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Open Water Swimming ~ Q & A with Dawn Smith

Updated: Feb 26

Photo courtesy of Dawn Smith


I first met Dawn last year, when I attended a group swimming lesson at Midland Open Water. It was important to me to be able to prepare to swim in open water. Whilst I had experienced paddling in streams, and a few sea swims throughout my life, and am a competent indoor swimmer, I really wanted to make sure that I knew what I was doing before getting into open water, and that I had the ability to cope. You can see a photo of our lesson below. Mine is the pink float and Dawn is leading the group.


 

I had a huge fear of getting into an unknown space, especially with the uncertainty of what’s in the water beneath. Dawn is an excellent teacher, and really helped to allay my fears. I learnt correct breathing technique, and how to handle being out in open water, with no ‘sides’ of the pool to grasp onto.

 

As a result of learning with Dawn, I have since completed several outdoor swims, and look forward to completing many more this year

 

In the meantime, it was a pleasure to catch up with Dawn again recently for a chat about the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of wild swimming, her own journey to becoming a swimming instructor, and the services that Dawn provides which are designed to help you on your open water swimming journey.

 

How did you first get into wild swimming? 

 

I have been swimming since I was very young, training with my local club and racing but then when I went to University, I gave it up. Life got in the way, however I always felt like something was missing. 

 

When my children were small I saw adverts for the Great Swim Series and something lit a spark and got me back into enjoying swimming.  It was over fifteen plus years ago. Open water swimming was starting to grow in popularity.

 

So, keen to see what it was all about, I sorted my wetsuit and kit in advance, and I went along and I got in the lake and I swam. It was a well-organised one-mile swim which I enjoyed a lot. I hadn’t really done a lot of outdoor swimming prior to that, apart from when I was on holiday. 

 

Something about the feel of being outdoors, the escapism, the feeling of being in open water and not following the black line up and down a pool really sparked a passion for open water swimming. Initially, I would just swim in the summer months. 

 

I already used a lot of venues around the Midlands for open water swimming. Despite being geographically landlocked, we do have quite a few venues; Midland Open Water Centre, Cliff Lakes, Dosthill, Stoney Cove. 

 

A friend of mine sent me a link to Midlands Open Water because they were advertising for an Open Water Swimming Coach. 

 

I love swimming at Midlands Open Water. It gives a very true experience of wild swimming because it's just about swimming in the lake. There are no changing rooms and it’s all outdoors. It's more of a ‘wild swim’.  The lake is beautiful, peaceful and the people who swim there are all very welcoming. 


 Photo courtesy of Dawn Smith


What inspired you to become a wild swimming instructor? 

 

Certainly, during the pandemic, I was able to think about what I wanted to do and looking for an escape from being on the laptop. I already loved swimming, I trained as a swim teacher in my teens, and I saw an advert for a qualification in open water swim coaching, a course run by the STA and led by Keri-Anne Payne, a GB Olympian open water swimmer

 

So, I signed up, and completed the course (a mix of classroom and practical sessions). Having this qualification has provided the opportunity to be able to help others to build their awareness and confidence to experience the joy of swimming outdoors in open water. 

 

Swimming in Open Water gives you a feeling of ‘awe;’ being completely immersed in the elements of the outdoors clears your mind of everything else. 

 

The more people that I took out on sessions, the more my passion for coaching others grew.

 

I would say that the majority of people that I have coached have come to wild swimming for mindfulness and well-being benefits, and through a desire to try something different, or face a challenge or overcome a fear. Although I have coached people at all levels, including swimmers racing in swim events, Triathlons and National level competition.


 Photo courtesy of Dawn Smith

 

What are the benefits of wild swimming and open water swimming?

 


There are the obvious things such as the benefit of exercise, the impact of being outdoors and the positive impact on well-being and mental health.  Open water swimming can also boost your mood, increase energy levels, reduce inflammation and muscular pain However there is growing scientific evidence on the wider benefit of immersing in cold water. 

 

I recommend a BBC Radio podcast called Cold Therapy. It’s a 15-minute listen, presented by Michael Moseley. There is an episode is entitled called ‘Cold Water Swim’. Michael talks about research which has recently been undertaken which explores the benefits of wild swimming on boosting your mood and potentially improving brain health. 

 

Personally, for me, there is an absolute buzz around when you get into the water, - your heart rate and breathing starts to increase, so you have to relax your breathing and this helps to bring a sense of calm, almost like being in a trance-like state.

 

The feeling of the cold water on my skin is exhilarating and after you swim, as the blood rushes back to the surface of the skin, it is an amazing feeling which is hard to describe unless you experience it!. 

 

It is important to do any wild swimming in a safe environment and to know that you must get warm and dry as quickly as possible after you exit the water.

 

Honestly, though,  if you could bottle the feeling you get from wild swimming, the feeling of peace and calm, ‘the thrill of the chill’, it would be priceless

 

I have had the pleasure of swimming in some beautiful places, I have swum across Windermere, Lake Coniston, along the Thames, Lake Annecy in France, you get to experience places of wonder from a totally different perspective and has a huge impact on my mental health and wellbeing.

  

I have a quote in my office which my husband bought for me: “you're just one swim away from a good mood”, because he understands how much benefit I get from wild swimming.

 

The quote is so true. I love it. Wild swimming gives you a whole different mindset 

 

 Photo courtesy of Dawn Smith


What should someone do if they are interested in swimming in open water?

 

 Start with an organised group, find a location that is an organised swimming centre, and complete an introduction to open water session to learn how to be safe.  There is an app called WILD founded by Keri-Anne, Payne, which can also be found at wildopenwater.com.

 

It’s a great resource for anyone who loves swimming outdoors. You can find places to swim, groups, and coaches in your area.

 

You will also find information about how to go about wild swimming in a safe way. Yes, you are taking a risk, and you do need to be aware of the risks, so that you can be prepared, and have a safe experience.

 

If someone is thinking of trying wild swimming, what level of competency do you recommend that they have before going in to open water, and what are your top tips?

 

It really depends to what level you want to swim. Remember that you have no access to hold on to the side of the pool, as you would with an indoor swim – it’s going to be a continuous swim, in water that is often out of your depth. In this respect, I recommend that you're able to tread water and realistically, you should be able to confidently swim a minimum of 400 metres in the pool.

 

Mostly, you have to be a competent swimmer. You don't have to be swimming at a competitive level, or to be able to swim a particular stroke. For example, you don’t need to be able to swim front crawl - you can do breaststroke with your head out.

 

In fact, sometimes it's nice to be able to do breaststroke because you can take in the view when your head is outside the water!. 

 

Don't plan to start open water swimming in the winter - your body will take time to acclimatize. Generally, the open water season starts in April until September.

 

Go to an organised venue and find a beginner’s introduction session - as the water temperature drops through the season, your body begins to acclimatise. 

 

Once you have mastered swimming through the warmer months, you can start to get down to cold-water swimming or even ice swimming below 5 degrees! - but really, for every beginner, I recommend a gentle introduction to it and to do it safely. 

 

If you have a known underlying health condition, please, consult with your GP before embarking on any wild swimming, all swimmers will feel the impact and there is a risk of cold-water shock and when you have a health condition, any extra impact on your heart and your body puts you under additional stress, so please do get clearance from your GP or healthcare professional. 

 

 

What services do you offer?

 

I offer open water instruction right from people wanting to dip their toe in the water, those building their confidence, through to people wishing to enter and compete in an event who want to learn how to sight and turn fast around the buoys.

 

I've had people from all levels of swimming ability come  to a session. I get people who are swimming outdoors for the first time to people who are competing at a national level. It's really a varied role, and  coaching can be anything from a swim around the lake to help build confidence with a group of like-minded individuals, to people who wish to improve their skills to race competitively.  People have also come to me where their GP has advised them to try wild swimming to help with PTSD and depression. 

 

 

What locations do you cover? 

 

I work within the Midlands, primarily based at Midlands Open Water.  Using an organised venue ensures that we are swimming in a safe environment where the water has been tested and there is support on land if required.

 

 

Where can people find out more? 

 

 

 


 


As a CIMSPA-accredited personal trainer with an interest in the promotion of health and the prevention of disease, I would love to hear from you.


You can find more information about the services I offer via the links below.



Links to my blogs about wild swimming, including video footage, are below.




Best wishes

Tonia

 

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