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Although we continue through these challenging times; there have been a few signs that things might soon be returning to some kind of normal. In the last few weeks, several open water swimming venues have started reopening their doors. Meaning people can once again enjoy their dose of all important Vitamin Sea (or Lake).
With a lot of gyms and pools remaining closed, and a return to many races still looking a fair way off; now could be the perfect opportunity to try something new. So, why not make that new something open water swimming?
The health and well being benefits of any swimming are numerous and well documented. From lowering blood pressure, to being a superb low impact cardio workout to compliment other training (especially for high impact sports such as running), swimming has it all.
Two time winner of the Paris- Nice, and current Trek- Segafredo rider Richie Porte, uses swim workouts regularly during his training blocks . He claims it’s a great way to work on aerobic capacity and fitness, while also allowing the joints and muscles to stretch out and recover. Swimming is also great recovery for runners as it will stretch out and loosen muscles that have been tightened and constricted by pounding the pavement. And also for cyclists as it works the calves, quads and (importantly) lower back.
Swimming is also a great core stability and strength workout. So, excellent to help you improve your run posture or work on that all important aero position on the bike. Kick sets in particular are a great workout for the hip flexors. This group of muscles (located at the top of the femur) are notorious injury points for runners, and suffer compression on the bike. Strengthening and stretching these muscles regularly is important for injury prevention. Multi Guinness World Record breaking ultra runner Martin Parnell has written on benefits of swimming for recovery and injury prevention in ultra running.
When you take up open water swimming, you can enjoy all of these benefits. However, there are a few others that come courtesy of the great outdoors.
When the body is immersed in cold water, the immune system is ’shocked’ and thus stimulated. This results in increased production of white blood cells and antioxidants. Studies have shown that immersing the body in cold water for an hour three times a week increases white blood cell counts, which help fight infection and boost your immune system. The stimulation of the immune system also increases production of antioxidants. Thus, open water swimming can reduce your risk of any number of conditions, from heart disease to the common cold!
While we’re talking about heart health; regular open water swimming has also been proven to improve circulation. When the body is exposed to cold water, blood rushes to the major organs. This increases the heart rate, and making our hearts work a little bit harder. Improved circulation also means that toxins are more readily flushed out of the system. The result of which is clearer skin and a greater sense of overall well being.
The changes in circulation, brought about by cold water swimming, can also have an anti inflammatory effect. This is great for recovery, especially if you’ve been putting in hard runs or rides. Think ice bath. Ice baths are used by top athletes all over the world to assist with recovery. They work because your body reacts to the cold temperature by directing blood away from the limbs to protect vital organs. The reduced blood flow in your limbs decreases inflammation, allowing the muscles to recover much quicker. A regular cold water swim can give you all the recovery benefits of an ice bath, while also being a great cardio workout.
Because of the colder water, your body will convert more energy from fat to fire up your metabolism. This is because your body is fighting to keep your core temperature stable. Research has shown that the increased metabolic effect of open water swimming can lead to around a 200 Kcal/hour higher calorie burn than swimming at a similar rate and effort level in a swimming pool.
Literally. It is well known that physical activity increases production of the feel good neurotransmitters called endorphins. Endorphins are a natural painkiller, that are also know to help improve mood and tackle feelings of stress and anxiety.
The cold water immersion, involved in open water swimming, causes a stinging sensation (think of the feeling when you first get in a cold shower). This sensation stimulates the brain to release even more endorphins, leading to feelings of elation when you exit the water.
Exercise also increases secretion of dopamine (the happy hormone) which leads to feelings of excitement and euphoria. Due to the increased stresses placed on the body by swimming outdoors, this dopamine effect is greater for open water swimmers. Reports have shown that dopamine levels can be increased by up to 250%, when swimming in water of temperatures below 14oC.
There is a special camaraderie among open water swimmers. This friendship and respect has now spread into the online world. There are countless groups and blogs online dedicated to open water and wild swimming. So, even as a beginner, and of course adhering to social distancing guidance, you can feel like part of a supportive community.
If you are a beginner to open water swimming it is a good idea to consider safety before starting out.
Think about your kit. Using a wetsuit can assist with buoyancy as well as reducing the risk of cold water shock. Use of a tow float (a brightly coloured inflatable bag, attached to a swimmer by leash or cord used primarily to increase visibility) can also be really useful if you develop cramp or need to take a rest.
If you are new to a particular venue, it can be a good idea to do a little research before you go. Always enter cold water slowly (including where you do not know the water temperature). Beginners to open water swimming should attend supervised sessions, with appropriate safety cover. It is not advisable for (especially new) open water swimmers to swim alone.
For more information on swim and open water safety, please visit the RLSS. Further information can also be found through Institute of Swimming and the RNLI.
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