Fitness: Why wild swimming is worth the plunge

During the pandemic the popularity of wild swimming has soared, with more and more people taking the plunge. Lydia Parkin chats to some Cambridge converts about the positive impact it has had on their mental health – and takes a dip herself

It’s 8am and I am standing on the banks of the River Cam in Grantchester. The water sparkles in the morning sunshine, willow trees frame the scene like a picture-perfect postcard, birds chirp away in the background, and right on cue, a group of ducklings sail past. Throw in a princess and a rowing boat and you’ve got yourself a Disney movie.

But this idyllic scene is about to be somewhat tarnished. See I’m standing here not just to take a pretty picture, as Instagram-worthy as it is. But I’m about to join the hundreds of thousands of swimmers up and down the country unleashing their wild side and taking a plunge in the great outdoors.

Since Covid-19 changed all our lives, the popularity of outdoor swimming has hit new heights. With public swimming pools closed for much of last year and travel to exotic, warmer climes a distant memory, people took to their local rivers, lakes, lagoons and coastlines in search of connection, joy and adventure, as well as a fun way to exercise.

I have friends who started earlier this year during the miserable depths of lockdown number three. After one swim they were hooked and inspired me to give it a go too. The only problem is cold water has never really been my *thing*. Yes, I’m that person who takes five hours to get into the sea on holiday, inching my body under the water at the kind of pace that would make a sloth squirm, until undoubtedly someone will shout, in the smug way they always do, “It’s always better if you just get it over with”.

But alas, here I am. Surveying the scene, I decide that maybe in this instance, “just getting it over with” is probably the way to go. I’ve dragged my friend along for moral support and I doubt she’d be very happy with me if our morning swim turned into an evening event. So after a little bit of toing and froing – one toe in, one toe out – and some gentle encouragement from a man swimming nearby, I take a breath and I take the plunge.

I gasp as the cold hits me. It stops me in my tracks and a lightning bolt of energy flashes through me. I start to swim, not in any particular direction, mainly just round in circles to keep moving. I look to the sky and feel the sun on my face. I look around and see the beauty of my surroundings. I feel alive, invigorated and connected to nature in such a way that I want to bottle it and take a sip whenever life feels a little overwhelming.

It’s a far cry from the local swimming pool and feels a hundred times more liberating for it. My friend is now in the water too. We giggle and smile proudly; it feels like an accomplishment. “We’ve lived in and around Cambridge for years; how have we never done this before?” we both exclaim. “It feels so tranquil being at eye level with nature,” she smiles, as we view dragonflies in the distance.

Disclaimer: it is a sunny late-spring day when we take to the water, but in this Grantchester spot you’ll find men and women swimming in all seasons and in all weathers. In fact, for Cambridge local Hannah Ward, who took up the pastime earlier this year, swimming in the quieter winter months is what it’s all about.

“It was a balmy six degrees outside the first time I went and I actually prefer it in the winter months. If you had told me a year ago I’d be swimming twice a week in the River Cam, I’d have told you that you were off your rocker!” Hannah tells me. “I struggle to explain to people why I love it so much, I just do. The cold water has this positive effect on me. I’m just happy when I’m in the water – it always puts a smile on my face.”

The physical benefits of swimming are well known, but for Hannah the impact it has had on her mental health in particular has been ‘immense’. “I started because I was suffering with depression following an injury that left me unable to play netball, go to the gym or even walk very far,” Hannah says. “On a whim I contacted a friend who had been doing it for years and asked her to tell me more about it. One quick order to Amazon for gloves and socks and off I went to the River Cam. It just made me so happy that I could do something!”

A fellow convert is Debbie Fabb. Debbie works in the NHS and after a stressful day at work always finds solace in the river. “I really wanted to do something that was very peaceful. It sounds like a cliché and it wasn’t to find my inner self or anything, but I wanted that removal from my busy life,” Debbie explains.

“The thing that got me hooked was the feeling it gave me after that first swim – a feeling of being alive. It was a sensation on the skin I’ve never felt before and the benefits to my mood were evident from the first swim.”

The social element too should not be underestimated. The Sunday Swimmers are a group of like-minded ladies who come together every week, flasks of coffee in hand, to swim in the River Cam. With the pandemic leaving so many feeling isolated, that sense of belonging, one member of the group tells me, was something she craved when Covid put a stop to her usual fitness regime.

“What I love most is just being with a group of women and the social aspect of it. I feel like I can release the stresses of everyday life and put things in perspective,” she explains. “Straight after the swim I have this energy and a zest for life and I also feel really proud of myself and the women I swim with.”

Others in the group use words like exhilarating, magical and raw to poetically describe their experience. “It’s the coldness of the water that reminds your whole body that you are alive,” one member says, making my whole body feel tingly.

But before being seduced by the superlatives, it’s important to remember that wild swimming comes with a certain level of risk and first=timers should always do thorough research into water safety before taking a dip outdoors, especially in the winter.

In Cambridge we’re blessed with some beautiful spots: Dead Man’s Corner (try not to let the name put you off) and Skater’s Meadow are two of Hannah’s favourites, “both with ladders to get in and out of the river.”

It might be easy to palm wild swimming off as another lockdown trend. Something that will be cast aside when more normality returns to our lives. But, as I can testify, once you’ve taken the plunge, you won’t want to lose that feeling anytime soon. So, what are you waiting for? Dip your toe in the water and take a swim on the wild side.

Top Tips

The Sunday Swimmers share some top tips for first-timers

1. Never swim alone! Wild water can be unpredictable so it’s always important to take someone with you.

2. Read up beforehand on keeping safe when outdoor swimming. There’s an online test you can do which talks you through all the dangers.

3. When you get in the water, especially in the winter, expect it to take your breath away and breathe slowly, rather than gasping for breath.

4. Get some neoprene socks and gloves. Boots can also be helpful to save your feet sinking into the mud.

5. Know your limits and build up the time you spend in the water. Never feel pressured into staying longer than you feel your body can handle.

6. Remember a flask of coffee and a dry robe in the winter.

7. Have fun, relax and enjoy being close to nature.

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