September 10, 2021 7 min read
Like many people, I found myself getting into a bit of a slump during the first Lockdown. Without any end in sight, and the fear of the unknown, I found myself searching for something to keep me occupied and lift my mood. Daily workouts, reading, and painting, amongst other hobbies helped, but it wasn’t until I found the joy of swimming in my local loch that I really started to notice a difference in my lockdown-induced mood.
It all started on our daily family walk at the local loch. I came across a small bench on the shore, littered with towels, trainers, and flasks. In the distance, the sound of chatter and giggling filled the still air, and I spotted a huddle of beanies, bobbing up and down in the water. Immediately, I knew I wanted to be part of this little (or so I thought) community of swimmers.
It wasn’t long before I was making daily trips to the loch, each time managing to beat my personal best for inching into the ice-cold water. The feeling of being in the still water, at one with nature, was so calming, and afterwards, so invigorating. I soon came to realise that I was by no means alone in holding such a love for swimming in open water; not only did I quickly find myself competing for space on the loch-side bench, but I became aware of the Outdoor Swimming Society UK, which has a monumental 100,000 members.
This came as no surprise, as the more I swam, the more the benefits of doing so became apparent, both physical and mental. So, what are they?
The most obvious physical benefit of wild swimming is the fact that it’s exercise. However, for me, it doesn’t hold the same repetition or boredom that so many people associate with certain types of exercise. With wild swimming, every occasion offers a new, different experience. My local loch spans about 1.5 kilometres, so by swimming to the other side and back it’s easy to swim 3 kilometres without even thinking much of it, thanks to the stunning surroundings.
Research has also shown that wild swimming can help decrease and calm inflammation and body pain due to the adaption to cold stress helping your body to adapt to other stress or pain within your body. As someone who has had a form of auto-immune arthritis since my early teens, I advise anyone else with the same or similar conditions to try it out. While wild swimming is definitely not a cure, it has helped me enormously, being both active and low-impact; it also get the endorphins going when you plunge into cold water.
Studies also show that cold water swimming can reduce over-production of particular hormones that can cause impaired immunity. This means that your body will be more resistant to infection, in effect, boosting your immune system.
For me, wild swimming is a form of meditation. When you’re in the cold water, all you have left to do is focus on your breathing and take in your surroundings: you have no choice but to be in the moment. This can be so beneficial to your mental health as it gives your body time to relax, and allows your mind to take a break from any worries.
Wild swimming is also such a great way of meeting new people, as well as being an opportunity to meet regularly with friends. The social aspect of wild swimming is so important to me personally, and the daily catch-ups I had throughout lockdown while walking down to the loch with friends helped massively.
Studies have shown that cold water swimming is also helpful in reducing stress. Training yourself to handle the shock of plunging into freezing cold water actually helps your body manage other forms of stress. Plunging into cold water leads to the release of “happy hormones”, like serotonin and dopamine. Therefore, it’s no surprise that so many people, including myself, find wild swimming so addictive.
After a cold water swim, it’s common to have a genuine feeling of complete euphoria. It’s likely that your body will be congratulating itself on surviving, and therefore you’ll feel a strong sense of happiness and achievement. It’s such a wonderful feeling!
It’s free! Apart from the fuel you might have to use to get to your wild swimming destination, this is one of the greatest joys of this activity. Open water is all yours: no costly monthly membership required.
That said, I must say that I have indulged in some wild swimming gear over the past year that I’ve personally found really handy.
I must stress, you don’t need any of this. That is the pure joy of open water swimming. Realistically all you need is a swimming costume and you’re good to go. However, there are a few things I’ve found helpful since starting wild swimming.
A dry robe is a brilliant answer to the issue of changing back into your clothes after a swim. It’s essentially a large towel poncho that covers your modesty and dries you too. Having one of these to hand will help avoid the slight awkwardness that comes with trying to get changed out of a swimming costume in a public place.
A tow float is great for your safety. With cold water sometimes comes cramp, and so having something inflatable with you can literally be a life-saver. Tow floats tend to come in neon colours, which are great for visibility, and you can now easily find ones with built-in dry compartments for if you don’t want to leave your phone and car keys unattended on the shore.
My local loch has pebbles and rocks underfoot, so I like to wear wet shoes when I go swimming. However, if you’re swimming in a more sandy area, you’ll probably be all good barefoot.
After the summer months ended, where I had initially only needed a bikini, I quickly found myself searching for various items that would help me carry the hobby on through winter:
A wetsuit can really help in the colder months. Hardcore wild swimmers often stick with their swimming costumes right through winter, yet I’m not quite there yet. I’d recommend a wetsuit with short arms and legs, as they are better for swimming than the full-length ones, which can cause your legs to float up to the surface more than you’d like, giving you less control. They hold more water too, making them difficult to get off quickly afterwards.
A waterproof temperature gauge can also be useful. You can get baby bath thermometers in any chemists or supermarkets. It helps you to figure out to what extent your body can cope in the cold temperatures: if you have a day where you when you feel like you might have stayed in a bit too long for comfort, it’s good to know what temperature it was so that you can avoid staying in so long at that temperature again.
As we edged into winter, it was so cold that you had to navigate around ice in the loch. I felt myself craving the water slightly less, and gave myself a break. However, if you still feel the urge to swim in mid-winter, items like neoprene gloves, booties, and a jacket can be really handy. These will give you extra warmth and ensure your body temperature doesn’t dip quite as fast.
Beanies are really popular amongst wild swimmers. Personally, I’m a stubborn non-hat-wearer, but they do work wonders in keeping your head nice and warm as it bobs above the water. If you have any friends who are keen wild swimmers, I bet you the gift of a nice beanie will go down a treat.
Lastly, make sure you’re prepared for when you’re out of the water. After about five minutes, the cold can hit you and it can come as quite a shock. Warm clothes that you can quickly change into are crucial, and you’ll seriously thank yourself if you have a hot water bottle and a flask of hot tea or chocolate waiting for you.
Don’t be tempted to stay in too long. Wild swimming feels amazing, and sometimes it can almost feel as if you’re swimming in a bath once your body gets acclimatised to the water. However, don’t be fooled by this. Try and remember that you are in very cold water, and your body won’t cope in it forever. Keep an eye on the time if you can, or count in your head. I’d recommend sticking to no longer than ten minutes when it’s really cold.
If you can, go with a friend. Not only is it lovely to have someone to chat to during your swim, but it means if anything were to go wrong, for example, if you got a bad cramp, there will be someone there to help you.
If you’re in a loch and aren’t the most confident swimmer, try swimming along the edge rather than straight into the middle. Lochs can be extremely deep, for example, Loch Ness is 227 metres deep, and so swimming close to the edge means you can quickly get to a safe place if you get into difficulties.
Lastly, join your local wild swimming Facebook group. This is a great chance to get in contact with local people with similar interests to you, as well as getting tips and tricks and information on swimming in your local area.
Happy swimming! Let us know if you take the plunge and go for your first wild swim, and even better, if any of these tips helped! Please send us over any photos of you enjoying the joy of open water swimming, we love seeing your pics.
Disclaimer: I am only a hobby swimmer in my local loch. These are my tips based on my experience. Despite having swum in the sea, for example, I am by no means an expert on doing so. It’s definitely worth looking into the safety measures that experienced open water swimmers take before you give it a go. If your nearest place to wild-swim is the sea, then seek advice through your local wild swimming group. Bear in mind that there do not tend to be life guards on beaches all of the time, so it’s even more important not to swim solo.
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