Expert tips for beginner swimmers

"Swim like no one's watching" - and other wisdom for those starting outdoor swimming

APG Group

Hundreds of new outdoor swimmers grilled OSS Founder Kate Rew, Ambassador Calum Maclean and Inland Access Officer Owen Hayman on their well-earned wisdom during ‘It’s Beginners’ Night’, an OSS x alpkit webinar. How do they get into cold water? How do they find new swimming spots? What kit do they recommend? For those that couldn’t make it, here’s a summary of their sage, and sometimes surprising, advice.

How do you get into cold water?

Kate: “Reluctantly. Among OSS members, I’m known for not being very good at cold, but I just can’t miss my swimming. I’ve been trying to work on building up my internal fire before getting in and I have a new qigong routine to help with that. I like to get in, put my hands in, dab water on my cheeks, my chest, and all the places that might make me gasp, then one big exhale and the path is set: I’m getting in.”

Calum: “The key is not too much faffing. I’ve got all my gear for swimming ready, I’ve got all my gear for getting out ready. A lot of it is committing to it: once my feet are wet I’m not stopping. I know it’s going to hurt, I know it’s going to be cold. Like Kate, it’s that one big breath before getting the chest and neck under. When it’s colder, it’s more of a psychological battle to get in, then more of a mental lift once you’ve done it.” 

Owen: “A lot like Calum, I have my ritual. I know what I’m doing and how to prepare. I like to get really nice and warm before I get in the water. I don’t have a sauna but I have a lot of clothes and a heated seat in my car. Hot water bottle, a little jog if possible, break a sweat, then get in. I used to get in really slowly, but now I’m clothes off, neoprene gloves and socks on, jump in. The warmer you are when you get in, the warmer you are when you get out, that’s how I think about it. Or, the further you are from hypothermia you are when you get in, the further you are from hypothermia when you get out.”

How do you know where the good, safe swimming spots are?

Kate: “Word of mouth is good, there’s a lot on the media now about swimming spots, guidebooks, lots of wild swim groups as well. So it’s really easy these days just using Google. I would add there is no such thing as a safe swim spot, only a safe swimmer. So it’s really important that you consider what your own swimming ability is. The guides you find online are guides, but you really have to think about it when you get there and assess if for yourself, and take responsibility for yourself. Think about cold – it’s much easier to start swimming in summer. We’ve got this situation that I don’t think anyone in the OSS would have predicted of people starting swimming in the midwinter. Normally people build up to it with a few years of summer swimming.”

Calum: “In terms of finding one, ask other swimmers. Obviously, people have their own secret spots, which is understandable. Knowing how to read an OS map can open up a whole new world in terms of finding places in rivers, waterfalls, that kind of thing. I read a lot of walking and kayaking blogs to get ideas for places that could be good – maybe you’ll just see a photo – and from there I’ll do my research. Do research on location – does it look clean? Does it smell? Are there obvious currents? Look around – who else is using the water? Are you visible enough? Choose somewhere easy to get in and then back out is important, especially in the winter when getting in might be ok but getting out onto a stony surface can be horrible. Plan ahead. Then things like: do wildlife use the area? Where are you going to leave your gear? Is the tide going to come in?” 

How do you deal with fear of fish, seals, dolphins and the unknown?

Kate: “Anyone with a really deep fear of the unknown wouldn’t be able to swim in open water at all, so give yourself bravery points if you still are. Many people don’t get in because they’re so freaked out by the opaque depths – you’re so insignificant in water and you can’t control everything that’s going to happen to you. Deep water fear is really interesting because, having talked to a lot of swimmers, I don’t think it really goes away. Even if you rationalise one fear, it comes out as something else. We have to learn to lightly manage the fear. I do this in different ways depending on what day it is. Sometimes I count strokes, like a meditation, and push all your thoughts aside. I try to keep my thoughts on the surface of the water, and tow floats can be quite useful as they’re so resolutely on the surface and that brings your imagination back up. A friend has the ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ approach, she just makes a decision and sticks her head in.”

OSS Ambassador Calum Maclean on a solo swim

Water quality has been in the news a lot. Is that something that swimmers need to be aware of before they get in the water?

Kate: “A mixed answer on this from me. Yes, you need to be aware of it – not just sewage but agricultural run-off. After heavy rain, stay out for a couple of days. If the river level has gone up it’s going to clean the banks of any crud. I think it’s very different in different parts of the country. Wherever you’re swimming, wash your hands before eating, cover up any cuts, avoid the water for a couple of days after heavy rainfall, do a visual assessment – you can tell a lot just by looking at it – be aware of the strength of your own immune system, and finally weatherproof your swimming. You can’t get sick unless you swallow water, and a lot of swimmers don’t swallow water. Learn to breathe away from the chop.”

How can swimmers lessen their environmental impact?

Calum: “A lot of that comes down to location choice. Leave a place as good as you found it, or even better. That might not sound as easy, but if you pick litter for example, that’s a good way to do it. I’d be wary of picking up cans and glass as I’ve cut my hands doing up that. Choose an entry point where you won’t cause erosion, for example if getting in from a river bank. Is it somewhere with a lot of people? If it’s somewhere that could handle a lot of footfall, great, tell people, but if not then consider maybe not telling as many people. What are you wearing? If you’re going between multiple bodies of water, the best advice is to clean your swimsuit before going into another body of water so you’re not taking any small parasites or things between them. Multiple swimsuits can be an idea. Follow the countryside code or the outside access code.”

What do you do if you find yourself stuck in strong current in a river?

Calum: “Look before you get in, see how fast the water is going, maybe choose a downstream swim, seeing where you can get out and where there is no flow and you can swim to safely. If the river is high and fast, with lots of white water – probably don’t get in! If you’re somewhere the water is taking you, you can swim defensively – you lie on your back, feet first, and look out in front of you and keep your arms out, feet out in front, not looking up too much that your bum drops as then you can hit rocks. Not having a tow float can be helpful in these situations, or being able to get rid of it quickly, because if you’re going downstream you have this leash that can get caught on rocks or branches. A key thing is to not panic, try to stay calm, even talking to yourself ‘where can I go? What can I do? This gives you more time to make decisions than thrashing about.”

many swimmers Right to Swim banner Jim Fenwick

What is inland access?

Owen: It’s called inland access because it’s about accessing water inland. Generally at the coast there are no “no swimming” signs, but inland – other than in Scotland where they have good access to water – access to water is broadly very poor. It’s very rare that you know you have an undisputed right to swim in water. So we have the inland access guide PDF on the OSS website, which has great info for people wanting to set up inland bathing areas, we have a Facebook group, we have a team at the OSS, Imogen and Rob, who are really geeky on it. 

There is this statistic of only 3% of inland water being legally accessible, which is a bit questionable. A lot of those places, people have been swimming for years and if you were to swim there and bump into landowners or other swimmers, they wouldn’t even be aware that technically they’re not allowed to swim. That’s the case in Sheffield, we have three spots where we assumed we were allowed to swim – even the council thought so. Then I looked into it and you’re not. It goes to show that even where we have the right to roam through walking, that access stops at water. A lot of people don’t realise that – I didn’t realise it for a long time. There’s a big issue, but it doesn’t mean to say you’ll have finger wagging and tutting and shouting as that’s quite rare, but it’s still not good enough when we need equal access and people need to feel they have a right to be there. 

Is it safe to swim in reservoirs?

In Scotland, where right to roam extends to water, people have a legal right to swim in reservoirs. When I started swimming in reservoirs around Sheffield, I was terrified. I used to get in on the surface because I was too afraid to put my feet down and thought I would get sucked in to the scary gogglemonster machinery. So I’d swim like a pancake on the surface and stay on the very edge. I would never swim into the middle of it, but then you learn that it’s okay away from the infrastructure: the dam wall, the spillway, the tower, and any inlets and outlets. If you go to the far end of the reservoir, you’re swimming from a shallow beach. The good thing about swimming in reservoirs is that when there’s been a drought, you can walk around and see where there are hazards. That’s something we’ve been working on around Sheffield, a hazard map, people take photos of things like rocks and we’re systematically mapping where they are.

What kit do you need?

Kate: “Very little, just be comforted that you need very little. You can go swimming in your pants and dry yourself off with a t-shirt. It shouldn’t be a barrier. I look at the early days of the OSS and a lot of it was leading people to the riverbank who didn’t know they would be swimming that day and they went in semi-clothed. In terms of really useful things when you get into it: obviously a nice swimsuit that feels comfortable to swim in and two pairs of goggles – one for bright, sunny conditions and one for cloudy days. You’re going to see a lot above and underneath the water, so possibly get goggles without a tint as that will colour the whole natural world you’re about to go and enjoy. From there, just build it up yourself. There are so many options.. Neoprene boots are useful, a brightly coloured swim hat if swimming anywhere with boat traffic or other people around – it states that you want to be in the water, which is relaxing for spectators. Tow floats are  used far more than they need to be, but they are useful for taking your stuff from A to B or taking your car keys. Also if you’re anywhere near boat traffic or rowers, to make yourself as visible as possible.”

“Be comforted that you need very little kit. You can go swimming in your pants and dry yourself off with a t-shirt. It shouldn’t be a barrier. I look at the early days of the OSS and a lot of it was leading people to the riverbank who didn’t know they would be swimming that day and they went in semi-clothed.”

What are the signs that you should get out of cold water, especially if the adrenaline is masking signs? 

Calum: “If you’ve just started swimming, get out while you’re still enjoying it and keep it super short. Habituation to cold water is something that takes quite a long time, it can take a few swims or weeks and months. In winter, when wearing a wetsuit, I will notice that my pinkie goes wandering and won’t connect up with the rest of my hand. That’s a sure sign I need to get out, it’s to do with the cooling of a nerve in your arm. If I”m not wearing a wetsuit, I’d be getting out before that kind of time. Learn about your body over time, you might understand the signs better. Cold showers can be useful to see how cold feels, but it’s not the same as immersion.”

Does it matter if you’re a weaker swimmer and poor at front crawl?

Owen: “I don’t even do front crawl, so I hope not! Just do whatever you want – dance like no one’s watching. As long as your head is above water and you can breathe, do what you like. I do a bit of breaststroke, but a bit strange with one arm over here and the other over there, and I do side stroke as well. It’s just whatever’s most comfortable, not all of us are doing mammoth swims. Make it your own, this is not a race, Get into two foot of water and sit down, if you want. I do that a lot of the time.”

Does anything bug you about how outdoor swimming is portrayed?

Kate: There are many varieties of swimming out there, from pottering about to long distance to adventure. The media narrative is that lots of people are swimming because of mental health, anxiety and depression, but a lot of swimmers do it just because they love it. If it’s good for you, I suspect it’s because you’re intrinsically drawn to doing it in the first place. If we do it just because it’s good for us I’m worried it’s giving it a utility or turning it into something for our material benefit. If we do that we’re missing the whole magic of it, which is to sink down into the planet, feel part of nature, completely connected and out of our normal mindsets. That’s not the story I’m hearing, but I’m so glad so many people have joined us, whatever the reason.”

Do you have any advice for swimming alone, especially in the sea?

Calum: A lot of it, in the sea, might depend on the location. Research it beforehand, even as simple as finding out what the tide times are and swimming when the tide is coming in so you know you won’t be swept out to sea, so that might be a little bit before high tide. Or a period of slack water around low tide and high tide, but you can never exactly predict when that will be. Speaking to kayakers can be a great way to find out about swimming in the sea as they tend to be more risk adverse, so then I think about it with a swimmer’s mindset. I wouldn’t want to give yes or no, a lot comes down to where you are, access points, looking at the tides, information about rips and currents. 

Kate: As a beginner you can learn from and enjoy being with other people. But if we narrow it down to a safety perspective, I think it’s a bit of a myth that you’re necessarily safer if you’re swimming with someone. There’s a story in my book where my sister and I got into a bit of trouble, she wasn’t making progress against a tide, and I realised that my chances of saving her were actually incredibly slim. I remembered how to do that rescue stroke from lifesaving at school, but if you can’t make progress against a tide you definitely won’t do it while towing a swimmer. It might psychologically feel safer, but actually you really just have to take responsibility for yourself. The OSS is all about swimming without lifeguards, without rules, and without payment. We don’t need looking after, but by the same token we do have to learn to look after ourselves. 

 ABOUT THE SPEAKERS: 

With thanks to our friends at alpkit for hosting ‘It’s Beginners’ Night’ webinar, in December 2022.