Open water swimming: why wild swimming has surged in popularity during lockdown - the surprising health benefits of a cold dip

There are plenty of places in the UK where open water swimming can be done, including lakes, rivers, the sea and ponds

Open water swimming has seen a surge in interest during the Covid lockdowns, with many people across the UK partaking in an exhilarating outdoor swim on a daily or weekly basis while pools have been closed.

Some venture out into lakes, seas and ponds alone, or others do it as part of a club or local community, listing various reasons why they enjoy plunging into open water come rain or shine - or even snow.

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A trends report published by Outdoor Swimmer in January of this year revealed that 45 per cent of swimmers increased how much they swam outside in 2020, estimating that participation in outdoor swimming in the UK has increased by between 1.5 and 3 times since 2019.

Open water swimming has seen a surge in interest during the Covid lockdowns (Photo: Shutterstock)

Outdoor Swimmer also found a recent increase in younger people swimming, something which it attributes to social media and the rise of Instagram, and also found that female participation in outdoor swimming increased from 50 to 65 per cent between 2017 and 2020.

Mountain Warehouse has also seen a surge in interest for outdoor water activities, with searches for wetsuits on its website recently increasing by over 495 per cent, and sales of wetsuits from January to March 2021 growing by 229 per cent.

What are the physical and mental health benefits of open water or cold water swimming?

There are five main health benefits to open water swimming, according to Celine Ivari, Founder & CEO of WholyMe.

Samm Collins and husband swimming in Ventnor Bay, Isle of Wight (Photo: Samm Collins)

These are:

- A reduction to muscle swelling and inflammation

- A boost to the immune system

- A better night’s sleep

The Lido Ladies - Nicola Foster and Jessica Walker - regularly swim at Charlton Lido in London (Photo: Lido Ladies)

- Reduced stress

- Boost in happiness

The physical and mental health benefits of open water swimming is also reiterated by James Whitehead, Operations Manager at the North Yorkshire Water Park, which offers open water swimming at its lake.

Mr Whitehead says, “Open water swimming is a fantastic way to get away from the stress of everyday life, reconnect with nature and exercise without being confined to a pool.

“The cold water increases your metabolism, boosts your immune system, and even improves your circulation.

“Swimming is known to improve your mental health by producing dopamine and endorphins, but even better than that, the cold water accelerates the release of endorphins even further, making you feel great both during and after.”

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‘There is no activity I have found that makes me feel so good’

Samm Collins, 62, who first got into open water swimming in 2015 when her husband, 69, took part in the Solent Swim - which is an Isle of Wight charity swim in aid of West Wight Sports and Community Centre - “fell in love instantly” with the exercise and advocates for the beneficial effects it has on health.

Ms Collins, who mostly swims at her local bay in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight with her husband, but who also swims socially with friends, says her anxiety issues “melt away in the water.”

“There is no activity I have found that makes me feel so good and social swimming is even better,” adds Ms Collins.

Alexander Brown, 29, who mainly swims in the Hampstead Heath ponds in London, says that “having a swim first thing just sets you up for the day”.

“A cold dip boosts your mood, and it's hard to feel too down or worried when you're swimming to the sound of the birds or the trees shaking in the wind.”

In 2018 the British Medical Journal also cited Open Water Swimming as a possible treatment for depression and anxiety, following a case study undertaken in the UK. The report looked at the case of a 24-year-old woman with symptoms of major depressive disorder and anxiety.

A programme of weekly open (cold) water swimming was trialled, which “led to an immediate improvement in mood following each swim and a sustained and gradual reduction in symptoms of depression, and consequently a reduction in, and then cessation of, medication.” A follow-up a year later showed that she remained medication-free.

Teresa Hubery, 42, is an open water swimmer and volunteer Triathlon coach at Team Manvers, located at Manvers Waterfront Boat Club in South Yorkshire, who says: “The wellbeing for me is the ‘shut-off’ feeling.

“I literally could be anywhere in the world and all I need to concentrate on is my breathing, which internalises my thoughts and gives me so much joy to not have any other worries.”

Where can I swim and how can I keep safe?

Outdoor Swimmer says there are plenty of places in the UK where open water swimming can be done, including lakes, rivers, the sea and ponds.

However, you should check that the water is not private land or unsafe before you begin.

If swimming in a river, bear in mind that boats may also be using them and if swimming at the beach, try to go to one that has lifeguards and check the tides and weather before you begin.

Outdoor Swimmer also suggests seeking out a local group or guide if starting out, or perhaps swimming in a lidos, which “offer the chance to swim outdoors in a safer way”.

Swimming in a Lido is an outdoor swimming option that the Lido Ladies, Nicola Foster and Jessica Walker, from Charlton Lido in London, also strongly advocate.

“There is something very special about the freedom of swimming outdoors and enjoying whatever the skies bring, whatever the season; from a sunny autumn morning with twinkly water to swimming in the rain,” say the Lido Ladies.

If swimming in cooler water, Patrick Smith, 47, who mainly swims in a lake located outside of Lincoln, advises taking your time to acclimatise to the temperature of the water and to relax your body to get accustomed to it.

Mr Smith also suggests swimming with someone, either in the water with you or for “on land support.”

This is something which Ms Collins reiterates, as she says that you should “never swim on your own where no one can see you,” and suggests wearing a bright coloured swim hat that isn’t white or black in order to be able to be spotted in rough seas.

You can also buy swimming buoys, which usually come with adjustable waist belts and waterproof phone cases, and are great for holding onto if you’re new to open water swimming. They’re also usually brightly coloured, which is great for being easily spotted when out in the water.

If you opt to swim without a formal club, you should also let someone know where you’re going when you head out for a swim, and don’t swim somewhere new without checking first that it is safe to swim there.

There are several social media groups for wild swimming who can advise on locations and safety, Ms Collins suggests.

Although some may opt to open water swim alone or with a small group of friends, open water swimming clubs are an alternative which can provide peace of mind for those just starting out.

Ms Hubery, 42, says that “personally for me a club is the safest way to swim.”

The swimmer says that “the comfort of a safety crew, water testing and a good squad of people really does settle nerves,” when it comes to open water swimming.