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Why might you give open water swimming a try and what are the benefits? What should you be looking out for and what’s the best way to get started? Nat Barnes explains

Home-working and home-schooling, face masks and social distancing – we’ve all learned a lot of new skills over the past two years. But there has also been the opportunity to take up new hobbies and re-learn old skills and this has meant a boom in open water swimming.

Membership of the Outdoor Swimming Society grew by more than a third in 2020, while according to Outdoor Swimming magazine’s annual report, searches for ‘wild swimming’ increased by an incredible 94 per cent between 2019 and 2020. In Swim England’s latest survey, 7.5 million people said that they swam in open water and outdoor pools.

Wild or ‘open water’ swimming can refer to a number of things and places, but generally speaking it means swimming in locations with no lifeguard supervision, usually in more out of the way locations such as rivers, lakes, pools or the sea.

So why might you give open water swimming a try and what are the benefits? What should you be looking out for and what’s the best way to get started? Obviously it goes without saying that to even be considering open water swimming you should be a reasonably competent swimmer. Even when experienced, open water swimming is not without risk and certainly shouldn’t be undertaken without keeping safety in mind at all times.

So what are the benefits of taking a dip al fresco? Cold water therapy has been used by professional athletes for some time to help both resolving injuries and also for post-workout muscle pain. Swimming outside doesn’t just help as exercise, it also burns more calories than standard swimming, has been shown to reduce stress, improves your circulation and boosts your immune system. Plus, cold water swimming activates endorphins, your body’s natural feel-good chemicals.

Starting with open water swimming isn’t just a case of pulling on your costume and jumping into the nearest lake though. Far from it. The first thing to do is ask around and find out online if there are any open water swimming groups or clubs near you. Finding access to open water can often be an issue and finding a local group will also help you to learn the ropes and also help you to stay safe.

Alternatively, if you wanted to adjust to swimming in cold water before heading out into open water, there are also plenty of outdoor, unheated lidos around the country.

Ironically, many open water swimmers often don’t want to advertise where they go, for fear of the location becoming too popular, which doesn’t exactly help beginners either. There are plenty of local clubs and public locations such as Hampstead Heath ponds or also events such as the Boxing Day and New Year’s Day dips at Redcar in Cleveland.

“I first started open water swimming in the summer of 2019, then started going more regularly in 2020 and now swim most days,” says Gareth Dean. “I’ve always enjoyed swimming and have a good tolerance for the cold, but it’s important to know what you’re doing and understand the risks to your body with the warning signs. It’s completely different to being in a pool and a great way to have time to yourself – in the mornings, I often see kingfishers and have geese flying low over my head while I’m swimming.” 

Before you even get into the water, you need to be thinking about getting out. Make sure you’ve got plenty of warm clothes, a towel or a dry robe nearby, so that you can get out of your wet costume quickly when you exit the water – something we’ll get to more later. Dry robes have become increasingly popular as they are often over-sized and large enough to wear over other clothes or even to change inside while still wearing.

While you can obviously start open water swimming at any time of the year, it’s preferable to start in summer when the water is at its warmest to help you get acclimatised. In mid-summer, you can find the water temperature is over 20 degrees, while below 15 degrees is classified as cold water and below 10 is very cold. When it gets colder, you can wear a wetsuit, but they’re not cheap to buy and also not the easiest of things to take on or off. If you do decide to get one, then make sure you buy one that’s specific for swimming not just general watersports as the suit shape will be cut accordingly.

While you may not be a fan of them, it’s also good to start by wearing a swimming hat. Not only will they help you to retain body heat, but they will also help you to be seen by anyone else on the water – especially rowers who face the opposite way to the direction of travel. Talking of being seen, investing in a tow float is also an absolute must. As their name suggests, this helps you to be seen, but some have the added function of dry storage for car keys, your mobile phone or even clothes. 

Generally speaking it’s recommended to walk or lower yourself into the water gradually rather than jump in as you don’t know what might have moved beneath the surface. When starting out, don’t expect to be in the water for long either. The cold water will be a shock to your body and caution is key, even when you’ve got more experience, so to begin with expect only to be in the water for a handful of minutes.

Some recommend that you spend a minute in the water for each degree of water temperature, but it’s best to do whatever feels right for you. Regular exposure to cold water does help to raise your tolerance levels, but it’s easy to push yourself too far and get into trouble very quickly. It’s also important to realise that tiredness or a strong wind lowering the water temperature can all have an affect on your swimming ability from one day to the next. Just because you were in the water for five minutes the previous day, it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be able to do the same today. 

Keep an eye out for the early signs of hypothermia such as a lack of coordination, weakness in arms and legs or numbness. You should also always swim close to the bank and never swim too far from your planned finishing point. If you still feel good after returning and want to continue, you can always do another short loop. This isn’t like a swimming pool where you can just swim to the side to get out at any point.

Just as important as looking after yourself on the swim itself is looking after yourself afterwards too. This is where that earlier preparation is crucial. You need to remove all of your wet clothes as soon as possible and stay out of the wind. Dress in dry warm clothes including thick socks, gloves and a hat – it helps if you can lay these out beforehand.

You may also hear lots of talk about something called ‘afterdrop’ which is where your body feels colder even after you’ve got out of the water. The reason is that when swimming your body shuts down the circulation to your skin, keeping your warm blood in your main core and helping you to stay in the water longer. When you exit the water, this process doesn’t stop immediately, so it’s important that you warm back up slowly and gradually. Take a flask with a hot drink to have afterwards and don’t immediately jump in a hot shower or bath as it can affect your blood pressure and make you feel unwell.

While this does sound dramatic the reality is that, as long as you take proper precautions and are responsible, open water swimming can be enlightening, invigorating and has plenty of health benefits.

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