Cold water swimming: could you be inspired to take the plunge?! (In the UK. In winter…)

Ian Clark (52) has been swimming outdoors for six years, and is one of a growing number of people in their 50s who love the rush of icy cold water pools. It’s the ultimate in escapism, he says

 

Let’s face it, it’s freezing outside, and most of us struggle to get up for work in the dark, let alone think about exercising outside in the UK’s winter, and definitely not freezing your bits off in an outdoor pool.

But when was the last time you felt really alive? Your skin tingling, your breath a little short and your senses heightened. Swimming outdoors in the UK never fails to deliver a rush for me. Add the soft rhythmic motion of gliding through the water and life’s worries seem to drift away. Sometimes as your head clears it feels as though you’ve stopped the world for a fleeting moment.

A ‘new’ sport

I’d always been a keen swimmer, but life got in the way. Then six years ago, I discovered an oasis in Tooting, south London, a lido that is almost double an Olympic-sized pool. What I loved about it was the sheer size and the fact that I was outside. It felt like a completely different sport, with the added advantage of freedom, the outdoors and the inevitable adrenalin rush that comes from the cold water.

At Tooting Bec Lido, you won’t be alone if you are in your 50s, and [people often find that] it’s about re-evaluating and rebooting your life. Exercise isn’t something to be endured but can become a fun part of life.

There is a sense of freedom about it that the 50-plus generation is willing to embrace. It’s an interesting community of people, centring on a common bond of escapism. I try to go every week of the year.

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Some people inch into the water, and there are certainly some screamers and shouters. I just jump in

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It’s 15 years since Roger Deakin celebrated the magic of water in his book Waterlog, documenting his swimmer’s journey through Britain.

As kids, none of us called it outdoor swimming, wild swimming or cold-water swimming; it was just a chance to muck around at the local river or beach and escape the blazing sun in the height of summer.

Call it what you like, but there is no denying that outdoor swimming is becoming increasingly popular, no doubt aided in recent years by the growth of triathlon.

Wetsuit or no wetsuit?

Triathlons have created debate within the swimming community over whether to wear a wetsuit or not. For purists, the sensation of the skin in direct contact with the water is everything. Some people inch into the water, and there are certainly some screamers and shouters. I just have to jump in and go. If you’re swimming regularly, you can do that but if you’re new you should go in slowly.

I’ve been swimming in places where the water is as cold as it can physically get without freezing over, in the Finnish Arctic Circle, in a pool carved out of ice.

A wetsuit, however, is an easier introduction to cold-water swimming and for the speed merchants, it’s faster too. The choice, as they say, is yours.

I’m undoubtedly fitter than I have ever been before. Swimming tends to tone the whole body. Yes, I’ve lost weight, but I also have more energy. There is a certain madness about the cold water side of things. I can’t stop my competitive instincts.

Where can you swim? 

There are outdoor pools (some need membership) in London at Hampstead Heath, Hyde Park and lidos at Tooting Bec.

Wild Swimming has lots of books and info on hidden beaches and places to go for a wild swim.

If that leaves you wanting to take part in wild swimming events, The Outdoor Swimming Society and H2Open Magazine are good starting points to locate other swims.

And if you want to really, really feel alive, start saving for the 10th Winter Swimmers World Championships, which take place in Tyumen in Siberia in 2016.

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