Ever since that scene in Pride And Prejudice, when Colin Firth emerged from a lake in a wet shirt, the idea of swimming outdoors has grabbed our imaginations. ‘Our rivers, lakes and coastlines are cleaner than ever, and access to wild swimming spots is improving all the time,’ says Daniel Start, author of Wild Swimming and Wild Swimming Hidden Beaches. ‘On summer days, lake and river temperatures can get up to a pleasant 20 degrees.’
Who can do it?
You don’t need to be a brilliant swimmer, but even strong swimmers should always go with somebody else. ‘You can keep an eye on each other, but it’s also a very sociable thing to do,’ says Start. ‘Heading off in a group with a map in your hands to a secret spot; it’s like a treasure hunt!’ When you find your hidden lake or river, check its depth and look out for obstructions under the surface. If you’re on a secret beach, make sure you’ve checked tide times and currents before diving in. And always stay close to the shore in case you need to get out. But don’t worry about whether you’re doing the perfect breaststroke. ‘It’s a bit of fun, not triathlon training,’ says Start. ‘Wild swimming is meant to be an adventure.’
What are the fitness gains?
Start says all ‘wild-dippers’ experience a natural endorphin high that boosts mood and excites the senses. He adds, ‘It helps you commune with nature and is a bit meditative; you’re so immersed in it, you forget all your worries.’ It’s physical benefits are well-proven, too. A study by NASA found repeatedly swimming in cold water over three months triggers changes in the body known as ‘cold adaptation’. ‘These lower blood pressure and cholesterol, reduce fat disposition, inhibit blood clotting and increase fertility and libido,’ explains Start. ‘So far from quelling passion, a cold dip could actually boost your desire!’ Plunging into cool waters can also aid muscle recovery – there’s a good reason athletes use ice baths – and could also keep your bikini diet on track. Start says, ‘You’re both exercising and burning extra calories to keep warm.’
What kit do I need?
Although you might be tempted to go au naturel and swim in your birthday suit, it’s not recommended. Either wear a swimming costume under your clothes, or Start suggests taking a small plastic bag and a sarong with you. ‘Then you can swim in your undies, pop them in the bag afterwards, and use the sarong as a towel. It also doubles as picnic blanket!’ If you’re going to be swimming for longer than 15 minutes, especially if you’re in the sea, a wetsuit is a good idea. It will help keep you warm and can protect you from rocks along the shoreline. ‘Although there’s nothing inherently dangerous about wild swimming, cold water does reduce your swimming ability,’ says Start. It’s thought the cold water changes your body position as you try to keep your head out; the more upright you are, the less buoyant you are. It can also numb your fingers and toes, which could make your technique less effective so you tire out faster than normal.
Where do I start?
If you want to start exploring, there are several wild swimming groups on Facebook, or search for a spot near you on wildswimming.co.uk or outdoorswimmingsociety.com. Make sure you read the Outdoor Swimming Society’s advice to help keep you safe in the water. ‘The water will feel cold, so arrive hot – so hot you can’t wait to strip off and plunge in,’ says Start. ‘Then sunbathe after to warm up, or get dressed and hike to the next spot.’ Think of it as enjoying a sauna, interspersed with jumping into plunge pools. ‘The difference between getting hot and cold gives you a real kick,’ says Start. ‘However the world seemed before a wild swim, it always looks fantastic afterwards.’
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