“People who are going into cold water every day meet themselves in the depth of their own brain. Once you start to get into natural bodies of water you need to proceed with deep breathing… Relax and just swim – it is a deep, deep experience.” Wim Hof – The Iceman
This year’s Mental Health Awareness week recently took place from the 15th-21st May with the theme of anxiety as its focus. Swimming in a natural body of water can be incredibly rewarding, not to mention a boost to your overall health. And with summer gradually enticing us back into the great outdoors, a dose of wild swimming can really help support your wellbeing.
Many of us know the powerful impact that being active can have on our physical and mental wellbeing but just because we know something is good for us doesn’t mean we want to do it. Trying to be healthier or improve our wellbeing is often a motivating factor for engaging in activity or exercise but boredom can be a negative factor that overcomes all.
Finding a physical activity that you enjoy and makes you feel good is essential for sticking with it and partaking even on the days you might quit on other sports. In recent years, open water swimming has become hugely popular and is a fun and mood-boosting alternative to many mainstream sports and activities.
If you are looking to try something new, or you wish to find an activity to help boost your mental health, then check out this open water swimming guide.
What is open water swimming?
Quite simply, open water swimming can be done just about anywhere that isn’t a chemically-treated swimming pool. That means the sea, rivers, lakes, ponds and even streams if the water is deep enough can be somewhere for you to swim in.
One of the best aspects of open water swimming is that you are in a completely natural body of water, free from chemicals and treatments that are common in swimming pools up and down the country. With exposure to cold temperatures, open water swimming can also be a challenge but one that fills you with a sense of accomplishment once you have finished.
Can you enjoy open water swimming anywhere?
The freedom of swimming in open water is invigorating and can help you finish your activity feeling happy and relaxed. But is any body of water a place for you to take a dip?
Open water swimmers in Scotland have a right to swim in most land and inlet waters but in England and Wales, the law is slightly less clear. The Outdoor Swimming Society explains that while the laws aren’t as clear and obvious, you can swim in most places.
Some areas of contention, however, include:
- Reservoirs – typically owned by water companies but they have a legal duty to provide recreational access to the land and water.
- Water on private land – this is allowed on a public footpath or highway but it is often tolerated by landowners if swimmers venture off the track. However, this is technically trespassing and if asked to leave you should do so.
- Angling clubs – they own the right to fish in these waters but not the water itself or the banks.
For ideas of places to swim, Wild Swimming provides a Wild Swim Map across the UK.
Are there any dangers to open water swimming?
The first point to address is that open water swimming can be dangerous because, unlike the swimming pool at your local leisure centre, there are rarely any lifeguards to help you if you get into trouble. It is important to know how to swim in open water safely. For that reason, it’s recommended to avoid open water swimming on your own or to do so in a public place where there are passersby who can find help if you need it.
There is also the issue of pollution across the UK’s waterways and bodies of water that cannot be ignored. You can inspect the water quality and safety level across many points in the UK using the Environmental Agency’s online resource which monitors for traces of chemicals, pollution and PH levels.
How to swim in open water safely
Whether you are a strong swimmer or not, the cold water can increase the difficulty level but that’s what helps to make it more exhilarating. Avoid open water swimming solo where possible so that you and your swimming buddy or buddies can look out for each other if you get out of your depth.
However, if you are going swimming alone in the great outdoors, make sure you tell someone where you are going so they can call for help if you aren’t back in due time. Choosing where you swim in open water is the most important safety decision you can make and when dipping your toes in the ocean we recommend choosing a lifeguarded beach.
Pre-swimming checklist for open water:
- Make sure you know where you can easily enter and exit the water
- Where any hazards lie; underwater or downstream
- Tide levels and when it is coming in or out
- The weather forecast – avoid swimming in extreme weather
- What rip currents are, and how to spot them
- Wear the right gear for the conditions; in freezing water, you may need a wetsuit to help you stay warm and buoyant
- Do you need a float?
- What communication device can you bring? E.g., a phone in a waterproof case, whistle or light
- Before swimming take some time to acclimatise
- Familiarise yourself with your floating technique, open water swimming is tiring and shocking, which can seriously hamper your ability to swim
Is open water swimming popular?
Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey, for BBC Travel, explains open water swimming’s increase in popularity since the pandemic. “From Scotland to Cornwall, people have been taking to the seas, lakes, lochs and rivers in greater numbers than ever before”.
Adding, “It’s a simple, low-cost hobby with minimal gear needs. Getting involved can be as easy as downloading the map of the best wild swimming places in the UK, grabbing a cossie and heading off”. But there is more to open water swimming than accessibility.
The physical health benefits of open water swimming
Swimming is a great form of low-impact exercise that allows you to stay physically active even if you have mobility issues. Open water swimming can also help to boost your immune system as cold water training reduces the production of certain hormones that impair immunity.
Another hormone benefit to open water swimming is the increased production of prolactin, which improves the quality of your sleep and consequently increases your overall physical health.
According to motivational speaker and extreme athlete, Wim Hof adds “Cold Water Immersion boosts the cardiovascular circulation, which is beneficial for a healthy heart, a strong immune system, well-balanced mental health, and a high level of energy”.
How wild swimming improves mental health
With Mental Health Awareness Week in our thoughts, it’s important to highlight how open water swimming can reduce feelings of anxiety thanks to the endorphins released after your swim.
Wim Hof supports this aspect of open water swimming by adding, “Cold water immersion is a form of cold water therapy, which improves the natural recovery process of the human body.”
Cold water swimming boosts your dopamine levels, which is a happiness hormone and is a form of mindfulness and ecotherapy, allowing us to improve our connection with nature and boost our mental wellbeing.