With travelling still somewhat limited in the post COVID world, people are looking to more local adventures to whet the appetite and get involved in. One of the things that is hot on everyone’s lips right now is wild swimming or open water swimming – giving people the opportunity to get out and about and explore more local spots.
Floating and bathing in natural pools, cruising under waterfalls, and swimming against a backdrop of nature’s finest landscapes – images of wild swimming often paint a beautiful image. But a lack of understanding on where to find the best spots and how to stay safe in the water can put people off taking the plunge. Go armed with some practical advice though and an al fresco dip doesn’t need to be a stress.
So to continue our Summer Staycation series we are taking a ‘deep dive’ (pun intended) into the mystifying waters of Wild Swimming. What is it? Why we should give it a try? And most importantly, how to do so safely.
A big thank you to this week's guest blogger, John Wood from @tri_coaching. John is one of our U Perform Ambassadors and is one of the UK's leading triathlon and multisport coaches and has very kindly written his essential guide to wild swimming; suitable for all ages and ability levels.
Take it away John...
What is Wild Swimming?
Wild swimming is, for all intents and purposes, swimming outdoors in a natural body of water. That may be at a lake, a bend in a river, or it might be the sea. The key thing is that there are little to no man-made structures. You get to choose if you want salt water or fresh water. It’s the kind of activity that older generations might roll their eyes at and say, “When I was your age that was just swimming!”
Why go Wild Swimming?
Wild swimming gets you out into nature and exploring rock pools, rivers, lakes and seas, immersing you in a landscape that sometimes you will get all to yourself. You can see more wildlife, too – animals are less frightened of swimmers than walkers.
In some countries, wild swimming can even provide an insight into local culture. Regions such as Scandinavia see the pastime as an intrinsic part of their summer calendar, meaning you can blend in like a local. And certainly as wild swimming becomes more and more popular in the UK, communities of wild swimmers are set to pop up everywhere there is a body of water yet to be explored.
And, aside from the obvious rewards of being in the great outdoors, wild swimming has potential health benefits, too – especially in chillier areas. It is great for your health – adapting to the cold is known to help strengthen your immune system and mental well-being.
Then there’s the challenge. I’ve heard it mentioned that “if I can get myself to swim in the sea in winter, then I can do anything.” Building up to spending more time in cold water can make you feel like a superhero next to your friends who won’t even dip a toe in!
Where can I go Wild Swimming?
Before you strip off, it’s worth searching for some of the tell-tale signs of a good or bad wild swimming site. Check for up-to-date weather conditions online before you go and be aware of any changes during your swim. Be prepared. Tides, river depths and currents can change suddenly and make a previously great location unsafe.
If you don’t feel confident in judging a secluded location, start with designated and established areas for your first swim. Where you’re headed might have an online resource with local outdoor swim spots. For example, the Outdoor Swimming Society maps swim spots across England and Wales, as well as parts of Europe and North Africa.
For more of an adventure, the deep pools above and below weirs and dams are popular with swimmers looking for off-radar sites. Keep an eye out for old bridges too; they were often built at natural gorges, where rivers usually narrow and deepen, and can make for fun, accessible locations.
Changes in depth can also signal a good spot. Waterfalls often have deep plunge pools, although this is not always the case. If you prefer river swimming, head for the river’s bend – the water will always shallow to a beach on the inside and deepen on the outside, offering a nice easy spot.
Wild Swim Safely
Having found your spot, be sure to stay safe. It sounds obvious, but use common sense. If this is your first time, stay or swim close to the shore.
Never swim on your own, so go with a friend, and always keep a look out for each other. Or, even better, go with a group. You can find like-minded people by searching Facebook for ‘wild swimming’ groups (there are a wide range of regional groups and links are given on wildswimming.co.uk).
Before you or any of your party take the plunge, make sure that you know how you’re going to get back out of the water. And if you’re thinking of jumping in, always check the water depth and look for obstructions. Avoid leaping from large waterfalls, as strong undercurrents can often pull you down.
Medically, those with heart conditions should avoid rapid entry into cold water. If you have any cuts, it’s also best to apply waterproof plasters before getting in. And should you develop any untoward symptoms afterwards, make sure you see a doctor.
Currents aren’t necessarily dangerous – you’re not going to be sucked under – but they can be disorientating and may take you out into deeper water or close to an obstruction. Even shallow water, if it’s moving fast enough, can knock you over and carry you away. Always consider: if I do lose my footing or get swept downstream, where will I get out? Currents can be especially powerful directly under large waterfalls or weirs – never jump directly into the tumult below falling water.
How to get the most from Wild Swimming?
Cold water will dramatically decrease your range at first, count on being able to swim a tenth of the distance you can in a warm indoor pool, so practise in a safe zone and increase your range slowly.
If it’s your first time swimming in cold water, enter the water gradually to see how your body reacts – beware of ‘cold shock’ which can bring on hyperventilation. When you get out, it can take longer than you think to warm up, so have plenty of clothing ready, and ideally keep moving to keep your core temperature higher.
If you are someone who is training for endurance sports – triathlon or longer distance swims, seas, lakes and rivers are perfect spaces for getting prolonged efforts in. With the proviso that you are looking after your safety, there is no limit to the distances you could swim, or the variety of efforts you can include in your session.
What equipment do I need to go Wild Swimming?
One of the best things about wild swimming is you don’t require much by way of kit to actually do it. The ability to swim is a necessity. Even if you’re going for a freezing splash about, it’s better to be competent and safe in the water than call the RNLI.
After that, some sort of swim suit is a good idea – unless you have skinny dipping tendencies. Whatever floats your boat!
Depending on just how cold this place is that you’re going to go wild swimming – and how long you intend to swim in it – you might also want a wetsuit. There are a number of wetsuit brands out there all offering very different things. For beginner swimmers you will want to look at wetsuits that offer more buoyancy whereas the more experienced swimmer might be looking for a wetsuit that offers more flexibility in the upper body and moderate buoyancy in the lower body.
For the chillier swims you can get thermal swim gloves and socks and hats for the extremities that the wetsuit doesn’t cover.
And, of course, always know where your towel is! There are various changing robes on the market that can help keep you warm while you change – and protect from the various elements!
And there you have it, our Wild Swimming week has come to a close. A big thank you to this week's guest blogger, John Wood from @tri_coaching. John is one of our U Perform Ambassadors and is one of the UK's leading triathlon and multisport coaches and has very kindly written his essential guide to wild swimming; suitable for all ages and ability levels.
Make sure to check in next week for another activity showcase for you to try this summer.
There are so many beautiful places to go wild swimming right here in the UK. The possibilities really are endless. As always, remember to follow the safety guidance we’ve shared with you but most importantly, have fun!
We would love to know where your favourite places to go wild swimming are; share your images on social media and tag us in them @uperformuk