Over the last few years, especially throughout the pandemic, wild swimming has become an invigorating new hobby for many people across the UK. Also referred to as Open Water Swimming or Cold Water Swimming, it involves taking to natural water instead of indoor pools – so anything from lakes, rivers or even (if you are lucky enough to live nearby) the open sea. The benefits of wild swimming can go beyond just exercise too, with many practitioners claiming it has unique psychological benefits over regular indoor swimming sessions.
The Benefits of Wild Swimming
The ability to exercise within nature, the healthy need to adapt and recover from colder temperatures, and the rewarding feeling of exploring in different locations are all features of wild swimming that make it a tempting (free) alternative to paying your local swimming baths or gym for the privilege of swimming in a crowded, chlorinated box with designated lanes.
But before you grab your swimsuit and drive on down to your local lake, there are some important considerations to make. To answer some of these questions, we were lucky enough to interview an avid open water swimmer, Michelle Nelson. Below you can see our short Q&A with Michelle, which will hopefully answer some of your burning questions about this increasingly popular activity.
Q&A: Let’s Ask a Wild Swimmer!
- Hello Michelle, thank you for talking with us today. So how did you first hear about and get into wild swimming?
An open water swimming venue, Caversham Lakes, opened very near to us last summer. One of my very good friends (who I hadn’t seen for a few years) started swimming there and posting about it on Facebook. We (our family) decided to go to that lake for my son’s birthday to try out paddleboarding.
It was there that I got chatting to people getting out of the lake and saying how lovely it was. I went to the reception to pick up some cards for an Open Water Coach, and just happened to pick the same lady my friend had used. I messaged her and was able to have a ‘lesson’ that same week!
- What was your first wild swimming experience like?
I booked a 1-to-1 lesson with an Open Water coach, because having swam since a child, and having done pool lifeguard training, I appreciate how dangerous water can be! I knew the lake was very deep and will have wildlife and vegetation etc. My coach was excellent at explaining what to expect in terms of how breathing will be affected by the cold water and how to manage this, and also not to panic if you swim into weed and lots of other vital tips and information.
How is wild swimming different (in terms of enjoyment and benefits) to swimming in a regular pool?
Where I swim is beautiful and peaceful, especially now in the colder months as the Aqua Park and family beach are both closed and only a few people paddleboard in the colder weather. You are not confined to a lane, or the speed of the person swimming in front of you. You can really appreciate the surroundings and the wildlife, it is extremely peaceful. I find a public swimming pool now is too warm for me to enjoy for a long period. Also, the community of people I have met swimming at the lake has been great. I generally plan to swim with my friend (it is our ‘us time’) but if one of us can’t make it, there will always be other people to chat to.
How do you know where wild swimming is safe and allowed and are there any ‘official’ guidelines to this?
There are no concretely defined rules to it, but there are definitely safety precautions you need to take depending on the body of water you are swimming in. If it is the sea, of course the tide is a big thing to be wary of, along with rocks on the coastline. I recommend always trying to go with somebody else, never alone. This way you can look out for each other in case of an emergency.
The weather is also a factor to consider. Obviously in open water, the wind and rain can play a big part on the strength of the current – even in lakes – which can make your progress more difficult and therefore make you tire surprisingly quickly. I’d also highly recommend identifying your entry and exit points for the water. If it is a river, make sure you can safely get into and out of the water and never risk jumping in. This is an unregulated environment that can change, so you never know what lies under the surface in the form of rocks or entangled weeds.
Plotting your routes beforehand, taking a partner with you, and monitoring the weather forecast are three essentials on my list before a wild swimming venture.
- What would be your top tips (in terms of preparation and equipment) to a wild swimming newbie?
Have a lesson from someone who is experienced and knows what they are doing. As well as the 1-to-1 lesson I had in August, I also went to an ‘Introduction to Cold Water Swimming’ session with the same coach at the lake. This was a group session which focussed on the practicalities of swimming in cold water, i.e. how to understand your body and how its reacting, tips on how to warm up (especially don’t have a hot shower straight afterwards, that’s very dangerous!) and what sort of kit to have with you.
When it gets colder, I use a wetsuit, boots and gloves (from about October) but lots of people swim without all year! Having a hot water bottle between your clothes in your bag warms them up for you, and then you can hug the hot water bottle when you’re dressed! Make sure you have a woolly hat to put on afterwards and people do sometimes even swim in one.
Always have a hot drink to consume afterwards, this will bring your body temperature up safely and gradually. A tow-float is a must, mine is a dry bag so I can put my keys and phone in it, and I just leave the rest of my stuff on the side. If you get tired you can just hang onto your float for a rest! Floats also make you much easier to spot in the water, along with having a bright swim hat.
Lastly, a changing towel or robe are also great to have - I use both and change under the towel and have my dry robe as a big fluffy coat to put on after.
Are You Ready to Try Wild Swimming?
We really hope you found our exclusive interview with Michelle insightful into the world of wild swimming. Her valuable tips have certainly given us some insider knowledge that would be otherwise unknown if you had never tried your hand at swimming in open water before.
Remember to always factor in the precautions mentioned above, but also remember to embrace the moment and the freedom that swimming in nature offers. You might never look back and use a swimming pool ever again!