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A beginner's guide to wild swimming

• On the water • Apr 29, 2021 • 10 min read

We explore why open-water swimming, also known as wild swimming, is so good for us and get some top tips from Olympian and Sports Scientist Greg Whyte OBE to help you take your first dip.

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In recent years, wild swimming has grown in popularity, especially during the coronavirus pandemic when pools and gyms have been closed.

Now days, if you take a walk along your local shoreline, you’re likely to find people taking a dip, and in all weathers too! So, what makes wild swimming so special that thousands of people across Great Britain get up at the crack of dawn each morning to dip their toes in chilly waters?

Escapism and adventure

To make exercise a regular habit we must find something we enjoy. When speaking to Greg Whyte OBE about his love of open-water swimming he told us how it all started. “My Dad gave me the opportunity to experience different activities as a child and when I found something that I really loved, he then supported me and helped me to achieve."

"This love was swimming and open-water swimming is everything to me. Whether I’m in a lake, a river or the sea, open water gives me that sense of freedom that I simply don’t get anywhere else. There’s a massive difference between the pool and open water, in the open water it’s truly about escapism and adventure.”

““It’s adventurous, escapism and fantastic exercise all rolled into one” - Greg Whyte OBE”

Good for the body

Open-water swimming, and swimming in general, offers plenty of physical benefits. Firstly, it’s a full body workout that will improves fitness and builds muscle. Greg highlights that it’s also kinder to joints than other forms of exercise so, if you’re looking for something less impactful and more therapeutic, swimming is a great option - this is often referred to as Hydrotherapy.

Swimming in cold open water has the advantage of boosting the immune system, improving metabolism, and reducing inflammation. Swimming is also great for those with respiratory problems. Practicing breathing in a controlled way can help keep symptoms of asthma at bay.

Good for the soul

In addition to the physical benefits, swimming can do wonders for our mental health. According to the Swim England’s Value of Swimming report, swimmers have higher well-being than non-swimmers and are happier, and healthier. They also show higher levels of self-confidence and self-efficacy.

Wild swimming combats stress, reduces anxiety, improves sleep, and most importantly, it gets us outside! If you speak to anyone who’s just stepped out of open water, you’ll likely to be greeted with a big smile and “that was amazing!”.

Wild swimming is also very sociable, as you’ll read below, it’s not recommended you go alone. There are plenty of wild swimming groups across the country to join or, get chatting to those warming up with a coffee on-shore, most of them will be more happy to help you take your first dip.

Greg’s top tips for open-water swimming

1. Never swim alone – either swim with someone else or make sure there are people in the same area that you are swimming.

2. Make yourself visible. A bright hat or tow float helps you be seen and lets others know exactly where you are.

3. The more proficient you are at swimming the more you’ll enjoy it. Practice first in the pool if your confidence levels are low.

4. Keep yourself fit and active, especially if attempting longer open-water swims. Keeping fit will also help you stay injury free.

Basic swimming skills are essential, but you don’t have to be a pro to enjoy a morning dip in your local river. Build your confidence up slowly and get used to being in colder water before you start tackling any distance. Once in, take a moment to relax until the feeling of cold goes away (it does, promise!) It will always feel cold at first but the more you do it the less you’ll be bothered by the drop in temperature. However, it’s important not to let yourself get too cold, so, if you start to shiver then it’s time to get out! There’s always the option to wear a wetsuit if you’re not quite ready to bare your bathers.

What you’ll need

The beauty of wild swimming is you don’t need much at all! However, there are a few items which will make your time in and out of the water more enjoyable and help you stay safe.

  • Towel – drying yourself quickly will prevent you from getting cold when out of the water.
  • Tow float – these handy colourful floats won’t restrict your swimming and will help you stay visible. Although they are not a floatation device, they can also provide a short respite should you need. Some tow floats can also hold your belongings and keep them dry.
  • Dry robe – you’ll see regular swimmers wearing these. For something cheaper, an old dressing gown or winter coat will also keep you warm before and after your swim.
  • Swimming hat – great at helping you be seen. The brighter the better!
  • Flask – there’s nothing better than a hot brew to help you warm up after a swim. It’s great socially too!
  • OS Maps – find wild swimming locations near you. Please check public access and whether swimming is permitted.

The temperature’s warming up and open-water swimming season is upon us! Now is the time to be brave and take your first step – you won’t regret it!

Professor Greg Whyte is an expert in the field of sports and exercise science. In 2014 he was awarded an OBE for his services to Sport, Sport Science & Charity, and was voted as one of the Top 10 Science Communicators in the UK by the British Science Council. Greg is also an Olympian in modern pentathlon, and is a European and World Championship medallist. He's enjoyed open-water swimming from a young age.

Published: Apr 29, 2021 Edited: May 28, 2021

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