Why cold water swimming has become so popular during lockdown

·8-min read

Watch: Swimmer dipping daily to help the homeless

With indoor pools and gyms closed for long periods during lockdowns, an increasing number of people are turning to cold water or wild swimming to keep fit and relax amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Switching the comforts of a warm pool for a chilly pond, lake, reservoir, cold-water lido or the sea, might not be everyone’s dream dip scenario, but recent figures from Sport England suggest more than 4.1million people are regularly donning their bathing suits to go open-water swimming.

Other research from Daffodil Hotel reveals wild swimming has seen a huge 287% increase in popularity since March 2020.

A quick scroll of the hashtags #coldwaterswimming and #wildswimming finds social media awash with images of capped-headed and wetsuit clad swimmers of all ages, waxing lyrical about the virtues of taking a dip in chilly waters.

One Essex town has experienced such an increase in popularity of the bracing pastime that a Facebook page for those wanting to swim in Leigh-on-Sea reached almost 650 members within two months.

Swimmers say that working from home has given people more time to enjoy simple things, and that taking a plunge in the sea allows them to take a step away from the stress of life in uncertain times.

Swimmers prepare for dip in the Thames estuary at Chalkwell Beach near Southend On Sea in Essex. (PA)
Swimmers prepare for dip in the Thames estuary at Chalkwell Beach near Southend On Sea in Essex. (PA)

Jenny Bier, 45, is co-founder of the Leigh-on-Sea branch of the Bluetits, an informal swimming movement started in Pembrokeshire in 2014, with more than 6,000 members worldwide. She first tried cold water swimming in September this year.

“I went in up to my thighs and I thought ‘that is absolutely awful,’ and it really, really hurt,” Bier told PA News Agency.

“I got out again. And then I gave myself a talking to and I went back in and it was just glorious.

"A boat had just come in and the man on the boat said to me: ‘You must be absolutely mental’, because it was also raining at the time.

“I was like: ‘This is the best thing ever.’

“I was so happy I’d done it.”

Bier said she can go to the seafront on her own without making plans, and there are usually between five and 15 other swimmers there.

“It’s just been a lovely way to just connect with people in a very strange time really,” she said.

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Why is cold water swimming rising in popularity?

So why are so many people, like Bier, suddenly discovering a love for swimming in freezing waters?

According to Laura Ansell, open water swimming coach and cold water specialist, wild swimming has likely seen a period of exponential growth because it remains very low cost to participate in, with local open water venues, beaches and rivers easily accessible for many to explore.

“With restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people sought out their local open water venues, as swimming pools remained closed or fully booked due to social distancing,” explains Ansell, who has a masters in sports science open water swimming and cold-water swimming.

“Open water swimming is liberating, full of adventure, challenging and comes packed with loads of health benefits for both body and mind. This is why I believe it is ever-growing and so appealing to many.”

Angela Bryant regularly swims in the Thames. (Supplied Angela Bryant)
Angela Bryant regularly swims in the Thames. (Supplied Angela Bryant)

What are the benefits of wild or cold water swimming?

Swim England says the health benefits of wild swimming are thought to include better sleep, improved circulation and increased happiness.

“Cold water or open water swimming is widely reported to have many benefits to both mind and body, from strengthening the cardio-respiratory system and immune system, helping to lose excess weight through the cooling of the body and then the rewarming process (thermogenesis),” explains Ansell.

“Cold water swimming also improves the body’s responses to stress, releasing endorphins which will help you relax, to sleep better and to feel calmer,” she adds.

There are socio benefits too, according to Ansell, including meeting others that share similar interests, trying something new, which can help us feel a sense of achievement and simply being outdoors helps us feel more relaxed.

(Supplied Laura Owen Sanderson)
Laura Owen Sanderson is an advocate of wild swimming. (Supplied Laura Owen Sanderson/We swim Wild)

Harry Aitken, sports scientist and master trainer for Auster Fitness, believes part of the reason cold water swimming (and cold water immersion) is becoming increasingly popular is because of the psychological and physiological benefits.

“Physiologically the cold immersion opens up your vascular system, causing blood constriction and dilation to occur,” he explains.

“Initially this causes the blood to rush away from your skin to keep the core warm and maintain its temperature, then afterwards vasodilation floods the skin and extremities with fresh blood to warm it up.

“This causes a warming, rush sensation that means swimmers often feel very warm shortly after, even though they’re wearing very little clothing.”

Watch: Impressively fit 85-year-old takes dip in frozen lake.

For Angela Bryant, 47, founder of angelrated.com from Oxfordshire, it’s the benefits to her mental wellbeing and the sense of euphoria that has her regularly donning her swimming costume.

Bryant has been a wild swimmer since her mid-40s, and now swims in the Thames three times a week.

“I’d been yearning for a way to exercise that I loved (rather than forcing myself to run or go to the gym),” she tells Yahoo UK.

“I was living close to the Thames in Oxfordshire and was aware that there were a few people locally who swam in it. I joined their Facebook group and lurked for a year before building up the courage to take the plunge.

“The first time I went, I was terrified. What if I was too slow, or got caught in the weeds, or the fish nibbled my toes, or the people were all weird? I needn’t have worried. I immediately loved it and haven’t looked back since.”

Bryant says swimming in cold water feels like the most intense meditation or mindfulness session.

“You can’t be anywhere but in the here and now, or think about anything except your movement through the water, whether you’re still warm enough, or if it’s time to get back to the bank (at which point your focus switches to swiftly bundling on as many layers as you can and getting a hot drink inside you).

“Then comes the massive hit of euphoria. It feels like a reset for my brain and that anything I turn my mind to is now possible. If I can get into water that’s in single digits wearing just a swimming costume, then I can do anything.”

Wild swimming has offered Bryant an escape from the stresses of the pandemic.

“The past year has been tough, but swimming has been my constant companion, giving me a much-needed break from all the craziness that’s going on, while helping my own sanity, and allowing me to process emotions and make plans for my business,” she adds.

What are the risks of cold water swimming?

While millions of people, like Bryant, swim outside safely every year, the Outdoor Swimming Society warns there are a couple of things to be aware of before slipping into your wetsuit, as immersing yourself in cold water does come with certain risks including cold shock, incapacitation, cramp and hypothermia.

The society advises people to get expert medical attention before cold water swimming if they have a heart condition, high blood pressure, asthma or are pregnant.

It also advises you should only swim sober, and avoid cold water if you have a hangover.

Laura Owen Sanderson has put together some tips about how to get started if you fancy giving wild swimming a go. (Supplied Laura Owen Sanderson)
Laura Owen Sanderson has put together some tips about how to get started if you fancy giving wild swimming a go. (Supplied Laura Owen Sanderson/We swim Wild)

How to get started

If you’re keen to give it a go, Laura Owen Sanderson, founder of We Swim Wild and Wild Soul Swim has put together some tips on how to get started.

Find a safe entry and exit point into the water

You will lose mobility in your arms and legs, so it is important you find a gently shelving area to get in and out of the water.

Never swim alone

Always take a friend in case you get into difficulty.

Research your chosen swim spot

Is it prone to flood, are there fast currents etc? Do the research before you set off.

Get used to the water

Make sure you acclimatise in the water to avoid cold water shock. As you enter the water it is important to regulate your breathing (do not gasp or panic). Slowly enter the water (do not jump in). Once you are in up to your shoulders tread water for 1-2 minutes. The cold water shock response will pass after 2 minutes. Take this time to again regulate your breathing so it is calm. When you feel confident begin to swim.

Know when to get out

How long you stay in the water will depend on many factors, but the one key piece of advice is to listen to your own body and don’t stay in longer than is necessary. When you have been swimming for a while you will begin to acclimatise and you will naturally build up endurance.

Have the right kit

Make sure you have a warm hat, gloves and drink for immediately after your swim. It is important you slowly warm your core back up. Take your wet clothes off immediately and put on warm layers. It is also important to get your wet feet off the bare ground, so stand on a bag or mat.

Choose the right conditions

Never swim after heavy rain. Wait 48 hours for the water speed and quality to clear.

You can find more tips here.

Additional reporting PA.

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