Outdoors, ‘swimming within your limits’ is an equation, a multiple of (swimming ability) x (acclimatisation) x (endurance) x (understanding of the water conditions) x (understanding of weather). A strong pool swimmer can be a weak outdoor swimmer and vice version. Here’s how to start assessing your limits when you swim wild.
Ensure you are swim-fit by training at a local leisure centre pool first, explore a lesson or two to polish up your swimming stroke. When you are starting out find lakes, lidos and beaches that offer lifeguard support. If you are visiting a swimming spot that is more wild, ensure you know how you will exit as well as enter the water. Check for currents, tides, boat traffic and hazards. If you are unsure, don’t get in. Be honest with your own ability.
Acclimatise to cold water gradually. Limit your time in cold water if you’re unused to it and always take warm clothes to put on afterwards (yes, even in summer – it’s amazing how fast you get cold). You will feel colder after you get out. Wetsuits add buoyancy and warmth which makes them a good safety measure.
Wear a bright coloured hats so boats and other swimmers can see you. Try the OSS Classic Red hat: silicone (warm – thicker than latex) and easy to see. Tow floats might also be useful in areas where there’s a lot of boat traffic, but don’t make the mistake of relying on them to give you confidence to undertake swims you’re not capable of.
How long or how far to swim – You don’t have to do any length of time, or significant distance. Just getting in for a few strokes and enjoying the water for a short time can give you a buzz. It can also create an appetite to do it more often and stay in longer during your next swim. Build yourself and train to spend longer and swim further. Once you start to feel more confident in a certain swimming spot, comfortable with a distance or familiar with your limits, explore! Always swim in a lake, why not find a group who swim in a river? Managed a mile, can you do a mile and a half? Set yourself your own challenges based on your fitness and ability.
There are lots of things you should be mindful of when swimming, but one that is often over looked is paying attention to yourself. Learn how your body responds to the cold and different water conditions. Jumping from rocks into deep water is a great thrill, jumping from anything into unknown water is foolish. The UK provides plenty of safe places to jump and climb around water, just make sure you know where these are and use local tourist providers to offer guidance and kit. Learn about the signs of hypothermia, rip tides and quick sand. Learn about the places you want to visit and swim before you get in. If a distance, temperature or current is beyond your limits don’t put yourself or those around you at risk by getting in anyway.
You don’t have to wait for the perfect weather, prepare and plan for the season you are swimming in. Swimming in the rain is a beautiful, immersive experience, but swimming in water after heavy rainfall poses risk. Be aware conditions can change quickly. Heavy rain can create local flooding and faster flow. Winds can change the behaviour of coastal conditions and open lakes. Check high and low tide times, local currents and flows – ensure you know the risks and have a plan.