Gilly McArthur is a rock climber, year-round adventure swimmer and member of the Wonderful Wild Women team in Cumbria. Here she shares her top tips and advice for getting into outdoor swimming this summer.
The Lake District is defined by water. It has some of the largest bodies of water and the highest mountains in the land.
Dotted across the rugged landscape are tarns, meres and rivers to plunge into. There is something for everyone, from a hesitant toe dipper to a hardened marathon triathlete.
I moved here 6 years ago, to be nearer the mountains, so coming from a climbers background, have a deep understanding of the benefits to be had spending time in nature.
It’s been a joy to explore the horizontal liquid plains when the rock faces are unclimbable!
Why Outdoors? Why Swimming?
Time spent outdoors will boost your immune system, enhance creativity, help reduce high blood pressure, can alleviate stress and anxiety and even improve sleep.
There is even a word for the connection that humans intrinsically have with other living things. “Biophilia” was coined in 1984 by Edward Wilson and the evidence of the mental and physical benefits of exercising outdoors is now impossible to ignore.
I think the appeal of outdoor swimming is that as long as you can get to a body of water and get in safely, you can have a wonderful experience regardless of ability, aside from knowing how to swim!
Outdoor Swimmer Magazine suggests that there has been a 4 fold increase in open water / wild swim participation since we were plunged into lockdown! With pools closing and screen use zooming stratospherically, to move freely outside and find solace and connection with other like-minded people, it’s really not a surprise.
Jonathon Cowie, Editor of Outdoor Swimmer comments:
“As well as the well-known physical and mental positive effects of exercising outdoors, wild swimming has some bonus benefits. Ask any outdoor swimmer and they will tell you how invigorated it makes them feel, but the reasons why are only beginning to be understood. A 2018 study looked at cold water swimming as a treatment for depression and in 2019 Cambridge University research suggested that it could also slow the onset of dementia.
“Whatever the science, many outdoor swimmers (myself included) believe that regular immersion improves mood, reduces stress and strengthens the immune system. More than anything swimming outdoors is good for your physical and mental wellbeing. When you are swimming in nature, feeling the cool water on your skin, all your problems float away.”
Outdoor swimming provides quiet moments of reflection in a frantic world. What’s not to love?
‘That looks COLD!’
I choose to ‘skin swim’ (no wet suit) all year round. There is no right or wrong! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! Wetsuits prolong the time in the water, aid buoyance and can help some people find confidence in a new medium. I love the freedom and feel of water on my skin. You do YOU!
Cold water can be very beneficial for helping symptoms of anxiety and depression, it increases cardiovascular capabilities, increases libido (what’s not to like there!) helps reduce inflammation and banish aches.
The temperature is always the thing I’m asked about when I’m on a lakeshore. Your body adapts to the cold over the years, and you learn to embrace it over time. There is a deep hit of happy hormones and a doorway that opens into understanding that we are far greater than we think. Choose to skin swim? Go gently, it’s not a race, treat your open water journey with respect and read up!
Your First Time
Everyone remembers their first open water swim, people can become quite evangelical about it! I’ve taken many newbies to the water and I love seeing the reactions, the smiles and the chatter on the shore afterwards. Open water swimming is addictive - beware.
There are many considerations to swimming outside that really need to be understood before you take your first steps.
It’s worth noting sea swimming, river and lake swimming all throw up different considerations, so never swim alone, always know where you will exit and enter and do your research or hire a swim guide!
The Swimming Locations. Remember safety is key!
Not all bodies of water are swimmable! Some may be on private land, be protected as sites of special scientific interest or be fisheries. Protected nesting birds may be aggressive, there may be underwater hazards and a host of other considerations. Always do your research.
I think that the best swimmers are the most considerate swimmers when it comes to this pastime. Be courteous of local residents, park where there is parking and don’t squash verges or block gates.
Make sure that you leave no trace - and if that means picking up other people’s litter then do it! (You’ll win karma points I promise)
It’s always good to be kind to other water users too, keep a good distance away from anglers, pass by them quietly. Have a good awareness of boat traffic and if you are going to skinny-dip find a secluded spot. Not everyone wants to see your peachy bum.
I prefer to walk in, unlike a swimming pool, underwater obstructions like rocks, weeds and branches can make diving potentially hazardous, even if you swim in the same place regularly high winds can change what lies beneath.
As the temperature changes towards Summer you can often see blue-green algae on the water surface, it looks like a green silky scum, it’s really obvious to see and can be toxic to swimmers and animals. Confusingly not all BGA is toxic!
If you see algae on the water you’ll have to make your own judgement but perhaps today isn’t a day to put your face in.
Across the UK there is deadly work at play. Invasive species, mostly introduced in Victorian times are now playing havoc to natural habitats.
Here in the Lakes we have some nasty invasive species – one of the biggest issues is a green weed called New Zealand pygmy weed.
It was introduced as a plant for aquariums in the early 1900s and has now sadly transferred its way into the wilds. The plant is now banned in the UK however it is still rife.
It’s rampant, it chokes waterways and kicks out native species. Other non-native species are being spread by unsuspecting water users, so we can all play a part in protecting wild swimming spots.
If you were swimming between bodies of water, here's what you can do to help:
- Check kit on leaving the water, look for small tendrils of plants that may be on your goggles or your shoes or on your kayak/SUP.
- Clean these off, be careful not to miss anything tiny.
- Dry the items - the best way to stop spread between bodies of water is to dry the kit fully, the blighters can’t abide being dried!
- If we are swimming in lots of spots on a day we will have a suit per body of water. I make sure the wet swimming costumes go into a dry bag and are washed and dried out safely back at home.
Again the kindness points for taking extra care are high, so give it a go!
Despite the fact that outdoor swimming can essentially be practised with no kit at all here is my go-to list!
Choose a cap colour that can be seen – green, white, black and blue caps are tricky to see on choppy water! Caps protect your ears from rogue waves even if you are a heads-up breast stoker.
I love my Speedo Hydrasuits. I have quite broad shoulders, and the fit, feel and cut of the suit is brilliant. Snug, a secure zip up the back and a handy pull strap to haul it up, so no need to bother a friend!
My other go-to is the Speedo Medallist, it’s a great fit, has great coverage and the rest of the women I swim with love them too.
Protection for eyes and feet
I’m a glasses wearer and I have prescription goggles. Sometimes I wear contact lenses for a swim, (don’t tell my optician) and I wear clear Speedo Futura Biofuse goggles. I always take my contact lenses out immediately afterwards! The goggles are a nice clean fit and even on a longer swim leave little telltale eye marks.
Sharp stones and glass can be an issue and many people prefer to protect their feet with some inexpensive water shoes.
Ideally, you want a bag that is going to be large enough to carry all of your kit with different compartments.
Lulu, one of our Wild Women crew, has the Speedo Teamster bag. It has a separate changing mat to stand on to protect your feet, sneaky compartments, a spare bag for dry and wet items and enough outside pockets for flasks, pieces of cake and mobile phones.
When I’m bobbing about in the middle of a lake or being held in an icy tarn 3000 feet above sea level I know that I am part of something far larger than myself, my edges blur and I can almost dissolve into the surroundings.
Give open water swimming a try, be a considerate and kind swimmer, do your research and it may deliver things better than you dare believed!