Since Covid-19 lockdowns first forced indoor pools to close, the popularity of swimming outside has been on the rise.
A trends report published by Outdoor Swimmer in January revealed that 45 per cent of swimmers increased how much they swam outside in 2020, estimating that participation in outdoor swimming in the UK has increased by between 1.5 and three times since 2019.
Shrewsbury and the surrounding area have been no stranger to the growth in enthusiasm for an outdoor plunge, and an increase in those keen to enjoy the associated health benefits.
Wild swimming – enjoying a dip in natural outdoor bodies of water such as rivers and lakes – is claimed to increase tolerance to stress, improve mental health, and boost self-esteem. It is also reported to help decrease inflammation, increase immunity, and leave swimmers with radiant skin.
Matthew Franklin from High Ercall took up wild swimming as a means to stay fit during the pandemic. “I liked to swim anyway,” he said, “and was looking for ways of keeping fit in lockdown, and I thought I’d ‘take the plunge’.
“There are general health benefits to swimming, but with wild swimming particularly, people say its good for your immune system as it challenges the body and makes it come alive.”
Kirstie Penny from Shrewsbury has been wild swimming now for three years. For her it’s also about the social side as well as the health boost and the natural high. “The main benefits for me are socialising with friends, it’s beneficial for your skin, and great for mental health – you definitely get a rush after,” she said. “There is also a friendly non-judgmental online community with tips and safety ideas.”
Shropshire’s online wild swimming community is testament to the local growth in popularity of this exhilarating hobby.
Emma Batt from Tibberton has been a wild swimmer for four years and now co-runs local online wild swimming community The Shropshire Bluetits with fellow swimmer Fran Pearson. Though the group was only set up a few short weeks ago, Emma has noticed an explosion in membership.
“We only set up the group in mid-March and already have over 470 members,” she said. “That is a lot of people who either have fallen in love with wild swimming, or are keen to give it a try.”
Fellow Bluetit Fran, from Eaton Constantine, has been swimming regularly in local wild swimming spots for over a year. Passionate about the pastime, there are several reasons that she believes more people should take it up.
“Firstly, it’s a really cheap hobby to engage in,” she said. “The only bit of kit that is essential is a swimming costume. In the current climate, low finances are a real issue for many people and this is a real opportunity for people to get out into nature and experience its benefits for a tiny financial price.
“Secondly, I am a plus size lady and I spend a lot of time promoting outdoor adventure activities for plus size people, where often they are made to feel they don’t belong.
“I love, love, love wild swimming, as it’s just the most rejuvenating and liberating feeling and these feelings last for a long time after getting out the water. I find it really helps deal with normal life stresses and I have a real connection with nature when I’m swimming in a lake or river.”
While wild swimming may have health benefits, when attempting it, safety is a must. Local open water swimming coach Harriet Ballantyne has several top tips for anyone keen to safely feel the thrill of a cold water plunge.
“Never go alone,” she said. “Find somebody who is experienced to join you. This is why Facebook groups are so useful.
“Also, take a thermometer and check the water temperature every time you go, and check the weather before you go. A staged, gradual entrance into the water is also far safer than the gung-ho ‘I’m going to run in and get it all over and done with’ approach.
“Finally, get out wishing you had stayed in longer. With cold water swimming, it’s not about distance or about time in the water. You don’t spend a huge amount of time with each swim as you have to be careful.
“It is so much less about how far you are swimming than the thrill and adrenaline rush that you get from feeling that cold water, and the buzz that you get afterwards. It’s like nothing else.”