Author: Han Fisher
Photography: Claire Rose
My boots crunch the frosted grass as I step out of the car. My breath mists in front of me and lingers, frozen in place, I zip my coat a little higher. A sudden urge to hop back in the car and head off in search of a cosy spot by a fire creeps to mind. I push that thought aside and remind myself how beautiful this cove always looks, no matter the weather.
15 minutes from now, I will be removing many layers in order to plunge into sub 10 degree water. No wetsuit, just a wild grin and steady breathing to keep my teeth from chattering. It’s not your average way to spend a December morning at Cornwall I’m sure. However, certainly one of the best, I remind myself. I am not here without good reason. So many good reasons, in fact, that if you go on to read the rest of this article, I may even be able to convince you too, to brave the mid-winter dip.
- What is Wild Swimming & Why Do People Do It? An Intro
- Health Benefits of Wild Swimming
- How Wild Swimming Increases Your Happiness
- Wild Swimming Communities
- Practical Wild Swimming Advice
- Further Watching - Documentaries About Wild Swimming
What is Wild Swimming & Why Do People Do It? An Intro
Wild Swimming - the act of swimming outdoors for pleasure in a naturally occurring body of water.
Wild swimming is a level up from swimming in a pool or lido but not so extreme that it's a pursuit reserved for seasoned athletes. That’s one of the most marvellous things about swimming outdoors - you can make it as wild or gentle as you like. It’s for everyone to enjoy, in their own way.
Wild swimming pioneer, Wim Hof, has helped demonstrate the benefits of the cold and breathwork to millions of people. He is a Dutch advocate for cold exposure and motivational speaker affectionately nicknamed ‘The Iceman’. Wim Hof is known for climbing Kilimanjaro in shorts and doing a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot. His philosophy: “My teacher is the cold.” has helped him to both push and prove the limits of what humans are capable of.
The benefits of cold water swimming are incredible. A swim can boost physical condition by lowering muscular inflammation and improve mental health by acting as a reset and mindfulness tool. Sport England estimates that 2 Million people have now taken up cold water swimming. Communities have formed around wild swimming all over the UK, making it easy to try alongside experienced swimmers.
• • •
We stride with purpose through the Grebe National Trust car park, heading for the wooded path winding down to Grebe beach. I am armed with my trusty Thermos in one hand and poncho towel in the other. My friend Claire is accompanying me today. Camera at the ready, I think she is quietly relieved to be photographing and not swimming this time. I’m glad of her company, it’s easier to bravely hop right in with a friend about. The path we tread along is dark, earthy and leafy, fields stretch out to the right just beyond the woods.
After five minutes we reach the end of the path and hop off the low wall onto the sand littered with pebbles and sticks. The beach is empty and the light is soft and wintery. It looks cold, but at least I will be sheltered from the wind. I stroll on towards the water, soaking up the peace of this place. The strange thing is, I think to myself, that despite the consuming discomfort of cold water, it leaves you feeling ecstatic. I have yet to swim with someone who has emerged from the water without a beaming smile on their face. Feeling cold, but very much alive.
Health Benefits of Wild Swimming
Swimming in cold water boosts the immune system by challenging it with the considerable change in temperature. Over time the body gets faster at reacting to this change and increases its white blood cell count to cope with the perceived threat. Being surrounded by cold water also activates a pain response from the body. This triggers the release of endorphins, giving the feeling of a natural high and helping to reduce stress. It also improves circulation as blood vessels and capillaries are trained to rapidly expand and contract to move blood away from the skin and to the vital organs. The immersive shock of the cold also keeps you incredibly mentally present. It brings your awareness out of your own mind and to your senses and surroundings. This makes it a great tool to help with anxiety and depression as it is so grounding.
Breathwork is the practice of using deep breathing and breath holding to influence your mental or physical state. The Breathwork Connection, a venture set up by Sam Murray and Miranda Bailey, hosts sessions to help you combine the benefits of breathwork with wild swimming.
Sam has a military background and got into breathwork and wild swimming to help his battle with depression. The aim of the sessions they run is to reduce stress, boost happiness and help heal physical and mental wounds. I have taken part in a session in Gorran Haven with this lovely duo. It was at dusk, under the light of a huge full moon, helping to make the whole thing feel both slightly surreal and very beautiful. The breathing beforehand made swimming in the cold water feel easier - heightened levels of oxygen in your blood can have this effect. The session left me feeling awake, alive and calm. I would really recommend trying breathwork alongside a cold water dip - they go together like cheese and wine… only much better for you. 😉
• • •
I remove my boots, socks, trousers, jumper and jacket, dropping them on the sand in a vaguely tidy heap, making sure my thermos and towel are also nearby. I don’t plan on dunking my head under today, so I keep my woolly hat on and walk towards the shore. It’s low tide, and it feels like I have time to breathe deeply and gather my thoughts as I pad my way down to the water.
How Wild Swimming Increases Your Happiness
Another aspect of well-being benefits gained from wild swimming is the theory that simply spending time in nature has a positive effect on mood and happiness. There are many studies linking time spent in green (forests, fields, parks etc) and blue spaces (those with bodies of water present) with positive impacts on mood. Wallace J Nicholls coined the term ‘Blue Mind’ describing it as: “the mildly meditative state we fall into when near, in, on, or underwater”.
If you feel aligned with the outdoors lifestyle that Vivida promotes then I am sure that for you too, a huge draw of enjoying outdoor sports is feeling immersed in a wild outdoor space. Wild swimming promotes feelings of connectedness to your environment, it’s generally done in beautiful, quiet spots and you also need a great sense of awareness of the environment including tides, weather and wildlife.
• • •
I put one foot over the shoreline into the sea, then the other. The trick now is to not stop moving, I think. I keep walking and soon I’m wading, then I’m in up to my waist. I can almost hear my skin shouting in protest, the shouts are distant though, much easier to ignore today than when I first started wild swimming. The sky looks incredible, dark apart from a small fracture of light bursting through clouds directly opposite me. The sea is murky green and moving gently, as though it’s alive but sleeping. I sink down and stretch out into breaststroke, I’m sure the wild grin is on my face now.
Wild Swimming Communities
In Cornwall we have some fantastic wild swimming groups including Wild Swimming Cornwall, a community set up locally by three friends during lockdown. They have also created a thorough guidebook of the best swimming spots in Cornwall which I would highly recommend. Others include Blue Balls - you guessed it(!) - a men's only community promoting swimming and mental health awareness. Similarly there are Blue Tits who are inclusive of all genders and have meets all over the country, including Cornwall. A good place to start looking for a group near you is on Google or Facebook. In my experience fellow wild swimmers love sharing their passion with new people and always want to make everyone feel welcome.
• • •
It’s only been a few minutes, perhaps 4, but it feels like time to get out. It’s important to get out before starting to feel cold, because then you can warm up quickly. If you stay in too long, your temperature can continue dropping even after you’re out. I’m never too hard on myself if I don’t stay in long, the important thing is getting in at all. I’d consider 45 seconds a big success on a windy day in January! With every swim it feels easier to submerge myself. It sounds odd, but you really do become more comfortable with the uncomfortable and build a mental and physical affinity to the cold.
I scamper back up the beach to my pile of clothes and poncho towel, hastily shrugging it over my head. I get changed as fast as I can, stamping my feet to try and get some warmth into my toes. Claire smiles at me ‘Well done mate!’ and hands me a cup of tea from the flask. I’ve got the après swim buzz, and oh boy tea has never tasted so good.
Practical Wild Swimming Advice
If you want to start in winter, build up gradually. It’s a big ask for your body to go from nothing straight into winter swimming and there is a chance you would experience cold water shock. I would suggest wearing a winter wetsuit initially, then a summer wetsuit and then swimwear only, transitioning over 5-6 swims. You could also help prepare by having cold showers. As for time in the water, a rough guide is: don’t stay in longer than the temperature of the water, ie 10 degrees = 10 minutes or less swimming. Something that I find makes a big difference is making sure I’ve eaten and drunk enough in the 24h prior to a swim - this helps a lot with keeping warm (but avoid eating just before swimming).
Try and swim near a place you can warm up quickly afterwards - like your car or a cafe. Always go with someone else and tell other people where you will be swimming and when you expect to be back. Take a hot drink and lots of layers with you. A poncho towel or changing robe makes a handy wild swimming companion and Vivida have lots of choices. Carefully check the weather and tides and only get in if you are certain conditions are safe enough. Go with someone experienced or to a community meet if you are not sure. You should also check the water quality, you can do this on the Surfers Against Sewage ‘Safer Seas’ map.
I hope you have read enough to feel enticed! As the Iceman himself says - “I fear not living fully” - Wim Hof. Whatever the time of year, why not try it?
Further Watching - Documentaries about Wild Swimming
We Are England, 'Cold Swim - Tynemouth', BBC - This episode of the BBC series focuses on retired north east cop Jacqui and her cold water swimming practice in Devon. She encourages Kirk, a recovering alcoholic, and Sarah-Jane, who is in remission from a rare type of leukaemia, to take the cold water challenge.
The Ice Dive, Netflix - This documentary follows free diver Johanna Nordblad as she attempts to break the world record for distance travelled under ice with one breath.
Han Fisher is a multi-media creative, sustainable product designer and adventure sports enthusiast based in Cornwall. She believes in promoting connection with the outdoors and protecting natural eco-systems. She is also a SUP and snowboard instructor, wild swimmer, horse rider, sailor and motorcyclist. Han believes in sharing uplifting stories of people and the outdoors wherever possible. Follow her photography and adventures at Over Land And Sea, on Instagram @hancfisher or TikTok @overland.andsea
Claire Rose is an illustrator and designer. When she's not illustrating in her Cornwall studio or drawing en plein air on the Cornish coast, she's usually chilling by the water, dancing unashamedly (and definitely not gracefully) to jazzy hip-hop tunes, sketching in Falmouth coffee shops or exploring with friends. @clairerose_creative