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  • Writer's pictureMelanie

Why I Wild Swim...

I have always enjoyed swimming, in the relative warmth of my local pool, or in the sea when away on a foreign holiday, but before 2018 I never actually liked to dip my toe in a river, a lake or the UK seas.

My daughter asked if we could swim in a river at a favourite beauty spot in the Yorkshire Dales, on her birthday at the end of October. We prepared as best as we could; swimsuits, towels, bobble hats and warm coats. That first dip was exhilarating! We probably managed to stay in the water for all of about two minutes, but the feeling of calm and then of joy was immense. I can harness the feeling now, just by thinking about that moment.

We were both instantly hooked and are now each other’s swimming buddies. We swim whenever we get the chance; the sea is our favourite, but as we live about 2 hours’ drive away, we often take a dip in our more local lakes and rivers.


Why is wild swimming addictive and is it good for you?


Research is starting to emerge that shows a range of health benefits. Several studies have described a positive effect of lowering blood pressure and improving cholesterol levels. Our hormones are positively influenced by cold water immersion; emerging research indicates a positive impact on thyroid stimulating hormone, insulin levels and cortisol levels. The immune system also benefits from regular cold-water immersion, with an increase in infection-fighting white blood cells and a correlating decrease in the number of infections seen in cold water swimmers.

Cold water swimming influences our stress management system, the shock of the cold prompts our sympathetic nervous system to put us into a fight or flight response, increasing heart and breathing rate. Repeated exposure increases our tolerance, enabling our parasympathetic nervous system to be activated instead, leading to a more effective stress response system, which in turn helps us to cope with life’s ups and downs more effectively. Cold water immersion has also been shown to increase levels of dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, leading to the ‘swimmers high’ that keeps us going back for more. Research has shown that cold water immersion has a positive effect on our mental health and can be useful in supporting depression and anxiety, it has also been shown to reduce inflammation and pain perception, so can be useful for sufferers of rheumatism and fibromyalgia.


What are the risks and how can you manage them?


Cold water swimming is not something to leap straight into, despite the benefits. There are associated risks which need to be considered. It is essential to acclimatise to cold water slowly, to reduce the risk of cold-water shock and hypothermia. When your core temperature falls to around 35°C, your body is at risk of beginning to shut down, this tends to happen after you have left the water, and is known as the after-drop, which can be fatal. Always come out of the water before you think you need to, and make sure you wrap up warm afterwards. Plenty of layers and a bobble hat are key, along with a warm drink, even in the middle of summer. Take an emergency foil blanket just in case. Immersion times can be extended by wearing a wet suit and I would definitely recommend investing in a good pair of neoprene gloves and swimming boots.

Start slowly with short swims. Lakes tend to be the warmest places to swim, especially towards the end of the summer when they have had the chance to warm up. I would not recommend swimming in reservoirs as they can have steep sides and have powerful under currents due to water pumps. Rivers can be fast flowing, always check the conditions before getting in, and stay near the edge. If swimming in the sea, check tide times, assess the waves and watch out for rip currents. The number one rule is always swim with someone else. Facebook has many groups dedicated to open water swimming where you can connect with other swimmers and get advice about the best and safest places to swim local to you.



For me, every swim brings a sense of peace, I love the feeling of being at one with nature and the sense of achievement I have afterwards, even if I was only in for a moment. Pure joy.



References:

Knechtle, B., Waśkiewicz, Z., Sousa, C.V., Hill, L. and Nikolaidis, P.T., 2020. Cold Water Swimming—Benefits and Risks: A Narrative Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, [online] 17(23), pp.1–20.

Tipton, M.J., Collier, N., Massey, H., Corbett, J. and Harper, M., 2017. Cold water immersion: kill or cure? Experimental Physiology, [online] 102(11), pp.1335–1355.

Van Tulleken, C., Tipton, M., Massey, H. and Harper, C.M., 2018. Case Report: Open water swimming as a treatment for major depressive disorder. BMJ Case Reports, [online] 2018.



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