Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Wild Swimming - Why you should strip off and take the plunge!

What better way to get up close and personal with nature this summer than with a bit of wild swimming? If you ask me nothing beats a refreshing dip in a beautiful lake on a nice sunny day and without fail you will emerge from the water a new person, bouncing and invigorated by the cold, your mind recharged and refreshed. So what is wild swimming? Here are some definitions from Daniel Start's book Wild Swimming.

wild-swimming (vb.): 
  1. Swimming in natural waters such as rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Often associated with picnics and summer holidays.
  2. Dipping or plunging in secret or hidden places, sometimes in wilderness areas. Associated with skinny dipping or naked swimming, often with romantic connotations
  3. Action of swimming wildly such as jumping or diving from a height, using swings and slides, or riding the current of a river.
Sounds romantic doesn’t it? I like to swim in the ponds on Hampstead Heath. Considering they are only 4 miles from Piccadilly Circus, they are truly an urban treasure for swimmers living in London. Last summer, I did quite a few open water swims in the South of England training for my first triathlon. In all honesty I am not a fan of the swim leg, being churned in a washing machine of arms, swum over and occasionally kicked or punched is generally not my idea of having a good time. However I really enjoyed swimming outdoors when I was training for my first Eton Super Sprint. I swam in what felt like arctic cold water at Heron Lake near Staines in April and later at Leybourne Lakes in Kent once the water temperature was more tolerable. I learned over time that it is always worth the first bracing shock and I try to ignore my wimpish excuses before taking the plunge. Cold water swimming is understood to have many health and psychological benefits. Cold water dips soothes muscle aches, relieves depression and apparently boosts the immune system. All cold water swimmers are familiar with the natural endorphin high that raises mood and creates an addictive urge to dive back in. According to research at NASA repeated cold swimming leads to substantial bodily changes known as "cold adaptation". These bring down blood pressure and cholesterol, reduce fat disposition, inhibit blood clotting and increase fertility and libido in both men and women. These are all great reasons to start your wild water swimming career.

At times though, it can be challenging to motivate oneself to jump into the cold waters in the UK. It is so much more comfortable to watch a DVD from your sofa with a hot pot of tea or just go to the local swimming pool and do repetitive lengths. Personally I just have to think of all the healthy looking old ladies I meet in the ponds on Hampstead Heath, many of them have been going every day for the last 30 years come rain or shine. Thinking of them makes me want to leave my sofa and the chlorine of swimming pools behind for natural waters. When I was hiking on Mt Aconcagua in Argentina a few years back, I met environmental campaigner and cold water swimmer, Lewis Pugh. He was not there to climb Aconcagua like the rest of us but to swim in extremely cold lakes at altitude. This was part of his training regime for the expedition in Nepal, where he swam 1km across a glacial lake on Mt Everest to draw attention to the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. The Water temperature was just 2 degrees C and the altitude 5,300m. When I asked him why he likes swimming in cold water he said to me: "I am not sure I “love” cold water swimming.  I love swimming in warm water – that’s for sure!  But swimming in freezing water – well I only do that to carry a message about the state of the planet.  I have done a number of swims in places, which until recently were frozen over by sea ice or glacier.  I love open water swimming for so many reasons.  Physically it’s invigorating.  I also love the action of swimming.  And most of all - the people you meet.  There’s such a diversity in the Hampstead Ponds.  On any morning, you could be swimming with a High Court judge, a plumber or a school teacher – but in your swimming trunks you are all the same.  All loving the outdoors and the exercise".

For fair-weather swimmers like myself, who prefer the water temperature to be above 15 degrees, there are still some fabulous lake, sea, river and pond swims around the UK. Watching Robson Green’s Wild Swimming Adventure documentary series for ITV1 in 2009 really inspired me to explore new swimming locations around the country. So where do you find a place for wild swimming?  If you are looking for a definitive source of information and inspiration for wild swimming you should check out The Outdoor Swimming Society. There are also some fantastic books listing hundreds of hidden dips in the rivers, lakes and waterfalls of Britain. I recommend "Wild Swimming by Daniel Start" and "Wild Swim by Kate Rew", both cover some of the best spots in the UK for swimming outdoors. I will leave you with some wild swimming tips from Kate Rew.

• Know your limits and swim within them
• Use tact – only skinny-dip when you know you can’t be seen
• A wetsuit will improve safety, through buoyancy and warmth
• Locate exit points before getting in rivers – high banks may make exits impossible for long stretches
• Before jumping, always depth-test the water first
• Take plenty of layers to wear after your swim

Now all you have to do is strip off and jump in!
Mixed Pond Hampstead Heath

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