope to the bottom. Avoid swimming in areas that have strong currents, undertows, or other hazards. It's also important to make sure the water is clean, and not polluted or contaminated. And ideally don’t go alone!
If you’re struggling to find a good location local to you, try the Wild Swimming website’s interactive map. A great collection of sites pulled together from their previous publications and contributions from the wild swimming community. Wild Swim Map UK Wild Swimming - outdoors in rivers, lakes and the sea
- Don’t leap in: If you're new to wild swimming, it's important to take it slow and ease into it, particularly when the water is cold. Start with shorter swims and gradually increase the distance and duration as your body becomes acclimated to the cold water.It’s not recommended to jump into very cold water without proper preparation and precautions. Cold water can cause the blood vessels in the skin to constrict, which can lead to a rapid drop in core body temperature and increase the risk of hypothermia. Additionally, cold water can cause the muscles to tense up, making it more difficult to swim and increasing the risk of injury. The shock to the body can also cause an adrenaline rush which can make it harder to breathe.
- Wear the right gear: To make wild swimming more comfortable, it's important to get properly kitted out. You might want to consider a wetsuit or a thermal swimwear if the water is cold to avoid hypothermia, and a pair of water shoes to protect your feet from rocks and debris.
- Make it social: Joining a wild swimming group can be a great way to make new friends, explore new locations and be safer.
- Take necessary precautions: Always be aware of the surroundings and possible hazards, such as currents, underwater obstacles or wild life, and make sure to have someone with you or let someone know where you're going and when you expect to be back.
So you’ve started your wild swimming journey. How is it going to benefit your body and mind?
A lot of the research into wild swimming is focused on the cold water therapy aspect of the activity but there are many therapeutic benefits associated with being outdoors in general, all of which we’ll look at in more detail below.
One of the primary mental health benefits is reducing stress and anxiety. Immersing yourself in nature and being surrounded by the sights and sounds of the natural environment can have a calming effect on the mind. The cold water also triggers the release of endorphins, which can promote feelings of happiness and well-being.
Studies have shown that regular cold water immersion can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. In 2018, a case report was published in the British Medical Journal that explored the potential benefits of cold water adaptation as a treatment for depression. The study, authored by Dr. Mark Harper, a cold-water swimmer and the creator of a BBC documentary, examines the physical effects of swimming in cold water on the body. The theory is that by immersing yourself in cold water, the body's fight or flight response is activated, which over time can decrease the overall stress response. This decrease in stress response is linked to activating the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the "rest and digest" system, which slows heart rate and increases activity in the intestines and glands. Cold water adaptation has been found to stimulate the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to organs such as the heart and lungs, and increase vagal tone, which can help alleviate a range of mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, tinnitus and Alzheimer's.
Wild swimming also offers a number of physical benefits. Aside from the fact that swimming is itself a form of exercise, swimming in cold water has an added cardiovascular boost as it increases the body's ability to pump blood and oxygen to the muscles. It can also improve muscle tone and endurance.
Another advantage of cold water exposure is it’s positive impact on skin health. Cold water can help to constrict blood vessels and reduce inflammation, which can lead to clearer and healthier skin. Swimming in natural bodies of water can also expose the skin to beneficial minerals and elements, such as magnesium and iodine.
Lastly, as we mentioned before, wild swimming can be a great way to connect with nature, other people and escape the stresses and distractions of everyday life.
In the words of Roger Deakin, wild swimmer and author of ‘Waterlogged’: "The joy of wild swimming is that you feel like you're part of something bigger. You're not just swimming in water, you're swimming in the environment."