8 June 2012 by Julie Welch

Wild swimming: messing about in the river

If you like your water like your lovers – wild, free and the tiniest bit dirty – you need to swim outdoors. Julie Welch will go to any lengths to tell you how. Plus: win a Wild Swimming book 
Wild Swimming_4-620 Flickr-Wild Swimming

Photo courtesy of wildswimming.com

If swimming in straight lines through tepid recycled water is getting boring, here’s a suggestion. Take up wild swimming and you’ll never want to dip a toe in the municipal pool again. Wild swimming, open water swimming, outdoor swimming – whatever you prefer to call this venture into nature –  is a far cry from those monotonous lengths in the chlorinated air of the local baths.

Outdoors means space and peace, a feeling of freshness and of being at one with the wildlife. And should you feel fainthearted at the thought of plunging into lakes, lagoons and coves – or even waterfalls and underground rivers – you need only cast your mind back to childhood. Most of us had our first experience of wild swimming as children, only we didn’t call it that then. It was just part of being on holiday at the seaside, bracing the cold in our cozzies.

Skinny-dipping in a sun-dappled river or a nice warm lake is idyllic, but for fitness-based open-water swimming a wetsuit is essential

For motivation, just read one of the most beautiful, quirky books ever published. Waterlog is Roger Deakin’s chronicle of his swim through the British Isles, and the seductive tranquility of this journey through rivers, lakes, lidos and the sea has inspired more and more people to keep towel and trunks or costume in the car boot just on the off-chance.

Inspired by Waterlog is Wild Swimming by Daniel Start, recently updated and containing almost 400 wild swimming locations, inspiring photography, travel writing and practical information such as pubs and campsites. The Wild Swimming website will also point you towards safe lakes, rivers and seashores.

And if you want to make outdoor swimming an essential part of a fitness routine, Open Water Swim will help you find lakes that are managed correctly, with life-saving facilities and changing room comforts.One caveat, though: if you want to swim there, make an early start, because later in the day come the water skiers and sailing club.

In the sea, of course, there is no restriction on time of day. Which leads neatly on to the first rule of personal safety: no matter how strong you are, the sea is to be respected. Pay heed to the conditions. If it looks rough or tough, don’t go there, and never swim on your own.

Even in fresh water, it’s preferable to pair up with a buddy, unless there’s someone on a bank who knows where you are. And don’t swim backstroke, as you need to see where you’re going.

Something else to consider is water temperature. When you’re older you get colder, especially if you’re slightly built. Skinny-dipping in a sun-dappled river or a nice warm lake is idyllic, but for fitness-based open-water swimming a wetsuit is essential.

These can be expensive and it’s essential to have one that both fits your body shape and isn’t too tight. Try before you buy is the advice from Jo Lewis at Tri50, who also recommends a brightly coloured silicone hat. (Wear two if it’s very cold. Neoprene bootees and hand mitts will also come in useful.)

Slapping dollops of factor 50 sunblock on to exposed skin also gives an extra layer of insulation.

Finally, the water should be at least 14˚C to make the activity enjoyable. Some hardy types find swimming in really cold water invigorating, but for the majority it’s just no fun. And whether it’s the challenge of a great long-distance swim or a sneaky plunge in the buff during a warm day’s walking, the object of the exercise is to be left thinking: “That was fantastic. I want to get back in the water and do it again tomorrow.”

See our competition to win a copy of Wild Swimming

Julie is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author. She was the first woman to report on football for a national newspaper, the Observer. Her film Those Glory, Glory Days, about her childhood passion for Tottenham Hotspur, was produced by David Puttnam in 1983. Her books include 26.2: Running the London Marathon, Out On Your Feet: The Hallucinatory World of Hundred-Mile Walking, The Biography of Tottenham Hotspur and the co-authored Amazon bestseller, The Ghost Of White Hart Lane.
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