With the closing of pools throughout lockdown, many have found themselves swimming in lochs, lakes, rivers and seas for the very first time. Outdoor Swimmer magazine reported a 45% increase in open water swimming in 2020 and on the world stage, Alice Dearing has just made history as the first black female swimmer for Team GB in the 10K open water swimming event at the Tokyo Olympics.
More importantly, there’s increasing evidence of the physical and mental health benefits of cold-water swimming. From alleviating depression to reducing chronic pain and inflammation and even preventing dementia – the reasons for trying it are ever-more compelling.
The Runnymede Hotel offers the perfect location to swim-walk the National Trust trails. It’s glorious, green and wild – a deeply natural experience. Within minutes you feel like you’re roaming in deep countryside and the water holds a magical alchemy – a form of river therapy, which takes you right out of your mind and into your body. Swimming without walls is incredibly healing.
Here Thames wild swimmer and open water swim coach Emma Richards shares her Top Tips on cold water swimming safely.
It’s a great time to start wild swimming in warmer weather so that you can acclimatise to colder weather. As your body goes into shock, it’s really important to take your time. Splash a little water on your face, hands and neck to adjust to the sensation as you lower yourself in. If you’re more comfortable, wear a wetsuit.
The practice of inhalation and exhalation in a controlled way is key to managing the body’s reaction to cold water. It’s good to practice deep breathing exercises before getting in (like any meditation, including visualisation). That way you will avoid the ‘gasp reflex’ on entering the water, which means you could end up swallowing water which can be dangerous. I always suggest an emphasis on the deep exhale and focusing on something nearby – the blue sky, the oak tree, the colourful houseboats.
It sounds obvious but it’s really important to assess where you can enter and exit the water safely before plunging in. A river can be more hazardous than a lake. Watch out for slippery banks and sharp stones or branches underfoot. Avoid steep banks and opt for gently shelving entries and exits, though in some cases, it may be unavoidable and you may need to do a bit of clambering! Wearing swim socks will protect the soles of your feet.
Runnymede is a non-tidal Thames – ideal for beginners. However, always check the flow of the river before entering as it’s a calculated risk. If it has rained heavily, avoid it. There’s the added risk of water running very fast, with strong current and debris being carried downstream. In winter it is impossible to swim against the current– so you will have to ‘swoosh’ downstream and ensure exit and entries are clearly scoped out.
Never be tempted to swim alone if you are new to open water swimming. There are many local groups that organise spontaneous swims in the Thames and you will be welcomed with open arms. Surrey Outdoor Swimmers are a lovely bunch and The Outdoor Swimming Society is a fantastic source of information for newbies. It’s a supportive, inclusive community as well as an invaluable source of tips and insider knowledge.
Swans can be territorial of the river and protective of their cygnets (born May-July) so give them a wide steer wherever possible. If pursued by an overly aggressive swan use your tow float as a ‘shield’ between you and the swan and give a strong splash. Also be alert to fishing lines; they can often catch you unawares.
Always wear a bright tow float for safety and visibility. The river can be a busy place and you need to be seen. Swimsecure provide a good range of drybags, which you can store valuables in when you swim – and you can even put a light in for darker days. A bright swim hat is also useful! In winter, I wear a thermal hat, seal skin gloves and socks to protect my extremities. Sea and Stream offer a wide selection of sustainable clothing, including some fantastic wool bobble hats! A microfibre towel or Dry Robe are also great purchases for warming up.
Bring your best home comforts – a fluffy towel, a hot water bottle and a flask. Or better still, head back to The Runnymede for an afternoon tea. A slice of cake is or two is an essential post swim treat!
For a wild swim experience get in touch with Emma by messaging her on Instagram: @swimwritem.
Emma also co-hosts Mental Health Swims, a peer support swim every first Saturday, 9am at Hampton Ferry. Everyone including first-timers are welcome!