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Top tips and swimming advice from Gilly McArthur

Feral Friend Gilly McArthur is a rock climber, year round adventure swimmer. Gilly is a great supporter of Swim Feral and last year we partnered with Sequence 13 for their new film Body of Water – following Gilly on her mental and physical journey to seek out remote, icy waters.

As the days begin to warm up (if only slightly!), Gilly recently pulled together her top tips and advice for getting into outdoor swimming this summer.

This was originally written as a Wonderful Wild Women blog for Wiggle in partnership with Speedo. 

The Lake District is defined by water. It has some of the largest bodies of water and highest mountains in the land.

Dotted across the rugged landscape are tarns, meres and rivers to plunge into. There is something for everyone, from a hesitant toe dipper to a hardened marathon triathlete.

I moved here 6 years ago, to be nearer the mountains,so coming from climbers background, have a deep understanding of the benefits to be had spending time in nature.

It’s been a joy to explore the horizontal liquid plains when the rock faces are unclimbable!

Why Outdoors? Why Swimming?

Time spent outdoors will boost your immune system, enhance creativity, help reduce high blood pressure, can alleviate stress and anxiety and even improve sleep.

There is even a word for the connection that humans intrinsically have with other living things. “Biophilia” was coined in 1984 by Edward Wilson and the evidence of the mental and physical benefits of exercising outdoors is now impossible to ignore.

I think the appeal of outdoor swimming is that as long as you can get to body of water and get in safely, you can have a wonderful experience regardless of ability, aside knowing how to swim!

Outdoor Swimmer Magazine suggests that there has been a 4-fold increase in participation since we were plunged into lockdown. With pools closing and screen use zooming stratospherically, to move freely outsideand find solace and connection with other like mindedpeople, it’s really not a surprise.

Jonathon Cowie Editor of Outdoor Swimmer comments:

“As well as the well-known physical and mental positive effects of exercising outdoors, wild swimming has some bonus benefits. Ask any outdoor swimmer and they will tell you how invigorated it makes them feel, but the reasons why are only beginning to be understood. A 2018 study looked at cold water swimming as a treatment for depression and in 2019 Cambridge University research suggested that it could also slow the onset of dementia.

“Whatever the science, many outdoor swimmers (myselfincluded) believe that regular immersion improves mood, reduces stress and strengthens the immune system. More than anything swimming outdoors is good for your physical and mental wellbeing. When you are swimming in nature, feeling the cool water on your skin, all your problems float away.”

Outdoor swimming provides quiet moments of reflection in a frantic world. What’s not to love?

‘That looks COLD!’

I choose to ‘skin swim’ (no wet suit) all year round. There is no right or wrong! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! Wetsuits prolong time in the water, aid buoyance and can help some people find confidence in a new medium. I love the freedom and feel of water on my skin. You do YOU!

Cold water can be very beneficial for helping symptoms of anxiety and depression, it increases cardio vascularcapabilities, increases libido (what’s not to like there!)helps reduce inflammation and banish aches.

The temperature is always the thing I’m asked about when I’m on a lakeshore, your body adapts to the cold over the years, and you learn to embrace over time. There is a deep hit of happy hormones and a doorway that opens into understanding that we are far greater than we think. Choose to skin swim? Go gently, it’s not a race, treat your open water journey with respect and read up!

Gilly seen underwater in a multicoloured swim suit swimming

Your First Time

Everyone remembers their first open water swim, people can become quite evangelical about it! I’ve taken many newbies to the water and I love seeing the reactions, the smiles and the chatter on the shore afterwards. Open water swimming is addictive - beware.

There are many considerations to swimming outside that really need to be understood before you take your first steps.

It’s worth noting sea swimming, river and lake swimming all throw up different considerations, so never swim alone, always know where you will exit and enter and do your research or hire a swim guide!

The Swimming Locations

Not all bodies of water are swimmable! Some may be on private land, be protected as sites of special scientific interest or be fisheries. Protected nesting birds may be aggressive, there may be have underwater hazards and a host of other considerations. Always best to do your research.

I think that the best swimmers are the most considerate swimmers when it comes to this pastime. Being courteous of local residents, park where there is parking and don’t squash verges or block gates.

Make sure that you leave no trace - and if that means picking up other people’s litter then do it! (You’ll win karma points I promise)

It’s always good to be kind to other water users too, keep a good distance away from anglers, pass by them quietly. Have a good awareness of boat traffic and if you are going to skinny-dip find a secluded spot. Not everyone is wants to see your peachy bum.

I prefer to walk in, unlike a swimming pool, underwater obstructions like rocks, weeds and branches can make diving potentially hazardous, even if you swim in the same place regularly high winds can change what lies beneath.

Close up of Gilly swimming with splashes coming up from the water.


As the temperature changes towards Summer you can often see blue green algae on the water surface, it looks like a green silky scum, it’s really obvious to see and can be toxic to swimmers and animals. Confusingly not all BGA is toxic!

If you see algae on the water you’ll have to make your own judgement but perhaps today isn’t a day to put your face in.

Bio security

Across the UK there is deadly work at play. Invasive species, mostly introduced in Victorian times are now playing havoc to natural habitats.

Here in the Lakes we have some nasty invasive species– one of the biggest issues is a green weed called New Zealand pygmyweed.

It was introduced as a plant for aquariums in the early 1900s and has now sadly transferred it’s way into the wilds. The plant is now banned in the UK however it is still rife.

It’s rampant, it chokes waterways and kicks out native species. Other non native species are being spread byunsuspecting water users, so we can all play a part in protecting wild swimming spots.

If you were swimming between bodies of water you can help by

- Check kit on leaving the water, look for a small tendrils of plants that maybe on your goggles or your shoes or on your kayak/SUP.

- Clean these off, be careful not to miss anything tiny.

- Dry the items - the best way to stop spread between bodies of water is to dry the kit fully, the blighters can’t abide being dried!

If we are swimming in lots of spots on a day we will have a suit per body of water. I make sure the wet swimming costumes go into a dry bag and are washed and dried out safely back at home. Again the kindness points for this activity are high, so give it a go!



If you are new to outdoor swimming and feel inspired to give it a go, please ensure you do so safely. 

If it's your first dip, don't go alone.  

The Outdoor Swimming Society has a great list of local swimming groups which is well worth checking out and a quick search on Facebook should provide results.

And if you have any questions, pop a post in the Swim Feral Facebook page and our fantastic community of swimmers will be sure to help. 

Happy swimming xx



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