Fed up with trying to book a lane at the local pool or is it still closed due to lockdown? As well as being able to swim when you like, there are plenty of other advantages to wild swimming. Our friends at Zone3 talk about all the Benefits of Open Water Swimming below.
Connecting with the outdoors
Due to the lockdown and the closure of pools over the last year, open water and wild swimming has become increasingly popular. Winter also saw a boom in people continuing to open water swimming through the colder months. On a personal level, as someone who grew up swimming, I have always been confident in the water, but I had never done it outside. I had become bored with years of lane swimming but open water swimming was different. It offered a chance for me to see the sport in a different light without the pressure of lap times. It was also the opportunity to connect with the outdoors. A running injury in summer 2020 and the continued closure of gyms had given me fewer options for how I could train, so I started to open water swim as an alternative way to cross-train. I was soon hooked!
Mental health benefits
The increase in popularity of open water swimming accelerated because of the appreciation that it can bring mental as well as physical health benefits. The evidence for this comes from both research and anecdotal data. Cold water swimming, in particular, received attention because of television documentaries that showcased the lidos in Hampstead Heath and a BBC medical documentary in which cold water swimming was prescribed for depression. These case series have been supported by early medical research which suggests beneficial physiological adaptations that occur from repeated cold-water immersion.
The rhythmic motion of swimming itself can also reduce stress because it allows your mind to switch off. Swimming in open water gives you the additional benefit of green and blue therapy; green being the positive impact on wellbeing by being out in green spaces, and blue for being in blue spaces (water).
Swimming itself brings with it many health benefits, it's an exercise that allows physical activity without weight-bearing through the joints, making it accessible to people of all mobilities. Cold water is also known to reduce inflammation. Inflammation is associated with chronic diseases including depression, cardiac disease, and diabetes. Repeated exposure to cold water is believed to cause adaptation over time which lowers the stress (inflammatory) response. There has been some evidence to show that those who swim in cold water regularly, have a lower stress response; i.e. they produce less of the hormone cortisol in response to stressful stimuli. Having a lower stress response means being able to cope with life's stressful situations better.
Next, we believe that cold water swimming releases the polypeptide hormone endorphin which is well known as the feel-good hormone. Those who participate in cold water swimming regularly describe the “swimmer’s high” which is the feeling of elation that comes after a dip in freezing water (and keeps many addicted and coming back for more)!
Psychological and social benefits for cold water swimming can be equally important in their impact as physical benefits. There is a sense of self-confidence that cold water swimming can bring and there is something empowering about being in the water when it is cold because it is out of the ordinary. A person can feel self-assured by their ability to spend time in the water and when individuals swim in a group, they feel a sense of community. We know that especially for those who struggle with depression, a community can provide an increased sense of wellbeing. Furthermore, cold water and open water swimming are done in nature, and we know that exercise in nature (blue therapy) enhances happiness.
There is evidence that open water swimming can improve your immune system too. Those who regularly partake in cold water swimming report lower levels of upper respiratory tract infections. The hypothesis behind this is that repeated cold water exposure increases the number of white cells in the bloodstream, the type of cells we need to fight infection. Therefore having an improved ability to fight off viral/bacterial infections.
So how does it make me feel?
For me, open water swimming reignited my love for a sport I thought I had left behind. After years of swimming lengths in the pool, getting into the open water allowed me to see swimming in a different light. One where I was out in nature and could feel free to explore more. I started over the summer when the water was warm, and with every swim outside I felt a sense of exhilaration. When winter and the second lockdown came, I continued to swim outside in the colder water. Without access to a pool, I was able to get in the water for 30 minutes wearing a wetsuit to keep my swimming up. I found the swims so refreshing, at a time of stress they brought me a sense of peace.
Words by Zone3 Ambassador.