Dr Liz Thomas is the Chair of the WICM Sub-Committee . She is a consultant in critical care and anaesthesia. When not at work, Liz sings as much as possible in several choirs and loves to explore the world with her family
I am addicted to wild swimming. I try to go at least twice a week. Throughout the year. Whatever the weather. Whatever the temperature.
No, I don’t wear a wetsuit. Imagine trying to get that on and off at the side of a reservoir – you’d slip in the mud and look very undignified. Plus, it doesn’t really extend the time you can be in the very cold water that much, so to me it really doesn’t seem worth the fuss.
I wear just a normal swimming costume. When it gets colder (water temp below approx. 14C) I add in neoprene gloves and socks. Although I always swim in footwear as I’m soft and I don’t like mud/weeds touching my feet!
I swim because I love being outside and in nature. I started in October 2020 by accident – I went with a friend, but then I kept going and a few weeks later I realised I’d swum through the winter. When its cold, e.g. 4C I’ll only do a few, about 10, minutes. Now spring is here and the water isn’t painfully cold I swim for longer – this week the water was 15c and I swam for 50 minutes. I wouldn’t recommend anyone who isn’t acclimatised to cold water to swim for a long time, you do need to build it up and be sensible. I’m very lucky to have a few local-ish swimming places in beautiful locations where I can be with nature.
Wild swimming is suddenly trendy and everywhere – I can barely go to my local supermarket without seeing someone in a “dryrobe” (or other similar oversided coat – and I live about as far from the coast as you can get in England). If you google “Health benefits of cold swimming” it reveals 24, 300, 000 results in 0.93 seconds! And there’s even a recent reality TV show on the BBC about it (but no, I haven’t watched it yet, I’ve been too busy actually swimming!).
So, what are the reported benefits? Many people report a ‘high’ after a cold swim. I’ve read its due to dopamine – but I wonder if its actually down to relief of being out of the freezing water! There are reported boosts to your immune system (although as a doctor I’ve never really worked out how it helps my white cells…) and friends with arthritis have reported it has an anti-inflammatory and analgesic effect. I don’t do it for the health benefits, I just do it because I like it! Maybe it is the dopamine high sucking me in. I don’t really know.
I would encourage everyone (who can swim) to give it a go, but safely. To swim in open water you don’t need to be a fast swimmer, but being a reasonably strong swimmer is wise. It can be potentially risky, therefore I‘d recommend going to a safe swimming site with someone experienced in swimming there, or joining an organised session with lifeguards at an open water venue. I enter the water slowly, over about a minute and once my shoulders are in I start swimming. When the water is cold I stick to head up breast stroke. And you do need to make sure you don’t stay in too long. Always stay in shorter than you think as the phenomenon called ‘afterddop’ occurs – where your body temperature falls for about 20 minutes after getting out. I don’t want you all merrily going off jumping into any water you see – please make sure its safe and go with someone who is experienced!
This blog has turned out longer than I expected! I will draw to a close here – I am surprised I get such joy from wild swimming, but I have found it a really good way to relax, clear my mind and appreciate the beautiful area I am lucky enough to live in.