What is Open Water Swimming?
Some organisations, such as FINA, the aquatic sport governing body, specify that open water swimming is any swimming competition that takes place in this type of environment. But since almost everyone else uses the term open water swimming to simply mean wild swimming, that’s how we’ll use it, too.
Open water swimming is the sport of swimming in natural, outdoor waterways :
The Call Of The Wild Water
Thinking of taking the plunge this year? You’ve picked your moment well. During the last two years, interest in open water swimming has increased dramatically, as people in the UK shifted their focus to outdoor activity. Fresh air and plenty of space have been the big sell.
Natural England reported a big increase in the number of people choosing to spend time in parks and other green spaces. Most of them are walking, running, cycling and just generally enjoying being outside. But increasingly, they’re going for a swim.
Outdoor Swimmer magazine estimates that the number of people taking part in outdoor swimming has jumped to between 1.5 and 3 times as many since 2019. That puts the number of regular participants at perhaps about a million around the UK, although there’s no official count.
Getting Started With Open Water Swimming
If you’ve never been open water swimming before, never fear. You can start at any age. If you’ve never been swimming much before or at all, you might benefit from having a private swimming lesson in a pool first.
Many pools offer adult lessons, either in a small group or 1-to-1. If you’ve never had a lesson before, your teacher will put you at ease. At some pools, the teacher is on the poolside, and at others, the teacher is in the water with you. A great teacher will always consider your comfort level, your goals for swimming, and your personal boundaries. Don’t be afraid to speak up about any of those things!
If you want to prepare for transitioning to open water, explain this to your pool teacher, so they can get you ready with some techniques and training.
Some skills you’ll need for outdoor swimming include:
- Safety floating
- Stamina for distance
- Good technique on front crawl and breaststroke
- Confidence in deep water
- Experience with goggles
Why Try Open Water Swimming?
If you’re still feeling unsure if this activity is for you, there is more to open water swimming than just nice scenery.
- It’s sociable. Open water swimming is best done in a club setting at a managed venue. You’ll get to meet lots of people from your area at all ranges of swimming abilities.
- It’s a stress reliever, and it’s great for mental health. Swimmers generally report that swimming helps them manage their stress, and open water swimming studies prove it. A swim in cold water helps the body produce more of the hormone prolactin, which gives you a good night’s sleep. Zzzz…
- It’s good for your fitness. You probably already guessed that, but here’s the science. Open water swimmers have been shown to consistently have excellent maximum oxygen uptake, even higher than pool swimmers and runners. This measurement is a reliable indicator of overall cardiovascular fitness.
- Longer term cold water swimming is linked to reduced inflammation. That means this sport lowers your risk of some chronic health conditions. As a bonus, the cold also helps treat pain.
Where Can You Swim In Open Water?
In the UK, access to wild waterways is legally a little bit complicated. As a rule of thumb, in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, you must have permission from the landowner to swim in a river, lake or pond. In Scotland, there is generally public access to inland and coastal waters.
If you’re definitely ready to go for an open water swim, the best course of action is to join your local open water club. They will know all the best (permitted) spots and will arrange group swims. They may even have their own managed venue. That way you’ll always be on the right side of the law, and you’ll make new friends, as well.
As with all aquatic sports, safety is of the utmost importance. Open water swimming carries some unique risks and hazards. Here are our top tips for staying safe when swimming in open water.
- Never swim alone. This is true regardless of where you’re swimming, and no matter how experienced you are. Solo swimming is a set-up for danger. You should always bring a buddy or swim somewhere staffed with a lifeguard. If you get into trouble, there’s someone there to call for help.
- Choose an appropriate location. Managed open water swimming venues will be staffed and their hazards well-known. But open water can still behave unexpectedly. Currents, tides, underwater obstacles, and changing weather can all affect your swim.
- Wear the right swimsuit. Some people open water swim in a regular swimming costume. Others wear a wetsuit over the top for extra warmth. Keep in mind that cold water transfers heat away from your body much faster than cold air.
- Familiarise yourself with the signs of hypothermia. Even in the summer, natural water in the UK is cold! If you are in the water, and you are starting to feel too tired, don’t push it. Dangerous cold can set in very quickly. It’s time to get out. If you see someone in or out of the water while open water swimming who is acting exhausted or confused, get help right away.
- After your swim, get dried off and changed into warm, dry clothes immediately. You can have a nice, hot shower later. Let your body reacclimate to its normal temperature gradually. Have a cuppa to get warm inside, and bask in your achievement. You did it!
Turning up the heat
Feeling competitive? Why not train for a race? There are loads of open water competitions around the UK for everyone from beginners to professionals. Here are some great events coming up this year with open registration:
- Great North Swim – With lots of events for all abilities, from 250m to 10km! This event takes place at Lake Windermere in June and raises money for the charity WaterAid.
- Bournemouth Pier to Pier – This 1.4 mile ocean swim for ages 14+ raises funds for the British Heart Foundation. Registration includes a 10-week training guide.
- Swim Serpentine – Take a lap—or six!—around the famous Hyde Park lake in London in a September setting. Different distances and staggered starts make this accessible for all abilities.
- Go Swim – Loch Tay, Loch Lomond, and Loch Morlich all have a series of competitive events for swimmers of all abilities in late summer. Unbeatable for scenery.
So, now you know everything you need to get started with open water swimming. Just pull on that wetsuit and get out there. There’s a whole community waiting to welcome you into the water!