Wild swimming in the time of COVID19
For the last few years I have put a lot of thought and planning into starting a not for profit that uses wild swimming to promote mental health and wellbeing. Who knew that it would take a global pandemic for it to actually come to fruition!
It has been fascinating to observe the changes in all our behaviours during lockdown. Personally, I’ve noticed some positives such as slowing down, appreciating what is important, the re-emergence of nature in our green spaces and reconnecting with friends across the globe, albeit via Zoom. However, I have also witnessed the negatives such as isolation for those shielding or living alone. Restrictions on our freedom has meant dealing with the stress and pressures of home schooling, working from home, being stuck in the same household with the same people for weeks on end, not to mention the ridiculously high food bills containing obscene amounts of wine and chocolate. There is much in the press about what the long term impact will be on our mental health, especially for those who are already so marginalised. We are in this for the long haul, and we therefore need to collectively find solutions.
Wild swimming is not the answer to everyone’s problems, but there are a few things we know as to why it is so great for our mental health. Last year Exeter University published a report that proved people who spent at least 2 hours a week in nature were significantly more likely to report being in good health and feeling satisfied with their lives than those who’d spent little or no time outside in green spaces . For the stressed out city folk among us this can be a challenge. Interestingly, research surrounding ‘Blue therapy’ is even more compelling, though surfers have been telling us this for years Wallace Nichols explores this scientifically in his fascinating book Blue Mind which evidences how being near, in, on or under water can make you feel better and more connected.
When the government announced we could start open water swimming again back in May, there was much excitement among the community, and while we eagerly awaited the reopening of the majority of swimming lakes many of us took to the rivers to get our fix. During this time a steady flow of requests made their way into the Open Minds Active inbox. This led to the launch of our socially distanced wild swimming 1to1 sessions. We forget that many of us who regularly swim outdoors have experience and knowledge of when, where and how to go wild swimming. There are a plethora of wild swim groups on social media and the Outdoor Swimming Society are a font information. However, the heat of a warm spring saw many of the much loved swim spots crammed with people. As wonderful as this was, there were upsetting scenes of beauty spots littered with rubbish and even human faeces. Far worse than that, some saw new river bathers, unaware of the hidden dangers and their own limits of ability, lose their lives on the River Avon near Bath. Online groups retreated, unable to cope with demand, and the Outdoor Swimming Society took down their wild swim maps and issued guidelines for the public for first time users to follow.
As lockdown begins to lift, our desire for nature and lakes, rivers and seas is not dwindling. As pools slowly start to reopen, many swimmers are keen to seek advice on how to make the transition from pool to river and those who are enjoying their newfound adventures are revelling in the mental health benefits that cold water brings. Incidentally, regular immersion in cold water of 15 degrees or less is proven to help reduce anxiety and help with depression. I have experienced this personally over the last few months, the water has helped me cope with a bereavement and I have observed the impact on friends and family too who have regularly dipped throughout the winter months.
Below are a few pointers for those new to wild swimming, particularly in rivers.
Getting in and out
It is really important that you identify your entry and exit points especially if there is a fast flow as you might not be able to get in and out at the same point that. Watch out for steep banks and also check if access to the river is public.
Go with the flow
Always check the depth and flow of the water, even if you visit the same spot regularly. It can change on a daily basis. A good idea is to swim upstream first when you get in so you can test how far you can swim against the current. This is also a great resistance workout! Just make sure you have enough energy to get yourself to the side. If you get caught in a faster flow, try not to fight it, swim horizontally rather than directly against it and look for little eddies at the side of the riverbank. These are mini whirlpools where the water flows back on itself, generally around rocks or large reeds.
Water quality and the environment
This is one of the largest risks to wild swimming, and rivers vary up and down the country in terms of water quality. Always avoid swimming after torrential rain as there may be run off from fields and sewage overflow issues. The Rivers Trust  is a useful resource for identifying potential sewage outlets that may be an issue. Myself and others are currently launching a campaign to clean up our rivers and lobby the water agencies to stop them releasing raw sewage into our rivers and seas. There is a great article about this from the Guardian here  and you can join us in the fight, just search @sewagefreeswimmers across social media and you will find us. It also goes without saying to not disturb nests, wildlife or leave any rubbish that could impact on the natural surroundings.
Visibility and kit
Be clearly visible to other river users with a tow float or bright hat, sombrero not advised ;). Puffin Float swim  are a great company who promote environmentalism as well as sell some good kit. Wetsuits can be daunting and a real cost barrier to many trying wild swimming for the first time. Some people love acclimatising without but for those who need some extra warmth and support hiring can be a good option. I recently came across Tri Wetsuit Hire , run by two women which is a great hire service where you can send in your dimensions and try a suit for a shorter period to see if you even like the activity.
Know your limits
Swimming alone is strongly discouraged even if you are desperate to find some solace in nature. Always go with a friend - ideally two. Never stay in the cold water too long, even if it’s a hot sunny day, be mindful of your limits and make sure you keep an eye on your fellow swim buddies and look out for signs of hypothermia and cold water shock.
Look around, float like a star fish and enjoy being present in the moment, it is a wonderful life affirming thing you are doing.
Over the next few months I will be working with the team to look at how we can address some of the mental health issues caused by Covid19 through open water swimming. But as well as keeping people safe and enabling confidence in open water a future aim for Open Minds Active is to address health inequalities for society’s most marginalised. I believe we can harness the power of these green or blue spaces to potentially alleviate some of this inequity especially by widening access to swimming and other outdoor activities for marginalised groups, alongside exploring the benefits of social prescribing. Everyone should be enabled with the means and knowledge to access and spend time in the great outdoors. There is much to be done and we all must play our part. Until then swim wild, swim safe and swim happy.
About Open Minds Active
Open Minds Active is a Bristol based not for profit organisation that:
- Promotes positive mental health and wellbeing through wild swimming
- Enjoys and respects our green spaces, lakes, rivers and seas
- Builds an inclusive community that encourages and enables
About author Maggy Blagrove
Maggy is an experienced open water swimmer and coach with a passion for the outdoors. She has over 20 years’ experience of working in sport and community development across the South West and internationally.