Get into open water swimming

Regular wild swimmers will tell you it boosts their fitness, mood, circulation, immune system and even libido. So take a dive with us into the bracing world of open water swimming.
Open water swimming

Photo: Dan Bolt/underwaterpics.co.uk

Catherine’s from the Frosties, a year-round swimming group in Skerries, on the north Dublin coast. She swims with her group at least twice a week without fail, all year round, even in the sleet and snow.

Catherine McMahon, Frosties swimmer

Photo: RNLI/Anna Burn

So why do wild swimmers do it?

Catherine originally got into open water swimming after an injury. ‘It’s great for the circulation. Cold water numbs everything and it’s invigorating,’ she enthuses.

It’s also a great way to stay fit throughout the year. Swimming just 30 minutes a week can also help to guard against heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Swimming parallel to the shore

Photo: Dan Bolt/underwaterpics.co.uk

It’s the mental benefits, not just the physical, that appeal to many open water swimmers.

‘It’s great stress busting. It has real benefits for people who are depressed. It’s my outlet – it keeps me mentally in shape,’ says Catherine.

Like all exercise, swimming releases endorphins in your brain, helping you to feel content and relaxed. Catherine says many in her group have high-pressure jobs. ‘Just half an hour swimming a few times a week has a calming effect,’ she says.

Can open water swimming stop you catching the common cold?

Many open water swimmers believe it boosts their immune system. So we asked our friends at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth whether there was any truth to the common claim that icy cold swims fend off the common cold.

Professor Mike Tipton MBE and colleagues published a paper on this topic. Key conclusions highlight that the jury’s out: ‘There is some evidence that the short stress of CWI [cold water immersion] may prime the immune system to deal with a threat, and thus be beneficial … The definitive studies in this complex area await completion.’

Around the Mount Race for the RNLI

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Increasing popularity of wild swimming

There are dozens of clubs like the Frosties around our coasts and inland on lakes and rivers. There has been a surge in the popularity of open water swimming in recent years, helped by the rise of triathlons and marathon swimming. But for many groups, it’s not just about speed or long distances. 

As many as 80 people go out swimming each time with the Frosties, covering around a mile each time in about half an hour.

The Frosties welcome newcomers and triathletes to the group. Catherine says: ‘If we see someone new we advise them about local currents, rocks, jellyfish (in summer) and places to get out when they get tired.

‘Whatever your speed, I recommend you join a club - there’s a very big social element to it. It’ll give you a real boost.’

Give it a go

We asked swimming coach Ashley Jones to tell us how to become confident open water swimmers. Ashley says: ‘If you want to try open water swimming, it’s wise to practise some specific skills first at your local swimming pool.’

Ashley Jones from Swim England

Photo: Swim England

Ashley’s a fully qualified swimming teacher, open water coach and beach lifeguard. Ashley manages the Swim England and RNLI Swim Safe programme, giving free outdoor swimming and water safety sessions to children aged 7–14 across the UK.

He’s passionate about getting people – young and older – in the water all year round. ‘Anyone can swim – with the right tuition and effort,’ enthuses Ashley. 

‘You can get adult lessons at your local pool for around a fiver. And once you’ve learned to swim confidently in a pool, it can be an entirely free pastime with all the open water around us.’ 

Open water swimming is very different to swimming in a pool. Even one of the safety-conscious Frosties group needed help from volunteers at Skerries RNLI recently.

To find out where you can get lessons or join an open water swimming club, go to the Swim England website

Ashley’s step-by-step guide to becoming an open water swimmer

Swimming in a pool

Photo: Shutterstock

  1. Hit the pool. First build confidence at your local swimming pool. Consider getting lessons and try the challenges below.

  2. Can you float? It might sound simple, but most people can’t do that picture-perfect version of floating. So we’re challenging you to go and find how you float effectively. Practise floating in a swimming pool as it’s a controlled environment. Then you’ll know what to do in an emergency in the open water.

  3. Tread water. There’s no wall or rail to hold or kick off from in open water. Get used to treading water in the deep end of the pool.

  4. Try sighting. In the open water there are no lane lines, so practise swimming in a straight line. Lift your head to spot a landmark in the distance to keep you on track.

  5. Improve your technique. Lessons will really help with this. Put your head in the water to improve your body position. For front crawl, remember your leg kick – floppy ankles and long leg kicks from the hip. Practise more than one stroke so you can ease off when you need to. If you’re entering cold water, splash your face, wrists, ankles and back of your neck, to acclimatise to the cold.

  6. Find a club. Before you try open water swimming, find an organised group. You’ll need to learn about all the conditions that can change – tides, rip currents, winds and more. Plus they’ll tell you about any local hazards.

Exploring while swimming

Photo: Dan Bolt/underwaterpics.co.uk

How to enjoy the open water safely 

When you’re ready to try the open water, follow these tips from Nick Fecher, an RNLI community safety manager: ‘It’s important to remember that things can go wrong in the water at any time of year. Average Irish and UK sea temperatures are just 12°C and rivers are colder - even in the summer. If you’re going in during the colder months or for extended periods, wear a wetsuit of appropriate thickness.

‘For year-round swimmers, consider buying a surface float such as a diver’s Surface Marker Buoy (SMB), which can be used as a rescue float. Also attach a waterproof VHF radio or place a phone in a waterproof pouch onto the float to call for help.’

RNLI top safety tips:

  • Never swim alone. The safest way to wild swim is with a club or between the red and yellow flags on a lifeguarded beach.
  • Check weather and tide times before you go.
  • If someone’s in trouble, call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard.
  • Consider wearing a brightly coloured hat plus a tow float for visibility.
  • Always swim parallel to the shore and not straight out. Cold water, waves and currents can tire you out quickly and make it harder to return to shore. 
  • Never swim under the influence of alcohol. 

Free Swim Safe sessions for children

Children take part in a Swim Safe session

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

If you’re in the UK and you’ve got a child aged 7–14 in your family, take advantage of the free Swim Safe sessions from the RNLI  and Swim England. Led by trained instructors, Swim Safe teaches children how to have fun and stay safe in or near open water. Find a session near you.

Categories