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The Growing Trend for Fresh Water Swimming - and in All Weathers



Outdoor swimming whether in the sea, in lakes or in rivers is growing in popularity.  Of course, the water is often cold and now research is saying that such cold water swimming could help protect the brain from degenerative diseases.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK have found a "cold shock" protein in the blood of regular winter swimmers that may slow the onset of dementia.

What is fresh or open water swimming? 

It is a truly different experience to the pool - and one all swimmers should try at least once!

Without the confines of lane ropes or walls, swimmers could find it to be liberating, adventurous and unique.

Open water also appeals to the adrenalin-seekers. Competitive races are often frenetic and fierce, with swimmers hustling and bustling for position. 

Technically speaking, open water swimming takes place anywhere that isn’t a swimming pool, meaning no man-made sides and bottom and no lane ropes or black lines to follow.

Open water venues include:

  • Lakes
  • Rivers
  • Lochs
  • Seas
  • Reservoirs

There is freedom and no chemicals!  However, you do have to consider there are plants, fish and other things living in the water which add to the interest.

You might also see open water swimming referred to as wild swimming or outdoor swimming.

The history of open water swimming

Competitive swimming at the Olympics traces its roots to competitions in the sea, lakes and rivers rather than pools, although modern open water swimming races tend to be held over longer distances than are swum in the pool.

The sport has increased in popularity since men’s and women’s 10km Marathon races were included in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. 

Word of warning

Cold water swimming can be dangerous so always swim with a group that is a accustomed to such conditions.

Can cold water swimming become addictive?

Swimming is one of the most complete sports you can do that benefits the body. It works the muscles in the upper and lower body and has a beneficial effect on heart health. It’s also one of the most relaxing workouts, so swimming isn’t only good for physical health, but for mental health, too. 

Wild swimming is addictive because it gives body and mind an extraordinary boost. During the first few minutes, wild swimmers experience a “high” because their bodies release cortisol after the initial shock of entering cold water. Cortisol is responsible for the so-called runner’s high, which also applies to wild swimmers.

As you become used to swimming, your body goes through an adaptation stage where the heart rate and breathing become more controlled helping to improve resistance to physical and emotional stress and even treating depression by providing a meditative experience that is very different from swimming back and forth in the same lane in an indoor pool.

The physical benefits don’t end there. Open water swimming can help decrease inflammation and kickstart the metabolism because the body starts burning calories to keep itself warm.  One study found that open water swimmers who swam during the winter had a higher antioxidant levels, so wild swimming can also strengthen the immune system. 

Top tips before you dip

  1. Obviously be wary if you have a heart condition, asthma or are pregnant.  Cold water swimming would not be advisable.
  2. Choose a place that you know to be free of pollution. Unfortunately, some water sources are used to discharge industrial or farming waste, so check before you go.
  3. Understand the risks of hypothermia. You may not be able to swim for as long as you normally would if doing it in an indoor or heated swimming pool. The general advice is to be in the water for the same amount of minutes as the water temperature in Celsius. For example, if water temperature is 18C you shouldn’t swim for more than 18 minutes.
  4. Make some preparation in the days and weeks before you start by switching your daily shower to the cold setting to acclimatise your body to the chill.
  5. Before making the plunge, warm up by doing some star jumps.  This will bring your heart rate up and get your blood pumping.
  6. Don't be tempted to dive.  Always go in feet first to avoid a big shock which can be dangerous.  Enter cold water very slowly and always keep your head above water level.
  7. Dress the part.  It is wise to wear neoprene gloves and bootees to protect your hands and feet which are the most vulnerable parts of the body.  A wet suit may also be advisable.  One or two swimming caps will help preserve body heat too.
  8. Once you leave the water, be sure you have warm wraps to cover yourself as quickly as possible.  You will be at your coldest for those next ten minutes.

 My own experience

On several occasions, I have taken the plunge to go swimming in the sea or a pool when the water has been very cold and when no one else in the family would - but never on a regular basis.

However, my uncle who lived well into his 90s would swim regularly in the River Cam (close to that very University of Cambridge where the research has been undertaken) all year round.  He always spent lots of time outdoors whatever the weather and seemed to sport a year-round tan.