From The Iceman Wim Hof, to Swimrise with The Happy Pear, our feeds have been flooded with people taking a dive into wild swimming.
While many rave about the benefits, we’re here to highlight potential issues and how to avoid them. Are our waters clean enough, for example. Is wild swimming safe?
What is wild swimming?
Wild swimming simply involves swimming outdoors in a natural body of water. You may argue, that this is just called swimming, and you wouldn’t be incorrect. It is customary for Norwegians to be seen bathing along the Bjorvika waterfront, or for the French to cool off in a nearby river, for example. But in the UK, the term has become a buzzword for a new form of self-care.
What are the health benefits of wild swimming?
The ultimate aim is to leave the wetsuit at home and brave it in a swimsuit for the full cold water immersion experience. The natural endorphin high this will bring you is known to relieve depression and boost your mood and your immune system, demonstrated in NASA experiments in the 80s.
You will experience both elation and relaxation, while your muscles are soothed, and calories are burned. As well as this, the cold water helps your body pump out toxins and improves white blood cell activation. Increased blood flow will also improve your brain function.
Whether you splash about treading water or swim lengths, you are likely to build muscle tone and increase your stamina. This low-impact form of exercise helps you to de-stress by calming the central nervous system – this truly is a form of mindfulness. An opportunity for a digital detox, you experience the joy of exploring the countryside while meditating on the physical sensations.
The shot of endorphins you get from swimming is also addictive. And the gratitude you develop for your community and environment is great for the soul. Did I say I was a wild swimmer?! Perhaps you’ve guessed already!
Nevertheless, it is important to follow the correct safety measures.
What issues do you need to be aware of?
If you are swimming in a river, it is important to ensure you can swim through the current when returning upstream. The same goes when swimming in the sea. If you get carried out by the tide, things can escalate quickly when you begin to tire, and your life could be at risk.
Poor water quality
Severe rainfall mixes pollutants from farming, septic tanks, roads and urban areas and they gush into the sea. As well as that, untreated sewage and wastewater are regularly discharged from thousands of sewer overflows around the country, and the government does nothing to stop it. Taking a dip after heavy rainfall or when a water company has recently discharged their sewage can result in terrible water poisoning.
Hazards to your health
Some spots may require you to jump in to enter the water, or maybe you just fancy it for the thrill. Either way, always check the depth when jumping in.
Look out for weeds and reeds. If you encounter a thick patch, it is important not to kick and thrash because you risk becoming entangled. Instead, calmly use your arms to swim over them. Take note to avoid that spot and warn others nearby.
During colder months, you need to be aware of cold-water shock. Swimming in the winter will involve gradually becoming acclimatised to the cold – it won’t happen straight away. Letting yourself get too cold will result in illness and you won’t be able to enjoy all the benefits above.
How to stay safe
To stay safe and healthy, ensure you are warm prior to entering the water. Wrap up in layers and plan a walk to your chosen swimming location. Slowly ease yourself in to gently adjust to the temperature otherwise, it can be shocking and take your breath away.
It’s a good idea to start off with cold showers and build up to full immersion. It takes time to develop your tolerance and mind strength.
Check the water flow of a river by throwing a stick in first to see how fast it floats off. If you can’t swim faster than that stick, find a different spot.
When swimming in the sea, don’t stray too far from the shore and remain between the coastguard's flags when available. Always swim with others, and never swim under the influence.
Easy things to avoid
To avoid encountering nasty bacteria, never swim in:
- Rivers near an urban area
- Stagnant lakes
- Flood water
- Blue-green algae-covered water
Surfers Against Sewage has created an incredible app that you can use to check your location before you go for a swim. The Safer Seas & Rivers Service app provides you with the latest pollution forecast for 200 locations across the UK using information from the Environment Agency, NRW and SEPA. It will also tell you about wind direction, tide times and lifeguard services for safer swimming.
More data on rivers and streams is being added all the time. There is a section to submit a health report, if time in the sea has made you unwell, to provide evidence for the impact of sewage on health. And an in-app tool allows you to easily alert your MP to pollution in your area.
If you are a beginner, don’t stay in for too long on your first go. Allow time to gradually acclimatise to the water. Remember, on windy days you lose body heat quicker. And if you want to swim out, wear a coloured hat so you are visible to the boats.
Once you’ve followed these steps to best practice wild swimming, have fun and enjoy spending time with your friends and family and taking in the beautiful surroundings. In an instant, you will feel the benefits, as well as notice the long-term improvements to your health over time.
Have we inspired you?
Check out Wild Swimming for an interactive wild swim community map, as well as events and the latest swim spots.
Check out the Surfers Against Sewage site. They have many live campaigns and petitions to support the fight to improve UK water quality.