Wild Swimming For Beginners
We love continuing to swim outside as Autumn gives way to Winter. We spoke to Grace Kingswell about how to approach starting to wild swim safely and its many benefits.
It can be hard to understand, if you haven't yet tried it yourself, why people like me would voluntarily throw themselves into some very cold water. If you have given wild swimming a whirl then I’m sure you’re already hooked. If you haven't, read on - I hope to convince you to try.
The first thing I think it’s worth mentioning is that wild swimming isn’t new, it’s not different and it doesn’t need to be ‘faddy’ either - it’s just swimming. Swimming how humans have always done it, outside of the confines of an overly-chlorinated swimming pool. As we’ve evolved we've found ways to make our lives more comfortable (hello heated pool), but in doing so we’ve missed out on the mental and physical benefits that come from swimming immersed in nature and at cooler temperatures.
Firstly, is there science behind wild swimming?
Short answer, yes. I think we have to see wild swimming as having two distinct angles: the cold element, and the nature element. We all know, and feel, the benefit of spending time in nature for our mental health so I’m going to focus on cold therapy and how that affects our bodies.
Most blogs, newspaper articles or long-form pieces that you read these days are full of the benefits of cold-water therapy but my first piece of advice is to actually exercise a lot of caution. I know far too many people that push themselves to swim in icy water when their bodies actually probably just need a nap and a hot bath. Here’s why...
Cold water therapy works on the principle of hormesis which is the idea that a small amount of something that’s stressful for the body can actually promote a beneficial response, but that the same stressor in a higher amount would be either detrimental or fatal.
Cold water is a hormetic stressor because a little of it, i.e. a short duration, helps train the body’s stress response to be more adaptive and resilient, but hours spent in freezing cold water could well be fatal.
That being said, most people can manage turning their shower down to cold for an icy blast for a few seconds at the end, or even just splashing their face with cold water - it doesn’t have to be an Iceman Hof swim to feel the benefits.
So that’s the first thing, know your body, know your health and know your limits. During the summer it’s a safe and sensible temperature and even if you fall into this category of “needing to wrap yourself up in cotton wool” you can probably still enjoy some wild swimming!
Key safety tips and need to know info for Wild Swimming:
- If you want to build in a regular cold water exposure practice but you’re new to it, then start in the summer and keep swimming through to winter. That way you’ll gently acclimatise as the water gets colder.
- On that note, they say that 3 times a week is the minimum you need to swim if you want to stay acclimatised to the cold.
- Find a friend or a swim group. I love my solo swims but I choose to do them on beaches that I know well (more on that below) or at lifeguarded pools in London. That being said, swimming in a group can be so fun and it’s much safer too! There are now so many cold water communities around the globe that it’s easy to find one near you. I founded @nudge_community on Instagram a few years ago to connect Londoners that enjoyed the cold water and watching sunrises. We have a What’s App group to coordinate swims - get involved! You can also check the Outdoor Swimming Society’s website for groups local to you.
- Be prepared - pack your bag! I recommend having a dedicated swim bag that always has a few handy items in like a towel, a woolie hat, a dry bag for your wet swimmers and a sweet snack in case you get too cold and your blood sugar drops.
- Know your location: Open beaches have rip currents that can sweep you out to see in a flash. Go with a group that know the tides or swim at a beach that is lifeguarded. London spots tend to have lifeguards too like the Hampstead Heath ponds. Rivers often have strong currents, even if they look calm and peaceful.
- Think about your exit strategy and if you’re new to wild swimming don’t swim too far away from where you plan to get out.
- Ease your way in, don’t jump or dive. This is a practical tip - if you’re swimming in a really wild location then who knows how deep the water is or what’s lurking beneath. But it’s also because you need to adjust to the cold slowly. Splash some water on your face first before dunking under and only do so once you’ve got your breathing under control.
- Breathwork is key: long slow exhales are the way to trick your body into remaining calm. This is fundamental. If you jump straight into cold water you’ll likely hyperventilate and not be able to get your breathing under control. Go slow.
- Don’t stay in too long, a couple of minutes is fine! In the winter months a minute per degree of water temp is a good measure: so if you’re at the Hampstead Ponds and it’s 3 degrees, then 3 minutes should be your max! I also think some neoprene boots and gloves are a really sensible idea in winter, as it’s the extremities that really feel the cold.
- Afterwards, get dressed immediately. When you exit the water you’ll feel completely invincible and like you’re not cold in the slightest. Give it 10 minutes though and you’ll experience the afterdrop. I nearly fainted once because I faffed around taking photos in my swimsuit without getting my clothes on right away. So, so foolish. Get your core garments on first - t-shirt, vest, jumper, coat, then focus on the extremities last. This is so the blood around your core organs warms up first and then circulates to the rest of your body.
Most Beautiful Swim Spots in the UK?
Gosh there are just so many. The Lake District, anywhere in Scotland and Dartmoor have got to be up there, but there are also so many magical spots on the Cornwall coast where I live that take my breath away. That being said, loch swimming in Scotland was what really got me hooked on wild swimming in the first place and I hope to make it up there again someday soon!
Nutritional Therapist and Breathwork Coach