What is wild swimming and why is it good for you?

Image Courtesy – Erik Dungan

If you live near the coast, a lake or river, you may have noticed some unlikely visitors recently. And we’re not talking about wildlife – we’re talking about wild swimmers. Often donning bright swimwear, bobble hats and accompanied by yelps and cheers, wild swimming is growing in popularity across the UK.

What is wild swimming?

Wild swimming is a hobby that is accessible to all, free of charge and is said to deliver health and wellbeing benefits that rival those of popular sports and fitness classes. Notable fans include Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale and more recently food campaigner Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall, who documents his first experience on the River Cottage blog:

Within a minute or two of coming out, I began to feel an extraordinary tingle on the surface of my skin. And a few minutes after that, emanating from inside my body,  came the strange sensation of an inner glow. Alongside these curious physical sensations was an unmistakable buzz, a mild but distinctive euphoria.”- Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall

This reported “buzz” is a widely reported sensation that keeps people heading back to their cold water spots time and time again, even with temperatures in single digits.

What are the health benefits of wild swimming?

According to wildswimming.co.uk, the health and psychological benefits of dipping in natural water include an endorphin rush that delivers a natural high and feelings of wellbeing, and if done repeatedly, can lead to cold water adaptation where the body better copes with the chill whilst boosting mood and the immune system.

A study by the British Medical Journal found that a week of cold water swimming was able to relieve symptoms of depression and improve mood, and another study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that cold water immersion increased dopamine (the feel good hormone) and reduced cortisol levels (the stress hormone).

After hearing about this fascinating hobby and the health and wellbeing benefits it can bring, we decided to chat with keen wild swimmer and editor of PEBBLE magazine Georgina Wilson-Powell to find out more.

How did you get into wild swimming?

I live in Margate overlooking the sea and I’d wanted to try swimming in the sea for ages. In Lockdown 1, 2 friends and I who were all new to sea swimming decided to start our own swimming group. Since then we’ve swum every week of the year for nearly 2 years and we now have 10 members!

Why do you think wild swimming has grown so popular?

It’s a hugely individual and personal thing to do, it’s challenging but gets us outside. It’s time for yourself, time in nature and great for finding yourself in the moment and away from anxiety and stress. It’s also free and low cost to get started, which I think is really important.

Where is your favourite place to go?

I love to swim at Walpole Bay tidal pool in Margate as the sun is setting.

What benefits have you experienced from wild swimming?

I have endometriosis and endless operations had given me chronic pain. Before I swam in cold water regularly, I would have days when I could hardly move. Swimming in the cold has helped reset my nervous systems and pain pathways. It also helps me walk away from the laptop and get perspective and find gratitude in just being outside and in nature.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to try wild swimming for the first time? Is there anything you should bring with you?

Tea! Don’t compare yourself to others especially if you’re starting in cold weather. Only you know what feels right, how cold you are and how quickly your body can recover. I would also recommend as much as possible going with someone else for safety until you’re really confident or you know the stretch of water.

How should you wild swim safely?

It’s not swimming in the colder months, it’s dipping and you should only stay in a few minutes (never more than the temperature if you’re not used to it). Screaming, swearing and singing all help getting in the cold water and all are restorative I think! Don’t jump in cold water if you’re not used to it – you could end up in shock.

Any good resources for people who want to find out more?

There are some fab wild swimming groups on Facebook and this guide book is really useful for planning where to go when you go away:

A note on safety…

If you’re interested in trying wild swimming for yourself, please do it safely. We recommend reading these helpful articles before you start to make sure you are not endangering yourself or the environment:

https://www.wildswimming.co.uk/access-and-law/

https://www.wildswimming.co.uk/health-safety/

https://www.wildswimming.co.uk/sea-safety/

Further Reading

https://www.wildswimming.co.uk/guidance/

http://www.wildthingspublishing.com/product/wild-swimming/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkF3ZQp1DiA

https://www.rivercottage.net/news/hugh-wild-swimming-cold-water-treatment

https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/cold-water-swimming-why-an-icy-dip-is-good-for-your-mental-and-physical-health/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6112379/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10751106/