Sports Reporter Claire Thomson shares her newfound love of wild swimming in Scotland.
During lockdown, keen swimmers up and down the country made the conversion to open water swimming after being faced with the challenge of the Covid pandemic, which forced the closing of leisure centres for over six months in Scotland. Wading into seas, rivers and lakes, more and more people learned about and enjoyed the benefits of wild swimming, with many making the decision to continue it into the winter months as a form of both relaxation and exercise.
What started as an alternative means to keep fit for lots of people has turned into an exploration through nature into the unknown. Granted, swimming somewhere where you can’t always necessarily see half a metre in front of you (never mind the bottom) is not for everyone, but over the years, an increasing number of people have joined wild swimming Facebook groups, organised group swims and taken advantage of the social aspect of this adventure.
Joining the shoals of eager individuals, I too took the plunge for the first time in June, sick of waiting for the pools to reopen and finding myself out of the water for the longest period since I began competitive swimming at seven years old. With no wetsuit at the beginning, I had thrown on an old swimming costume, grabbed a brightly coloured swim cap and headed for the beach. Yes, on one hand, the experience was exhilarating and thoroughly enjoyable after over three months of battling through lockdown, however, I quickly decided that the warm temperatures in the Firth of Forth in June were still too cold to me. Along with the swarms of jellyfish floating inches below me, it was time to purchase a wetsuit and find somewhere else to swim. My next attempt was in Loch Ore, a swimming and water sports loch. The lack of saltiness and jellyfish were the main positives and by this point, I had bought a wetsuit and tow float. It took several swims to get used to the swans swimming around me, seagulls flapping about above my head and the dark water, where I could hardly see my hand just below the surface, never mind three feet below me. I managed to brave the water for about an hour before I shivered back onto the shore. What made matters worse was the Facebook post that circulated around the Fife Wild Swimming page of a massive fish that was caught (and then put back) in the very same loch I had been swimming in.
Wild swimming for me brought many benefits as it resumed some form of normality in my life as it really wasn’t easy to go from twelve or more hours in the pool per week to nothing at all. Over and above that, it was amazing to spend some time outdoors and discover something which I had completely ruled off before this year. Training in nature, in particular, wild swimming has a plethora of benefits both physically and mentally. Immersion in cold water provides a sense of relaxation, relieves muscle aches, increases positive thinking, and boosts the immune system, therefore perfect for students wanting to leave the screen behind. The natural endorphin high raises mood and creates an addictive urge to dive back in. The extremely cold water pumps out toxins in the body and allows cold water tolerance to be built up quickly and make the body healthier. More than the health benefits is the large social aspect that surrounds the sport. This can take many forms, whether it is the swimming itself, the splashing around and having a laugh in the “bouncy” waves or the race to get dressed and have coffee and cake, sitting on the beach afterwards, in a desperate attempt to warm up and reflect on the experience.
Through these quick dips during the summer months, I was able to talk to some people who had both taken up wild swimming recently as well as those who were more experienced and made it a passion, swimming all year round. One woman that I spoke to told me about how she had fibromyalgia, a condition that causes widespread pain and extreme tiredness. She commented on how swimming in the sea a few times a week, just in a swimming costume, gloves and socks, has reduced her flare-ups and boosted her mental health as she feels “grounded” in the water. More recently, I was talking to a Glasgow University graduate who is a friend of mine, who said: “During lockdown 2.0, wild swimming became a haven, a refuge to which I could retreat after endless hours in front of a screen.” Furthermore, I’m not the only member of my family to give wild swimming a go this year. My aunt was a keen triathlete when living in the Netherlands. She has now been back living in Scotland for several years, and too braved the cold temperatures, with more success than myself, I might add. She shared with me what has motivated her to continue skin swimming (no wetsuit) even in water temperatures of 5C: “I swim because I love the feel of being immersed in nature, it makes me feel good and I enjoy being with folks that ‘get it’ and don’t think I’m crazy. They are my tribe. Why should playing and having fun be only for kids?”
When swimming in open water, it’s necessary to take into consideration the risks involved to protect yourself and others. It is important to never swim alone. You should always have someone either on the side of the body of water, that you are always visible to, or someone in the water with you, and only swim if you are competent and confident in various depths of water. It is strongly recommended that you carry a tow float, in case of emergencies it can act as a buoyancy aid, and a brightly coloured swim cap to further increase visibility. Before swimming, learn about the area you are swimming in, for example, know the tide times, any currents, and the water quality, by asking others who have lots of experience swimming there.
Now that more and more students are being forced to sit at a desk in front of a computer all day, being outside in nature and exercising is more important than ever. Wild swimming could be a new adventure for those who are keen to try something new and escape day-to-day life. My advice would be that, unless experienced, do not accompany the people who are breaking holes in the ice to swim at Dumbrock Loch, on the outskirts of Glasgow. However, as the temperatures rise again into the spring and summer, it might be something to investigate further and have a shot at for many. There are hundreds of people taking the plunge, every single day, in all weather, so why not join them, improve your health both mentally and physically, and most importantly, explore and have fun!