Suzanna Cruickshank's tips for getting into outdoor swimming this year

February 01, 2021 3 min read

Top wild swimming tips from Lake District swim guide Suzanna Cruickshank

The popularity of outdoor swimming has been booming for several years now and during the months of pool closures in 2020 and into 2021 interest has rocketed. People took to outdoor waters out of necessity and are now discovering the fantastic benefits that wild swimmers have always raved about.

Apart from the obvious benefits of exercise, studies are underway to prove the anecdotal evidence that outdoor swimming can help with the effects of depression, improve circulation, reduce stress, and even increase your libido!

Swim guide Suzanna Cruickshank in the Lake District

It’s vital when swimming in cold water that you put your safety first and spend time learning about your environment before plunging in. Here are my top tips for getting into wild swimming this year:

Layer up
Don’t worry about what anyone else is wearing, wear what is right for you. A wetsuit will give you some warmth and buoyancy while you get used to this new activity. In cold water, your body protects your vital organs by drawing blood to your core which means your hands and feet will get cold quickly. Whether I am in my wetsuit or just a swimsuit, I always wear neoprene socks and gloves to protect my extremities. Cover your head too
 a bobble hat plus a spare in case it gets wet, or a swim-cap. It’s a myth about quite how much heat we lose through our heads but cold wet hair is not your friend when trying to warm up afterwards.

Invest in some safety equipment
Outdoor swimming is not like running or cycling where you can easily stop to rest when you feel fatigued. A tow float is a must for open water
 it keeps you visible to other water users and gives you something to lean on for a rest or in case of cramp. You can also consider a throw-line for land-based companions, a dry bag for your phone and keys, and a first aid kit. Pop a whistle on your float in case you need to attract attention, it’s more efficient and effective than shouting.

Swim guide Suzanna Cruickshank in the Lake District

Don’t swim alone
Go with a friend. They will help quell your nerves and (metaphorically) hold your hand. It is easy to get carried away as the swimmers high hits, a more experienced friend will know when to get out while you are still learning your limits. If you haven’t got anyone to swim with, an on-shore buddy to hold your towel and clothes can keep an eye on you. Swim parallel with the shore and show them how to use a throw-line in case of an emergency.

Forget the thermometer
Open water temperatures will range from mild, cool, and cold, to bloody freezing. Save spending money on a thermometer and buy a pie instead.

Wear a watch
I almost never take the water temperature but I always wear a watch. I keep a record of swim times and weather conditions to build a picture of my capabilities throughout the year.

Swim guide Suzanna Cruickshank in the Lake District

Don’t jump or run in
Getting into cold water is not like ripping a plaster off. “Getting it over with” will increase your chance of cold water shock and hyperventilation. Calm your breathing and enter the water slowly. Pat water on your body to prepare for full submersion. Maintain calm breaths and aim to take a long exhalation with your first stroke.

Don’t go too far
It’s better to do too little than too much. You will still need energy to get changed and warmed up afterwards so make sure you keep something in reserve. Build up your distances gradually and stay parallel with shore especially in winter so you can get out easily in case of fatigue, cramp or an emergency. Remember, regular short dips are more beneficial to your overall acclimatisation level than staying in too long.

Swim guide Suzanna Cruickshank in the Lake District

Warm up slowly 
Afterdrop and hypothermia can strike at any time of year, not just winter. Swimming outdoors can lower your body temperature by as much as four degrees and you should allow at least thirty minutes of re-warming before you think about cycling or driving home. Make sure you have plenty of warm clothes, a warm drink and something to eat. Don’t have a hot shower, or be tempted by your car heating immediately after a swim. This will draw the warmth from your core and leave you vulnerable to afterdrop. Warm up slowly and naturally for best results. Embrace thermal underwear and leave the hot shower until you are completely back to normal.
Don’t stress it
Swimming in cold water is not easy, especially in winter. If you need to wear a wetsuit go for it. There are no rules and it is not a competition. I sometimes have a break from swimming, especially in the business end of winter. The water will still be there when I come back.


Suzanna Cruickshank's book, Swimming Wild in the Lake District, is available now