Open water swimming for beginners – how to take the plunge safely

Dive in to find out more about how to start cold water swimming.

Swimming outdoors – also known as wild swimming, outdoor swimming and cold water swimming – continues to grow in popularity. Swim England estimates around 7.5 million people swim outdoors, whether that’s in an open water setting or an outdoor pool. And of that number, 2.1 million specifically said they favour wild locations, such as lakes, lochs, rivers and seas.

So why do they do it? Well, they’re reaping the many benefits of swimming for one. Swimming is a full-body workout that can reduce your risk of chronic illness, aid mental wellbeing and help to relieve stress. Those who regularly swim outdoors also credit the cold water temperatures with boosting their energy levels, circulation and immune system.

If that sounds appealing, we’re here to help with our guide on how to start cold water swimming.

Male and female swimmers wearing caps and dressed for a swim, stand lakeside prior to their wild swim.Credit: Shutterstock/Ground Picture

What is open water swimming?

In essence, open water swimming is the physical activity of swimming in natural water or in a managed outdoor facility. Instead of the familiar four walls of your indoor pool setting, you have the tranquillity and beauty of the surrounding nature to tune into. But bear in mind that you may also have company from inhabitants of the water, such as fish, slimy vegetation and insects.

Typical outdoor swimming venues can include:

  • Lidos
  • Reservoirs
  • Quarries
  • Lakes and lochs
  • Rivers
  • The sea

The good news is you don’t need to invest in any specific wild swimming kit to begin with. Wearing a costume or a pair of shorts along with a bobble hat (if it’s chilly) is more than enough to get started.

“You definitely don’t need to have any specialist kit, such as a wetsuit, at first,” says Rowan Clarke, an outdoor swimming coach and keen wild swimmer. “You can absolutely make do with what you already have in terms of swimwear. What’s really important, however, is where you swim.”


How to prepare for a cold water swim

Before you set off on your first visit to your chosen open water swimming spot, there are some important preliminary steps to run through first.

Have a health check-up

Your first task is to check whether exercising in cold water is something that’s suitable for you by having a medical screening. This will look at factors including your respiratory, heart and nervous system health.

“It’s important not to underestimate the effect that the cold can have on some people, particularly those with underlying health conditions,” explains Dr Heather Massey, a senior lecturer in sport, health and exercise science at the University of Portsmouth. She’s also a keen open water swimmer.

“The first port of call is to make sure you’re medically fit and healthy to take part,” she says. “It’s really important to have a check-up before you go for a swim or dip in cold water, and this applies even before you try having a cold shower.”

Practice key outdoor swimming skills in your local indoor pool

Getting into a large body of cold water for the first time can be quite a shock to the system, so your local indoor pool can be a good way to prepare. Here are Swim England‘s top tips:

  • Make sure your preferred stroke is in good shape: most open water swimmers tend to swim either breaststroke or front crawl.
  • Try to get more competent with a second stroke, as it can be helpful to switch between the two. “You may need to recover in open water and breaststroke uses less energy than front crawl,” Swim England experts advise.
  • Try looking ahead more while you swim: this will help with spotting any potential risks or obstacles when swimming in open water.
  • Get used to treading water in the deep end: you could spend a lot of time doing this outdoors as you gradually get used to open water swimming.
  • Breathing both ways can also be beneficial: bilateral breathing helps to promote stroke balance and reduce fatigue when swimming wild.

Get to know more about cold water shock

There are three physiological responses associated with going into cold water, and Massey says it’s important to be informed about them before you go for your first swim.

“The first is the cold shock response, and we have this big inspiratory gasp then rapid, uncontrolled breathing and an increase in heart rate,” she explains. “This occurs for around 90 seconds when you first go into cold water.

“The second is cooling of the nerves and muscles close to the surface of your body, particularly in the arms and legs.

“The third is hypothermia as your deep body temperature falls below 35°C (95°F).”

With repeated immersions, this cold water shock effect will gradually reduce as you become more acclimatised to the temperature, she adds.


Next, think about where you’re going to swim

Research is a key part of preparing to swim outdoors and learning more about the options you have locally or further afield (if you’re open to travelling).

Social media is particularly useful for this, as you can connect with groups in your area and tap into their local knowledge, getting tips on good local swimming spots.

Clarke says Facebook is especially good, as you can find and connect with local groups just by using search words such as “wild swimming” or “outdoor swimming” plus your location.

She also recommends two beginner-friendly organisations: Mental Health Swims and the Blue Tits Chill Swimmers.

“Mental Health Swims hosts very inclusive and non-judgemental free local meetups in more than 150 UK locations,” says Clarke, “while Blue Tits is another fun, friendly and very inclusive group that hosts sessions all over the UK.”

Massey adds that local groups will be more aware of safety considerations and hazards, such as fast-flowing parts of a river or tides and currents in the sea that are best avoided.

8 cold water swimming tips

Congratulations, you’re about to embark on your first open water swimming experience. Here’s what you need to know as a beginner.

1. Don’t swim alone

Joining a local group session as a beginner can really help you to get to know the open water you’re about to go into, and there’s also safety in numbers.

2. Appreciate swimming in open water is very different

It will take time to acclimatise to swimming in cold water, so don’t put any pressure on yourself in terms of setting goals for how long you’re going to stay in or the distance you’d like to cover.

“You might only dip and not do any swimming for your first two or three open water experiences,” explains Massey. “It’s recommended that when you’re able to control your breathing and talk in full sentences, that’s the indication that you can start to swim. If you’re not able to do this, it’s advisable to stay within standing depth while you overcome the cold shock response and only think about swimming after that.”

3. Always enter slowly – don’t jump or dive in

It’s important to walk into the water slowly, staying close to your entry point until your body gets used to the cold temperature. Jumping or diving in could have potentially fatal consequences.

4. Check the water quality before you get in

The state of the UK’s waterways is a growing concern. For example, the marine conservation campaigning charity Surfers Against Sewage has found 75% of UK rivers pose a risk to people’s health.

But it is possible to continue to swim wild by being as informed as you can before you get in. You can check whether there have been any sewage spills upstream of where you want to swim via The Rivers Trust’s sewage map. This shows how many spills have happened at monitored locations in England and Wales over the previous year.

It’ll also give you a good idea of whether you’re in an area that could be exposed to raw sewage overspills. Another useful source of up-to-date pollution information is the Safer Seas and River Service app. Sadly, water pollution is also affecting the water quality of the UK’s seas and oceans.

“Before you enter, check for any visible signs that the water quality might not be good, such as any kind of froth or a difference in colour,” advises Clarke. “Use your nose and if the water doesn’t smell good, avoid getting in. Also be aware of any signs of plastic pollution, such as if there are cotton buds or wipes present in the water, or other things that people might flush down their toilets. This could be another sign that it wouldn’t be safe to get in.”

5. If sea swimming, use lifeguarded beaches

Look out for red and yellow flags, as these will denote the area of the beach that lifeguards have deemed safe to swim in.

6. Make sure you have permission to swim where you’re planning to go

Always take care to make sure you aren’t trespassing on private land, as not all reservoirs, lakes and rivers permit this. Many people choose to swim in open water settings such as lifeguarded beaches, or managed paid facilities such as lakes and reservoirs, for this reason (and they tend to have better water quality).

7. Know how you’re going to exit the water

Ensure you have an easy exit point, as the cold water can really sap your strength, Massey explains.

“It cools the nerves and the muscles located very close to the surface of your skin, particularly in your arms. These are going to be especially needed if you’ve got to climb out, and that’s going to make your exit from the water more challenging,” she says.

8. Post-cold water swimming – don’t shower immediately afterwards

Your core temperature can continue to drop for a while on departure from cold water (known as ‘the after drop’) so, although tempting, a warm shower straight afterwards isn’t wise as your body needs to warm up gradually.

Start by taking off your wet clothes and putting on several warm, dry layers. A dry robe can be useful for changing outdoors and helping you to stay warm. Our favourite is the Charlie McLeod Long Sleeve Eco Sports Cloak (RRP £129.99, although we’ve seen it for as little as £70 on Amazon). Take a look at our pick of the best changing robes for more options.

A hot drink will also help to warm you up from the inside.

Clarke adds that if you want to shower straight after a swim because you’re worried about the water quality, it’s important that the water temperature is cool.

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Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her


Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time.

She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante,, Primary Health Care, Community Practitioner, CareKnowledge and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

Away from work, Julie is a huge Sunderland fan, loves watching football, athletics and swimming (live whenever possible!) and is a long-term vegetarian. She also loves to run, swim and practise yoga.

Previously, she loved to race too but since 2018, this has been firmly put on the backburner due to her having back-to-back sports injuries, both of which required subsequent surgery. Julie was gearing up to a return to racing after five years, but a further injury has hampered her imminent plans. Instead, recovering well is top of her list at the moment.

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