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The thought of swimming for free fills us with joy. Every year my local leisure centre increases their prices for a swim and while cutbacks are becoming a huge part of everyday life, I started looking for free ways to stay fit. One result I saw again and again was the idea of ‘wild swimming’ – or swimming outside in natural waterways such as rivers and lakes. Wild swimming has really taken off in popularity lately, after being seen in shows like Countryfile, in which presenter Ellie Harrison enjoyed a wild swim down a country river.
Lately, rivers in many areas of the UK are generally way less polluted than they used to be, with conservationists ensuring that natural areas of beauty are clean and safe, for the benefit of the planet and for those who use it.
First off, do not swim wild if you’re unsure of your swimming skill level. It’s way better to get a few swimming lessons first. Pop down to your local swimming pool and do some lengths to get your core strength up to scratch and see how confident you feel about swimming out of your depth. Better yet, go along with a friend and spot each other as you swim along.
Do a bit of research first about the place or places you plan to swim. Fellow wild swimmers will have posted many reports on areas where they’ve been swimming, and the joys and perils to look out for. Select somewhere you can get to easily, and make sure you tell friends or family you’re going. As with most things like this, going with a partner is preferable as you can help each other if you run into any trouble.
It’s worth locating fellow wild swimming enthusiasts on Facebook or here.
You don’t have to immediately run out and buy a wetsuit if you can’t afford or borrow one: plan to walk or run to the location where you plan to swim, so you’ll be a bit sweaty, and the water will be a relief for your body. It may be worth tying your hair back or investing in a brightly-coloured bathing cap, so you don’t lose too much heat and can be seen easily.
You should also wear some lightweight footwear that allows for being in water, to avoid cutting your feet on anything under the shoreline. You never quite know what might be lurking down there.
For longer swims, a wetsuit is a worthy investment, but for swims of half an hour or less, they’re not essential.
It’s easy enough to get ‘cold shock’, which can cause hyperventilation when you get out of the water. Keep your clothes and towel in an easily retrievable plastic bag, and once you emerge from the water, get dry and warmed up quickly, rather than sitting around on the bank in the cold.
Steer clear of blue-green algae which can cause rashes. You can also get swimmer’s itch from pond weed, so avoid that too. Another particularly rare but nasty condition to be aware of is Weil’s disease which comes from rat urine, found in urban waterways. Antibiotoics can rid you of this but it can enter open cuts and is highly dangerous if left untreated.
Have an escape plan: you can get pulled out by tidal currents in the sea, in which case you should aim yourself towards the surf and ride it into shore. Similarly, in a river, eddies and currents can drag you about so swim for the shore if this happens to you. Currents are not necessarily dangerous but be aware that they are lurking here and there.
Wild swimming is a great day out! If you take a group, it will be even more fun and may nudge your friends into joining you for a very fun, exhilarating day out. Again, make sure they have the basic information and kit. Kids also love playing in water, so bring them along and plan your wild swimming adventure. One note on that: don’t feed them up with food and drink before they go in. Save that for when you’re out.