We admit, the thought of plunging into ice-cold water doesn’t initially sound like the most pleasurable activity.
But trust us when we say, once you’ve felt the benefits of cold-water swimming, this daredevil hobby can become addictive.
There are now over 50 wild swimming groups in the UK, who typically gather together to brave an icy morning dip whatever the weather, before joining family, friends, children and dogs for a warming brunch huddled by the fire pit, or a log cabin sauna session overlooking open waters. Sounds pretty ideal, doesn’t it? (you can see a full list of the Outdoor Swimming Society UK wild swimming groups here)
“The group offers mutual support that goes well beyond swimming,” Kristy Field, co-founder of Wiltshire Wild Swim, explained. “The other side to swimming is that we’re a communal support group. Lots of us joined at difficult times, struggling with different areas of our lives. We’re like family – a swim family.”
A cold-water convert: ‘I’ve become obsessed with wild swimming’
Our executive editor, Miranda McMinn is also now a cold-water convert after braving the winter waters at Hampstead Ladies Ponds.
“I used to hate winter,” says Miranda. “With the exception of opaque tights and Christmas – both of which are great – it seemed to be a rather negative experience. The worst thing, for me, was being forced to stop wild swimming in the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond because the water had got too chilly. Of course, there were those who got in year-round – but they were madwomen. Weren’t they?”
For Miranda, her perception changed after a lifeguard revealed the key dos and don’ts of cold-water swimming, so she was more prepared for the icy temperatures.
“She recommended neoprene socks and gloves, never staying in too long, super-warm clothes to get changed into, avoiding the temptation to stand around chatting afterwards and, most usefully, having a cold blast in the shower every day at home to keep in the zone.
“And so, as I approached my 50th, I decided it was time to join them. Like increasing numbers in lidos, lakes and seaside locations around the country, I’ve become obsessed.”
The healing power of cold water
We’re fully acquainted with the healing powers of nature and just how beneficial it can be to escape the business of city life (just look at the rise of Forest Bathing as another example). But cold water itself has near-enough magic properties when it comes to our health – particularly our mental health.
As well as aiding mental clarity, the shock to the system has been reported to help swimmers forgetting their troubles, at least while they’re in the water, prompting an emotional release and aiding mindfulness.
“Apart from the reputed health benefits of cold-water swimming, which include an improved immune system, better circulation and increased libido, the emotional benefits are hard to overstate.
“The (enjoyable) pain of plunging into freezing cold water is rewarded with a tsunami of endorphins, and afterwards you feel happy as a clam. And once you’ve swum in a 4°C pond, you feel like you can take on anything the day throws at you,” said Kirsty.
Other important health benefits of wild swimming
An immune system boost
The shock our body feels when plunged into cold water is actually really beneficial to our immune system. Research has shown that when people regularly swim in cold water, their white blood cell count increases as the immune system is invigorated.
A sense of community
For Kirsty, wild swimming has been a social lifeline.
“I am constantly buoyed up by the sense of camaraderie. It’s like a club for women who put vanity aside for this portion of the day for the sheer joy of the experience. (You do not look great at the time – the benefits coming afterwards, when you’ve warmed up again and look radiant.) I feel inspired by the 70 and 80-somethings who come regularly – it gives me a sense of hope for active enjoyment of old age.
“Plus there’s nothing like seeing a lot of other midlife women in the buff to make you feel totally normal (unlike at the gym, there’s seldom a G-string in sight, just a lot of sensible pants and necessary fleeces).”
Swimming in cold water will make your body work twice as hard, as your body is also working to keep you warm. Therefore a 30 minute swim in chilly water will aid weight loss much more significantly than if you were swimming in a heated pool.
Thanks again to the shock of the cold water, your blood starts pumping the minute you get in the water. This increase in blood being pumped around your body will in turn boost your circulation in the long run.
Reconnecting to nature
“A large part of the effect is the beauty of being outside in nature – especially for us who live in a city. I’ve swam alongside a brilliant blue kingfisher darting from branch to branch. The resident heron has swooped to land above my head. There are flocks of electric green parakeets, and the unfolding annual soap opera of whether the mallard ducklings and moorhen chicks will get eaten by the carp,” Miranda said.
“And that’s all on top of the startling beauty of the changing seasons.”
Ready to try wild swimming? Some safety considerations
- Of course, you have to be sensible. Cold-water swimming can be dangerous and can cause cold shock (particularly if you’re not acclimatised) and hypothermia.
- The Outdoor Swimming Society advises getting expert medical advice before winter swimming if you have a heart condition, high blood pressure, asthma or are pregnant.
- Common sense dictates you shouldn’t just jump headfirst into a freezing pond in the middle of January without any preparation. Talk to a friendly lifeguard at your local lido or on a beach near you.
However, most community groups operate by the legal framework set out in the OSS Swim Responsibility Statement. This essentially means that swimmers are individually responsible for their own safety when swimming with groups and cannot rely on information or advice given by members.
“With an informal group, an individual’s safety is nobody’s responsibility but their own. There are probably no lifeguards in the group and the other swimmers are fairly occupied looking after themselves, so it’s vital that individuals understand that they are solely responsible for their own well-being and safety,” Kirsty told us.
Wild swimming near me
If you want to try wild swimming yourself, the Outdoor Swimming society has tons of information on how you can get started and where to find wild swimming spots near you.
Women’s wetsuits: our edit
If you’re going to take a plunge, you’ll need the right kit. As the days get cooler, wild swimming isn’t totally off the cards with a trusty wetsuit to keep you warm.