Fancy wild swimming this year?

Jan 9, 2023

The thought of plunging into icy temperatures is not everyone’s cup of tea. But whatever your thoughts, cold water swimming is popular at the moment so we thought we’d ‘dive’ into the facts and find out more about the benefits of this activity.

Of course, the most obvious is that swimming is one of the best forms of exercise out there, working our bodies from head to toe. But the added factor of icy cold water makes us work even harder to keep our extremities toasty (and also jump starts our circulation). It’s the benefits beyond the physical ones that have a lot of people surprised (and more willing to jump in).

According to Swim Secure, swimming in cold water activates endorphins, giving us a natural high. Submerging ourselves in cold water also releases the stress hormone, cortisol, increasing our breathing and heart rate. The activation of the flight or fight response sounds a little unpleasant right? But soon, your body gets its circulation, breathing and hormones in gear to reduce anxiety and depression both during your swimming session and afterwards, as you go about everyday life.

Being out in nature increases ‘mindfulness’ too. Devon is home to so many glorious swim spots that will take your breath away (if the chill doesn’t first), from sandy and buzzing Exmouth Beach to the serene, pebbled Budleigh Salterton.

Stephanie Darkes is a columnist and one of Exeter’s keenest adventurers. She started her blog Exploring Exeter to document her family’s move to the city, and since then it has grown into the go to place for people near and far to discover everything happening in Exeter.

But as well as checking out the latest brunch menu, theatre performance and local market, Stephanie loves to swim! What began as a way to connect with nature and friends following the height of the pandemic soon became a lifeline for both her physical and mental health. 

So where is Stephanie’s favourite spot?

“I love Elberry Cove. It’s just a short walk over the cliffs from Broadsands beach in Paignton. This cosy cove has aquamarine water, while the beach is stony (perfect for post-swim changing!)”

But it’s all well and good talking about where to swim…how do you actually get in?

Staying safe in the water

If it’s your first time open swimming or cold water dipping, it’s important to know how to keep yourself safe. The RNLI recommends chatting to your GP about the health risks that come with cold water immersion before you go.

Other RNLI safety precautions include:

  • Checking the weather forecast and tides
  • Acclimatising to avoid cold water shock (which can be fatal)
  • Stay within your depth
  • ‘Float to live’
  • Call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard in an emergency

Getting in

The best and safest way to start something new like this is to go with someone you trust. Even if they don’t want to take a dip with you to start with, perhaps they’ll come for moral support and to pass the towel and hot drink when you get out!

The colder it is, the less time you should spend in the water. If you’re new to cold water swimming, NOWCA suggests starting in the summer when it’s warmer. Continue sessions through to autumn and winter to acclimate your body (and challenge yourself to have colder baths and showers in between!).

When you’re ready to go, enter the water slowly, and splash the cold water on your neck and face to ease in. Stay as close to the shore as possible, and don’t go too deep, as cold water swimming can affect your swimming ability.

Stephanie’s top tips

As well as the benefits and best spots, Stephanie has some essential tips for swimming in the winter.

  • Get super-warm en route, wear layers and turn the heat up in the car.
  • Don’t stay in the water too long. If you’re swimming in the winter season, it’s best to limit your time in the water to 5 minutes
  • Wear what you want in the water – I’ve noticed a touch of snobbery around wetsuit-wearing for wild swims. Forget feeling obliged to swim in ‘skins’ (swimming costume only); wear what keeps you warm! Tip: If I wear a wetsuit, I tend to make it a shortie just because it’s easier and faster to get out of! In fact, Wild Swimming Cornwall recommends you wear a wetsuit in the winter season.
  • Get dressed quickly when you get out. Have a towel or trendy dry robe at the ready and plenty of warm clothes to change into. Invest in neoprene socks and gloves and a woolly hat as a minimum.

And of course, no swim is complete without a hot flask of tea!

Visit the Outdoor Swimming Society to find out more about cold water swimming or join a local group to get you started. Follow Stephanie’s swimming adventures on her Exploring Exeter blog.

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