The benefits of wild swimming

Want a reason to try wild swimming? It's time to be bold: a regular splash in the sea is just what you need to reboot your health. Although sea swimming is something most of us wouldn’t dream of attempting except in headiest summer, there are notable benefits year-round.

Wild swimming: Natural health booster

Wild swimming activates your ‘cold’ sensors delivering a surge of adrenaline. The shock of cold also distracts your mind from aches and pains, boosts circulation and improves mood. A study on Korean pearl divers who swam regularly in cold seawater year-round found their basal metabolic rate increased by 30% in the winter.

Having read up on the topic, I decided to give it a go myself. I was visiting Montenegro recently: a land full of mountains, streams and seas. There's a lot more opportunity for wild swimming than there is in central London.

One of the days was particularly clear and sunny. I decided it was perfect for my experiment.   I went up into the hills and found an incredibly clear stream on its way down to the sea.  

Taking the plunge

It was April, and I knew it would be cold. I peeled off down to my swimming suit. Warmed by the early spring sun, I was feeling positive. Then I put my toe in the water. It was glacier cold – completely freezing. Determined not to be beaten, I climbed down the stream towards the seashore. This time, the water was warmer. Not by much, but hopefully bearable.  

There was nobody in sight. The water was clear down to the depths, with a few small fishes meandering in the sunshine. Looking around, I was awed by the beauty of the sea and the mountains. Nature at its most inspiring. It suddenly seemed a perfect thing to do - to be the only person in the whole of the fjord’s wide expanse mad enough to try wild swimming in April.

One, two... deep breath

I knew I would never make it if I waded slowly into the sea, so balancing precariously on a rock in the deep water, I held my breath, and dived. It was horrific. The water was cold as ice, and my whole body went into paroxysms. I could hardly breathe, and my brain was screaming at me to get out. I swam as fast as I could back to the shore and clambered out, shuddering. The whole thing couldn't have lasted for much more than two minutes.  

Not a very sensible experiment. April is obviously not the best time to go wild swimming for the first time.  

But... I did notice though that my brain was clear and sharp as a bell for hours afterwards. I felt exhilarated by the experience. No cold afterwards, no cough. And the memory of being alone in the vastness of nature was an amazing one that will stay with me forever.  

Wild swimming as a treatment for depression

Dr Mark Harper is a consultant anaethetist at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals who has developed an interest in the negative effects of getting cold during surgical operations and the positive effects of cold water swimming.

He is hopeful that the benefits of regular cold water immersion as an holistic therapy to treat depression will soon be more widely understood: 'It's the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline as a result of cold shock that delivers an immediate high,' he says. 'However, in terms of long-term improvements to mental health, we think that it's the adaptation to cold that is key.'

Dr Harper is currently in the process of setting up a trial for 30 patients, who'll embark on six swims in the pool and six in the sea over the course of the summer. He has promised to share the results with ReBoot Health.

More about wild swimming

If you’re feeling brave, check thebeachguide.co.uk for an up to the minute temperature map of the sea around the UK.

Wildswim.com has recommendations for local outdoor swims in your area, tried and tested by other swimmers. Newbies might be better off waiting until the summer to embark on outdoor swimming to reduce the cold shock you can experience at first, although winter swimming might be something to aim for next year once you get the bug.

Kate Rew, who runs the Outdoor Swimming Society says 'Even a few minutes can leave you feeling charged for the rest of the day. Wear a wetsuit and swim cap to retain heat, stick to short swims and stay close to the shore at first whilst your body acclimatises to the cold.' 

Sara x