While many people like to swim to improve their health and fitness, most people in the UK visit pools – especially indoor heated ones. However, open water or ‘wild’ swimming has seen an increase in popularity in recent years, with swimmers taking advantage of the many serene and scenic natural swimming spots our country has to offer.

People enjoy open water swimming for a variety of reasons – from the peace of being immersed in nature to the physical challenge of enduring a long, cold, and often turbulent swim. But, wild swimming isn’t solely something to do for fun – it can also be great for your mental and physical health.

We’re all familiar with how calming the right natural vista can be, but studies have actually shown that swimming regularly in cold, open water can ease depressive symptoms.

Additionally, studies have suggested that regular swimming in cold water can also boost your immune system – which just about anyone could stand to benefit from. Plus, cold water is great for soothing sore muscles too.

So, whether you’re an avid swimmer looking to try something new or you’re interested in doing something good for your mind and body, we’ve put together some tips to help you to dip your toes in the water and get started with open water swimming…

How to get started with open water swimming

How to get started with open water swimming

Before getting into open water swimming, you’ll need to be a competent swimmer. Even if you think you’re ready, it can still be worth practising at the pool for a while before venturing out into the wild, just to make sure that you’re as comfortable and as safe as possible.

Certain things that you might not have noticed about your technique when swimming in a pool might crop up in open water. For instance, it can be a lot easier to drift off-course than you might imagine, so it’s worth working on swimming in a straight line in a closed environment first.

If you’ve got your heart set on open water races or courses, then it’s especially important to make sure you’re able to swim the distance in a pool before doing the real thing. If that sounds like you, then you might want to check out these tips on preparing in the pool from Just Swim.

Where to swim

Once you feel ready to take to the open water, your next question might be; where should you go?

The best thing to do for your first try at open water swimming is to visit a wild swimming centre where professional staff can help you ease into things. This way, you can rest assured that you’re in safe hands and get a feel for the cold in a safe environment – rather than feeling like you’re being thrown in at the deep end.

Venues like Love Open Water at London Royal Docks are a great place to try out open water swimming for the first time. On top of the added safety of working with professionals who are happy to help with any advice you might need, companies like these also offer wetsuit rentals – which can be really helpful if you know you want to have a go, but don’t want to commit to an expensive purchase yet.

Other great venues around the UK include Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park in Scotland, Fell Foot Park in Cumbria, and Dock 9, Salford Quays in Greater Manchester.

To find an open water swimming venue near you, check out this list from Outdoor Swimmer. While you don’t need to feel obliged to only visit company-run swimming venues as you get further into the hobby, it’s always worth doing your research before visiting any body of water, as a lot of lakes and rivers in the UK are privately owned – so you might be trespassing.

If you’re eager to swim in some of the country’s more scenic spots, you’re bound to find somewhere beautiful on this list of top wild swimming destinations from Countryfile.

Health and safety

Health and safety

While starting a new hobby like wild swimming is exciting, it’s important to take the right safety precautions. Swimmers often have an amazing time out in the open water, but it’s crucial not to forget that you won’t be afforded the same safety you’ll find in a closed environment like a pool.

Watch out for potential hazards

Unlike chlorinated pools, natural bodies of water are, well – natural. It’s worth keeping in mind that you’re going to encounter a variety of flora and fauna, and unfortunately, most likely some rubbish as well.

For these reasons, it can be a good idea to invest in some earplugs in order to avoid ear infections – although many swimmers find they make the experience more comfortable anyway.

You’ll also need to stay vigilant for sudden drop-offs, hidden rubbish or debris, and thick reeds. These can be irritating to get out of if you get tangled up, but are also home to some of the more territorial species of river fish, such as pikes.

Certain algae can also be hazardous, as they can cause rashes or sickness if touched or ingested. So, it’s best to keep an eye out for these, and to consider taking probiotics a couple of weeks prior to your swim to strengthen your immune system.

While we can’t include details of every possible hazard you might encounter in the many lakes, rivers, and oceans you might find yourself in, The Outdoor Swimming Society has an excellent list of articles and resources on the ‘Survive’ section of their website, which you might want to check out before your swim.

Always swim with a partner

It’s important to only swim where others can see you in case of emergency, especially when you’re starting out.

Even if you’re not alone, it’s still worth taking steps to make sure you’re highly visible while swimming. Many open water swimmers wear brightly coloured swimming caps for this reason, and some even opt for a high-vis tow float – these glide along behind you as you swim, can be used to take quick rests while swimming, and can even have water-proof pockets for valuables like your phone and keys.

If you’re swimming without a partner (even if you’re within sight of onlookers), it’s also crucial to take regular note of your location by sighting buoys. It’s easy to drift off-course while swimming, especially in the sea, so it’s best to make a regular effort to stay where you want to be.

Dealing with the cold

Perhaps the biggest concern for any wild swimming excursion is the water temperature. Even in the summer months, natural bodies of water in the UK are generally pretty cold. That doesn’t mean that it’s not safe to swim – a lot of wild swimmers enjoy the chill, especially given that swimming in cold water can be good for your immune system.

However, in order to enjoy these benefits, it’s important to acclimatise, rather than jumping straight in. Cold water shock is a common reaction when the body is suddenly submerged in chilly water, which can have dangerous consequences if you’re caught out in open water.

When getting into the water, the rule of thumb is to do everything gradually. Start with your hands, and try splashing some of the water onto your face to acclimatise your more sensitive areas to the cold before fully submerging. Slowly acclimatising to the temperature is necessary every time you swim in open water, but it’s especially important to take it slow when open water swimming for the first time.

In terms of keeping warm throughout your swim, the best thing you can do is to find the right wetsuit. While you can get away with a surfing wetsuit or sufficiently warm swimming costume for very casual wild swimming, it’s best to invest in a proper swimmer’s wetsuit if you plan to swim in open water regularly (especially if you want to do it in the colder months of the year).

Wetsuits keep you warm and also increase your buoyancy by trapping a thin layer of water between your body and the suit. In order to get the best results, you’ll need your swimsuit to fit as tightly as possible (without being restrictive). This will help to avoid cold water seeping in, pooling in open spaces, and cooling you down.

For a run-through of what you need to know when fitting and wearing your wetsuit (and other great tips for the wild swimming experience), check out the video below.

Getting stuck into wild swimming

Getting stuck into wild swimming

Not only can wild swimming be great for your health, and just a lot of fun – but it’s also a great way to make friends and get involved with a community.

Open water swimming is best enjoyed with others – and not only for safety reasons. If you’re thinking about getting your feet wet with wild swimming, why not consider joining a club?

Members of open water swimming clubs range from casual enthusiasts to dedicated sports swimmers. So whether you want to get into speed course swimming, or just to have a regular catch-up with fellow swimmers, joining a club could be the perfect way to get stuck in, and maybe even make some lifelong friends.

If you’re looking for a club near you, check out this list from Swim England.

Final thoughts…

While swimming in cold water might not be everyone’s first idea of fun, for many people around the world, wild swimming is a hugely enjoyable part of life.

Whether you’re looking to add an intense endurance challenge to your regular workout, or you just enjoy being out in nature, there’s a lot to love about open water swimming.

Have you tried open water swimming before? Or, are you thinking about getting into the hobby, for fun, for the health benefits, or both? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.