Healthy Lifestyle & Wellbeing Tips

Don’t think you’re the wild swimming type? Neither did I

Wild Swimming
Gilly Ferguson,-Writer

Skin-tingling, mood-boosting – and it costs zero pounds. Why I can’t get enough of those cold-water feels

‘You will never regret a swim.’

That’s what my neighbour, Jo, told me, as we trundled down to the local trout pond in early November. Her friend had said as much to her once, while convincing her to take a dip in Loch Ard (which, by the way, she did). 

Me? Until that moment, the only wild swimming I’d done was in late July (in a hotel lake) and in an outdoor natural reed pool (at another hotel), though in fairness that was a brisk April dip. Wild, I know. 

It’s not that I’m not outdoorsy. Nor am I a wuss (I love an energetic dog walk as much as the next energetic dog walker) but Bear Grylls I am not, and I’d simply never noticed how accessible this world of wild swimming really is. 

So when Jo suggested we take a swim with the fishes (not like that), reeling me in with all her talk of an ‘invigorating, life-affirming, skin-tingling cold-water dip’, I a) was less alarmed than I possibly should have been; and b) jumped right in.

It turned out to be one of the best, most spontaneous, healthy habit-making, life-changing, mood-altering moments I have ever had. Why? Despite the freeze, the weeds, the leaves (more on that later) – I am yet to regret a swim.

Wild Swimming

What is wild swimming?

This is cold and open-water swimming outdoors in any natural spaces, such as rivers, lakes or the sea. 

A form of hydrotherapy, wild bathing itself isn’t new – celebrity dippers Victoria and David Beckham, Prue Leith and Ed Sheeran are all advocates. But away from the private ponds and la-di-dah lakes, the best wild-water swims are FREE. 

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

What are the benefits of wild swimming?

Liberating! Invigorating! Healthy habit-making! Cold. The benefits of a brisk dip are plenty:

For your mental and emotional health

Wild swimming is said to help boost self-esteem and concentration, and revive tired minds. Plus – thanks in part to some top NASA boffinry – we know that cold-water swimming is clinically proven to improve our mood, and perk up our libido and immune system, while University of Cambridge scientists are researching whether cold-water swimming could play a role in preventing dementia. 

In the short term, as a form of mindfulness or meditation, wild swimming focuses your mind on physical sensations (feeling cold and wet), helping to de-stress and calm anxious, busy minds. In turn, the very act of entering cold water is said to help us build up our mental resilience. Grrr etc. 

For your physical health

Like a jolt of energy for tired, aching muscles, cold-water immersion provides a sense of elation and relaxation, and vasodilation of the extremities (sciencey, sure – it just means the widening of blood vessels to boost circulation) helps to pump out toxins and leave you feeling refreshed. 

And thanks to cold adaptation, we now know that the more you swim in cold water, the easier you find it – and the greater the health benefits. 

In the words of Dory, just keep swimming. 

Wild Swimming

Advice & tips: wild swimming for beginners

1. Arrive feeling warm Walk to the water, and layer up in warm clothing

2. Acclimatise slowly FYI you’ll lose body heat more quickly on windy days

3. Persevere When you get in, it’ll take a few minutes for the bracing ‘oof!’ feeling to pass. BUT if it doesn’t pass, get out, warm up, and try again next week

4. Don’t overstay your welcome Get out and warm up after 20 minutes, max

5. Remove damp swimwear asap 

6. Stand on something (a towel or mat) To avoid losing more heat through your feet

7. Sip a warm drink To help gently warm your body from the inside

8. Shower But wait until you’ve properly warmed up as otherwise the sudden hot water can make your blood pressure drop

Wild Swimming

What do I need to buy for wild swimming?

What to wear? In theory, cossies are sufficient in late summer – or your smalls, depending on how wild you’re feeling. You don’t technically need any specialist clothing in the warmer months, but I’ve invested in a long-sleeve swim top, hat and water shoes – the latter mainly to deter any hungry toe-nibbling trout. 

If you are planning to go on the regular, here’s what the pros recommend for cold-water swims (and here in the UK freshwater counts as ‘cold’ most of the year). NB these also make the best wild swimming gift ideas, for outdoorsy types: 

Best buys for your wild swimming kit

Need to have

Nice to have

What I’ve learnt

The unexpected lessons of wild swimming:

Wear a comfortable cossie Mine was bodycon (chortle). Great for poolside posing, less so for pond dipping. Hard to whip off when wet and chilly, it meant I took longer to warm up – and had a greater risk of flashing the locals. 

‘So many leaves came out in the shower, where were they hiding?’ Granted, it depends where you’re swimming, and how you get changed post-swim, but none of us were prepared for the sheer volume of foliage that flew out of our cossies, our showers, our washing machines, our unmentionables, for days. Who knew? (Probs Bear Grylls.)

It is cold.

But It feels so liberating. The wildest – and most free – I’ve felt in a really long time. Energised, revived, excited! The experts say it raises your mood, elates your senses and creates an addictive urge to get back in, and I agree with those experts. 

It got me out of my three-year fug in a new home and a new village I didn’t know – all tired muscles, muddled-mind and finding myself lost in early parenthood. 

Sure, it’s cold, but it’s FREE and it’s a community (check out the best wild swimming spots in the UK to find your tribe) and who doesn't need more of that goodness in their lives?

PS You will never regret a swim.

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