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The Thing About Wild Swimming

Updated: Apr 21

It's March and the days are getting noticeably longer, but it still seems pretty cold and grim outside. Throughout the winter I've been making an effort to find ways to get outside and connect with nature to give myself a wellbeing boost.

Connecting with nature really has a lot of health and wellbeing benefits. From getting enough sunlight (which I mention here in connection with the winter blues) to helping you achieve your exercise goals and reducing your mental health risk (see practicing yoga outside), being outdoors at any time of year can give you that boost you might be in need of.

So it's no surprise that wild swimming has crept up the list of activities that even us city dwellers seek out in order to develop our connection with ourselves and with nature.

It compounds benefits in many areas.

To reach a secluded (or even just a practical) spot for a wild swim in a river you usually need to don walking boots and make your way down winding footpaths away from civilisation, which means being outside and getting a decent amount of exercise under your belt no matter how short your swim.

Swimming spots are usually beautiful; whether that's the craggy beauty of gorges and waterfalls or the majestic sweep of a mature river as it moves closer to the sea.

Wild swimming pretty much inevitably involves cold exposure (although this can be minimised in the summer or with the use of a wetsuit), which is now de rigueur in the health and wellbeing community, but has been used by athletes and others for decades if not centuries.

woman in wooly hat swimming in a river surrounded by a waterfall and bare wintery trees
A very chilly dip in 'waterfall country' at Ystradfellte in February 2023

Enthusiasm for cold dips in the sea and rivers is not a new thing. In fact, if we step back in time for a moment, we can see that our British and European ancestors were probably a bunch of wild swimming maniacs. If TV depictions are your thing, think Kevin Coster's Robin of Loxley enjoying a shower under a waterfall in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, or princess Aethelflead bathing in river in The Last Kingdom. Our ancestors living in Europe, at least, swam and bathed in the wild out of necessity on a regular basis and were able to reap the benefits that we only just seem to be rediscovering today.

Cold exposure increases fat burning as your body ratchets up the metabolism in order to keep warm in adverse conditions, and is even understood to increase levels of brown fat cells that keep fat burning higher when you're not in the cold. It also has benefits for your immune system, nervous system (that we spend so much time in yoga looking to regulate) and can potentially help to manage blood sugar levels. Cold showers and ice baths are all convenient and effective ways to train cold exposure, but wild swimming has got to be the most interesting.

For me, wild swimming has a practice element not unlike yoga.

Some time ago, you would have never in a million years caught me thinking it was a good idea to wear a bikini and jump into a Welsh river in mid-February. At the root of it, I just wouldn't have thought that I could.

I do struggle with the cold, but just as with the quiet practice of yoga postures and meditation, I have come to some understanding that the thing getting in my way is mainly my own mind.

And as with yoga postures and meditation, I've learned that if I can cease to identify with my own fears and worries even for just a short while, I can do some amazing things.

Of course, just like a meditation practice, it doesn't always go to plan. Sometimes it's just too damn cold, or I feel like I can't control my breath well enough to get in or stay in the water. Part of the practice is learning that, maybe, this is fine too, and just being outside was worth the trip in any case.

If you're thinking about practicing wild swimming I'd encourage you to jump in (maybe not literally though..) and give it a go! Of course, there are some practical considerations:

  • If you have any health conditions, consult your doctor first.

  • Although cold exposure has health benefits, cold water shock is a real thing and can be very dangerous. Don't jump into deep or cold water, make your way in gently, gradually, and be kind to yourself- it is really challenging!

  • Make sure you take plenty of layers, towels, hot drinks and even a hot water bottle with you so that you can warm up quickly when you get out and minimise the risk of hypothermia.

  • Choose your spot with care: you don't want anywhere that's clearly dangerous to reach, swim in, or potentially polluted. Check out the wild swimming website to find somewhere suitable.

  • Go with at least one other person so you can make sure that everyone is safe in the water.

  • Wetsuit booties or water shoes are advisable to protect your feet whilst walking in and out of the water.

  • If you struggle to get fully immersed on your first attempt, that's OK. I often take a couple of goes and the second one is usually less shocking.

  • If you struggle to control your body's natural breath reaction to the cold, use yoga techniques including breathing into the belly and consciously lengthening the exhale to assist you. Practicing these regularly before wild swims will help.

Coming out of the water after a wild swim usually feels amazing, as the blood rushes through all the capillaries near the skin and your brain releases lots of endorphins. You feel more present and connected with yourself and your surroundings- that's definitely some kind of yoga!

The thing about wild swimming is that it's an immersive, whole-body sensory experience that builds on the foundations of yoga practice. It's a fun and exhilarating challenge to get you outside, connecting with nature- even during the depths of the year.

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