Last year, more women than ever before took to the sea, rivers and lakes to try out wild and cold water swimming. Fiona Bugler finds out how runners can benefit from taking a dip
In February 2021, Outdoor Swimmer published a report in which it estimated that since 2019 there are almost three times more of us swimming outside – in rivers, lakes and, of course, the sea. This trend has been driven by women swimmers who made up 50 per cent of swimmers in 2017 but rose to 65 per cent in 2020. So, why do we women love outdoor swimming so much?
Swimming for health
Researchers continue to gather evidence supporting open and, in particular, cold-water bathing for good health. Research by Dr Mike Tipton from Portsmouth University links cold-water swimming with beating depression, and Cambridge University published a study last year that said it delayed dementia cases and it’s been linked with building a stronger immune system, creating more ‘healthy’ brown fat, reducing inflammation and giving pain relief.
Swimming for wellbeing
In her book Why We Swim (labelled as the Born to Run for swimmers), Bonnie Tsiu explores the transformative nature of wild swimming and the meditative power of water to induce a state of ‘flow’. “When you swim in the open water, whatever time of the year, you go from discomfort to euphoria,” says Fiona Mildner, 42, open-water swim coach and endurance swimmer, whose accomplishments include swimming the channel in 2018 and around Manhattan island a year later.
Swimming for cross-training
Swimming is a good counter for pounding the pavements. Rachael Woolston, founder of Women’s Running training partner, Girls Run the World, a digital platform for female endurance athletes, tells us why.
- Improves running form
“Runners get stuck moving in one plane of movement,” she says. “Open-water swimming helps to work your shoulders and upper back, which improves your posture and arm swing for running. Good openwater swimming technique also requires you to engage your glutes and core muscles, both of which have a major influence on good running form, posture and efficiency. It can also improve mobility, allowing your body to move more efficiently.”
- Improves breathing
“When you swim, you need to retain the breath, which can mean breathing out on the third stroke or even longer if you’re trying to avoid breathing into a big wave. This correlates to helping you feel more comfortable when you’re having to push hard in a tempo run or interval, when your body cannot pull in as much oxygen as you would like.”
- Replicates runner’s high
Many runners are the type of people who enjoy the freedom of the great outdoors and the challenge of nature – open water is far more appealing to people with this mindset than a sterile swimming pool. For many, open-water swimming is the closest thing they can get to the runner’s high without putting on their trainers.
OK, we’re sold. Where do we begin?
Fiona Mildner is an open-water swimming coach. She shares her coaching tips:
- Adapting to cold water takes time
“To start with, make sure you acclimatise. Start swimming outside in the summer to prepare yourself for swimming in the winter. When you do get in, only stay in the water for three to five minutes at first. Adaptation usually happens after six immersions, and the more you do it, the easier it gets. It’s like muscle memory.”
- Mind over matter
Cold water swimming can cause us to go into shock, especially if we’re not fully acclimatised to UK water temperatures. To prevent it, ensure that you breathe purposefully and slowly. “If you feel panicky, lie on your back and keep your head out of the water and focus on the breath.”
- Know your limits
“Open water is not the place to be competitive and there are no gold medals for staying in longer than you need to. Some runners have a tendency to push themselves but if you’re tired or stressed, you should be careful about swimming in cold water.”
- Get the gear
“In winter, wear neoprene gloves, booties and a hat. Blood rushes to the core of your body to protect your organs so hands and feet can get very cold. If you’re cold, it’s really important to remove wet kit as soon as possible and wrap up warm.”