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How open water swimming can benefit your physical and mental wellbeing

Thinking about taking up open water swimming and wondering what the benefits are? World record-holding Masters swimmer, Helen Gorman, talks you through the physical and mental boost you can get by spending time swimming in the great outdoors.

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Swimming in open water isn’t just beneficial, it’s a way of life for many people. Participation in open water and wild swimming soared during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, when public pools were forced to close. But the number of people enjoying open water swimming has remained high since then, even after the pools re-opened.

So what is it about swimming in open water that’s got so many people hooked? Whether you’re training for an event that has a sea, lake, or river swimming element to it, or you simply enjoy swimming outdoors. You might be wondering just how good your open water swimming is for you. Writer and world-record holding Masters swimmer Helen Gorman guides you through the numerous benefits of open water swimming.

What are the health benefits of open water swimming?

Swimming in natural, outdoor environments is beneficial to both body and mind. Fitness levels are improved through regular training. And there’s also the release of mood-enhancing endorphins, which contributes to overall wellbeing. For those that brave the open water all year round, cold water swimming and immersion also has lots of reported benefits. From aiding recovery and reducing inflammation, to boosting your immune system and reducing stress and anxiety.

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Improved fitness and endurance

Swimming in open water is a great way to improve your cardio fitness and muscular endurance. In fact, the training effect can even be better than swimming in a pool if you consider that there are no walls interrupting your flow, and you probably can’t touch the bottom. You’re also not likely to encounter other swimmers holding you up as they can in a public pool lane swimming session! That means less time spent waiting at the wall for a suitable gap.

Top Tip

Mindful, steady swimming with a focus on enjoying the moment and taking in your surroundings are great for mental health. But if you want to improve your swimming endurance and fitness, you should treat open water swimming like other training activities. Warm up properly, do some drills (practicing breathing patterns, sighting, pack swimming, stroke drills etc), and then build into harder efforts before cooling down, stretching, and hydrating.

Depending on what you’re training for, you may want to do shorter or longer efforts at race effort or above – this will be more effective than simply getting in and covering a particular distance or swimming for a certain amount of time, although those things have their place, too.

Open water swimming provides the opportunity to do uninterrupted, longer efforts in different conditions, some of which may require more strength. For example if you’re swimming against tides, or in choppy conditions.

open water swimming sea swimming sumarpo wetsuit
Swimming in open water can help to improve your swim endurance.

It’s important to note that improved fitness and endurance from open water swimming will only come about if you work at it. Dipping or floating for enjoyment are great for your mental health. but won’t do as much for your fitness. You may also find that you can’t spend as much time in open water as you would in a heated pool, due to lower temperatures or trickier conditions.

Faster recovery through cold water immersion

Plenty of athletes and sports scientists alike believe that an ice bath is a beneficial recovery strategy after exercise. So dipping or swimming in cold open water becomes a slightly less frosty version of an ice bath. The benefits of cold water swimming can include a reduction of swelling, inflammation, muscle spasm and pain. Immunity may also receive a boost via a cold water induced stress response which triggers an increase in white blood cells.

To feel the benefit, you need to immerse yourself for somewhere between 5-15 minutes in 10-20 degree water. If you’re doing it regularly, 1-5 min per immersion will bring about benefits. Used as part of an overall recovery strategy including good quality sleep, balanced nutrition, using compression gear and regular stretching. Cold water immersion could help you to bounce back faster after a tough training day.


Can open water swimming help to improve mental health?

Open water swimming can be quite tribal, in a positive way. A lot of open water swimmers tend to swim in groups. This is partly because of the increased risks that are associated, but also because group swimming is just a bit more fun. It’s generally a sociable activity where you get to connect with like-minded people as well as nature. And there’s always the ‘excuse’ to grab a coffee afterwards to warm up!

wild swimming benefits
Spending time in nature and meeting likeminded people can help to boost your mental health as well as improve your physical fitness.

Mental health charity, Mind, cites that 1 in 4 people have mental health problems and that physical activity can improve mental health through better sleep, happier mood, managing stress, anxiety or intrusive thoughts, and it can be a positive coping strategy in difficult times.

The charity acknowledges that for some people, exercise can be a trigger for mental health issues. This might be the case in an open water swimming environment that is perceived as dangerous or risky. However, it’s also the case that the brain learns to manage repeated exposure to the same stressful environment over time.

This reduction in stress translates into other areas of life – ‘cross-adaptation’ is a process where one form of stress adapts the body for another.


Be mindful of the risks while enjoying the benefits of open water swimming

While there are so many ways that open water swimming is good for you, it’s important not to forget that in its nature – it comes with risks. But there are simple things you can do to make open water swimming a safe and enjoyable part of your life. Swim within your limits, wear highly visible kit, swim with others and know the hazards specific to your swim location. There are also plenty of managed and lifeguarded open water swimming locations for added peace of mind. Check out our guide to swimming safely in open water for more tips.

Ready to take the plunge and start enjoying the benefits of open water swimming? Head over to our open water swimming section for gear guides, training tips and more.

What is open water swimming?

Open water swimming is any form of swimming that takes place outside of a swimming pool, in outdoor bodies of water. This can include lakes, reservoirs, rivers and the sea/ocean.

Is open water swimming good for you?

Yes! As long as you swim in safe, clean locations and avoid any hazards or risks. Open water swimming is a great way to boost your physical and mental wellbeing.

What to wear for open water swimming?

What to wear depends on the temperature of the water you’re swimming in, and how long you plan to swim for. If the water is warm or you just want to take a dip, then a swim suit is fine. If the water is cooler and you want to swim for a longer period of time, consider wearing a wetsuit.

How can I get better at open water swimming?

Practice makes perfect. The more often you swim in open water, the better you’ll get at it. But there are also things you can practice in the swimming pool to help you feel more comfortable in open water – check out our tips from Jonny Brownlee.

Helen Gorman
Written by
Helen Gorman
Helen is part of the editorial team at TRI247 after spending ten years as a Press Officer with British Triathlon. She's mostly found at a pool, sometimes breaking world masters records.
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