Deceptively bright sunlight presents the illusion of a summer’s morning, but a glance at the frosty ground reveals the real temperature. A thin mist hangs over the river. We walk towards it, removing layers of jumpers and coats, leaving only our swimming costumes. It may be a controversial opinion, but there’s no better feeling than outdoor swimming in winter.
Outdoor swimming in Winter – getting in the water
Stepping into the river, the cold takes my breath away. It’s shallow at first, up to my waist. I immediately lunge forward to submerse myself in the numbing water. The first two minutes are intense.
First, an immediate temperature drop. Breathy speech, unrepeatable language. Slowly, I acclimatise. The cold becomes bearable as my skin starts to burn. We swim slowly, head-up breaststroke, chatting as we go. Outdoor swimming during the Winter isn’t about getting fit. I still swim regularly in the pool, ploughing up and down for hundreds of lengths. But this is different.
Outdoor swimming is about being in touch with nature. Especially when you choose to swim in a natural environment like a river, lake or the sea. It’s also about feeling alive. Being in the moment. Because when you’re submersed in icy cold water, all the worries and stresses of the day disappear. Nothing else matters except for breathing, moving and surviving.
Why swim outdoors?
On a cold January morning just over a year ago, I met a friend for coffee. There was snow on the ground and we’d just got together for a catch up. I mentioned that I’d like to do a bit more outdoor swimming this year, preferably on a weekday when the children were in school. My friend and I had both swam outdoors before, mainly for organised events. She was a keen ‘skins’ swimmer, meaning that she didn’t wear a wetsuit. I’d always worn one, but was willing to try it without.
We agreed to start in May, which I’d advise anybody to do. The water is starting to get a little warmer by then. When you get out, the high air temperature makes it a lot easier and quicker to get dry and warm. From that first swim, we were hooked.
What we didn’t anticipate was quite how addictive it was. We knew we’d keep going until the summer holidays, and maybe a few swims in September. As it was, we were still swimming in October. That was when the river got a bit too fast and we found the current too strong. Almost by accident, I discovered another group of swimmers who swam in a different river. All of a sudden, we were back to it.
As October turned to November, one swim a week turned to two. They were increasingly short, between 10 and 20 minutes instead of the 90 minutes we were swimming for during the summer. But instead of giving up, we became compelled to swim more frequently.
The benefits of outdoor swimming
Last year, I researched and wrote about the benefits of open water swimming. At the time, I’d only swam in the warmer months and quite honestly, swimming in winter is a hundred times better.
As the water temperature has decreased, my stress levels have plunged along with it. We only stay in the water for around 15 minutes, but it is the best possible start to the day. Being in the water makes me feel alive, revived and ready to face the world.
My confidence has improved, safe in the knowledge that if I can plunge into ice-cold water and embrace it, there’s not much I can’t do. Outdoor swimming in cold conditions is thought to be a great way to reduce stress because of the extreme stress reaction of being in the water. After a few swims, your body learns to cope. This leads to a dramatic decrease in everyday stress, which I have certainly experienced.
Additionally, cold water swimming is thought to benefit the immune system. I have certainly got away with only one mild cold so far this Winter. What’s more, swimming outdoors motivates me to spend more time outside doing other things, whatever the weather. This has definitely contributed to feeling more positive during the colder months.
How do you get into outdoor swimming?
Remarkably, there are outdoor swimming clubs across the UK. A quick Google of open water swimming in your area is always a good start. Many regions have a Facebook group for likeminded swimmers, even if there isn’t a club as such.
I wouldn’t advise swimming on your own, particularly when you first start. That said, the absence of an organised club or event doesn’t have to stop you. For me, it only took a chat with one like-minded friend to embark on a new wild swimming adventure. The Wild Swim Map is a great tool to help you find somewhere to swim.
Whilst I would recommend outdoor swimming to anyone, I wouldn’t advise starting in winter. If your first swim is in early summer, you’ll have several months to acclimatise before the water starts to get really cold. Swimming through the winter is definitely a matter of personal preference. Many swimmers prefer to stick to the warmer months, and many organised swims make wetsuits compulsory when the water is below a particular temperature.
What equipment do you need for outdoor swimming?
Until recently, the only equipment I had was a swimming costume. I use a swimming hat and goggles for the pool, but outdoors I was happy in just a costume. At Christmas, my husband bought me a Dryrobe, which does make getting changed afterwards a lot easier. It’s effectively a huge, loose-fitting coat that allows you to take your arms out of the arm holes and put your swimming costume on or take it off without showing your arse to innocent bystanders.
If you prefer to swim with a wetsuit, these can be a little costly but you can pick them up second hand. Make sure you buy a swimming wetsuit rather than a surfing wetsuit, because they are very differently designed and you won’t be able to swim properly in a surfing wetsuit. You can also buy special open water goggles. I’m sure I’ve got a pair somewhere, but I think the last time I did a race in the river I just used a regular pair of goggles.
The Wiggle sportswear website often has good deals on open water swimming equipment if you do want to stock up. However, you can definitely get started with just a cheap swimming costume and a towel, that’s all you really need. In fact, outdoor swimming is probably one of the cheapest sports going, especially if you find a wild swimming spot with a free car park.
Have you ever been outdoor swimming or would you like to give it a try?