An Introduction to Open Water Swimming with Hero Douglas
Written By: SportsShoes
Want to know more about open water swimming?
We chat to the inspirational Hero Douglas who explains how she got into the sport, what you need to get started and why you should try it for yourself.
Hi Hero! Let's start with an introduction. Please tell us who you are and where you're from.
Hi! My name's Hero Douglas. I'm a musician and actor and have just been in a production of The Crucible at the National Theatre. When not working I’m mostly having adventures in the mountains which often culminate in a swim. I am on the Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue Team and have a diploma in Specialist Rescue and I’m doing a PhD in music.
I live in Capel Curig, and water cascades all around my house and often in the back door when it rains too much. Our village is frequently in the news for being one of the places with the most rainfall in the UK, but occasionally that would be because my brother and I would sneakily fill up the weather station with buckets of water from the lake as then Grandpa would ring saying we’d been on the news!
Please could you start by explaining what open water swimming is and why it is becoming so popular?
Open water swimming takes place in rivers, lakes and the sea or basically any stretch of water that isn’t a swimming pool. On warm summer days hordes of people are out trying to find a sneaky swim spot but the open water swimming community are a more determined bunch and go whatever the weather. They look forward to winter as the colder the water the more of a buzz afterwards.
Open water swimming became trendy after Lord Byron swum from Europe to Asia across the Hellespont in 1810 and now it’s rather a craze. In fact so much so that Outdoor Changing robes have become a fashion statement!
Open water swimming is also one of the most inclusive sports out there and that’s what I love the most. Meeting young and old, slim and overweight, fit and unfit. Everyone has a story about why they swim. Immersing yourself in cold water stimulates dopamine levels which trigger the release of endorphins, and this promotes pleasure. A growing body of studies show open water swimming is beneficial to mental health. If my life gets derailed by tricky occurrences, then swims help nurture me back to a happier place.
What is the difference between open water swimming and wild swimming?
Open water swimming and wild swimming are one and the same thing. The names are interchangeable, although in my mind I differentiate them slightly as I think of open water as a sport and swimming longer distances in the sea or bigger lakes. When I’m swimming in the river or smaller lakes around me having a bit more of a dip then I feel this is wild swimming.
Pictured: A young Hero takes to the water
When did you first start open water swimming and what do you love about it the most?
I was swimming in the mountain lakes around my home in Snowdonia before I could walk. My mum is still ridiculously proud that I crawled into the inky waters of Llyn Mymbyr and swam before I took my first steps. It's a tradition in my family to be buoyant before your first birthday. I used to wonder when I was child if I wasn't actually a fish - my Scottish surname means 'dark water'.
Later on, it was discovered that I only had part of my femur and no hip socket, so probably my love affair with water began because it masked my physical imperfections. Which is why, I think, swimming in mountain lakes and rivers is intricately connected to who I am. No other activity protects me in the same way.
I was surgically rebuilt when I was three and a half, and the orthopaedic team did an amazing job as now I can run, climb, and hike all of which I absolutely love but I have to say none of these create the same surge of physical wellness that accompanies open-water swimming. Afterwards, I glow for hours. It’s like nature’s Prozac.
How long do you swim for?
In nice weather I can easily be in for an hour and sometimes on and off all day but in the winter my swim time might be under ten minutes. However, it’s not about the time in the water it’s about the whole process. The walk in, getting changed outside in whatever the weather and trying to get dressed afterwards when you are a bit disorientated by the cold. Since water is around 800 times denser than air, it's the best low-impact exercise so even a short swim is beneficial. I never seem to get colds or fall ill when I’m open water swimming but the moment I’m too busy with work and in a stuffy theatre for twelve hours a day I get everything that’s going!
I was about four when I did my first proper swim at the glacially formed Llyn Tegid (also known as Bala Lake - the largest lake in Wales). It was hailing and I remember how icy-cold my skin felt when I took off my clothes. I was scared of the mythical monster Teggie (so much more terrifying than Nessie), rather than of the swim itself. I remember running round like crazy afterwards and refusing to get dressed till suddenly I was shaking like a leaf! Since then, I must have swum in hundreds of the crisp and wild rivers and lakes surrounding my home. The water is so pure it feels like you’ve had a beauty treatment at a spa.
Do you always need to wear a wetsuit? And how do you cope with the shock of cold water? Is this something your body gets used to?
I don't usually wear a wetsuit unless I want to stay in for a long training session when the water is below 12°C. I enjoy the feel of the water on my skin, although in winter without a wetsuit my 'swims' are more of a fleeting splash. In those conditions, getting in without one requires a calm acceptance of the cold. I have to remain meditative from the moment I undress. I wade in slowly without much hesitation and then when I’m in the right zone I barely feel the icy sensation at all. The open water swimmers' absolute trick for making it easy to get in is wearing wetsuit gloves and wetsuit socks and a beanie. I assume it’s because then these extremities can’t tell your brain how cold it is so you don’t get that message and it’s so strange as you can just get in whatever the temperature.
I try to never let myself think too much about the cold and keep my mind blank until I'm fully submerged, and then any fleeting discomfort soon passes and is replaced by a rush of happiness. The water feels like an electrical current and the euphoria of it stays with me all day.
Do you need to wear anything on your feet?
I don’t like water shoes or wetsuit boots as they are awkward to swim in but wetsuit socks are great. They stop the rocks hurting, have a bit of grip and trick your mind into thinking it’s warmer than it is!
Is it a seasonal activity or can you swim all year round?
Yeah of course! I swim all year round. In the winter it’s a bit more of a faff as you have to take more kit to get warm afterwards. It’s good to have a hot water bottle to hug afterwards and a flask of coffee. Sometimes if I’m really busy I don’t go for a month say over Christmas and then when I first go in again in January it’s a bit of a shock to the system!! I’m much more consistent with going all the time during the warm weather. It’s so nice being able to remain in for ages and sitting in the sun afterwards. My brother and I would stay in all day on hot days when we were little. We played this game with our German Shepherd, Brecon - we would enter the water at the far side of Llynnau Mymbyr and have to make our way all through the village and down the Afon (River) Llugwy without our feet touching the ground. The river is popular for kayaking, and we'd meet all these serious paddlers looking aghast as we passed them just holding on to our dog. The two-mile journey would end at the Tyn-y-Coed Inn where we'd meet our friends and play on the rope swing. The parents would eventually congregate and we'd have pizzas in the pub.
I also absolutely love my Ruck Raft as then I can have micro adventures combing mountains and lakes (my two favourite things). I’ve got a few round me that are fun such as swim Snowdon. I also still swim with my dog although now it’s a fairly young pup called Mabon. He has a life jacket which keeps him confident on longer distances.
What advice do you have in terms of safety? Is it safe to swim alone?
In sub-12°C water it’s important to get in slowly as diving in can cause cold water shock (CWS) which affects your ability to move or breath properly. There is always a risk of drowning and it’s really important to acclimatise. If you are a newbie definitely join one of the many open water swimming groups as you will not only get masses of support but also make friends for life. I wouldn’t swim alone until you are quite experienced with how cold water impacts your ability to function. Cold water can make your limbs go floppy as the blood gets diverted to your core for warmth. It's an odd sensation, that loss of power in your arms and legs and a tow float is very reassuring. I once got semi-hypothermic and was close to being carted off by medics at an open-water event in Llyn Padarn, and I'd only done a quarter of my planned six-mile distance. Every 1.5 miles the swimmers had to come out to be checked over by the organisers; I was incoherent, so I wasn't allowed back in. But mostly I swim alone - I like the solitude - so I never take risks.
What equipment do you need to get started?
Kit-wise you don’t really need much to get started, a wetsuit is great but when I’m not wearing one I tend to stick with wetsuit gloves, socks and a beanie. I would also recommend wearing a neoprene swimsuit as it's as easy to put on as a bikini but keeps your vital organs a bit warmer and trebles a swims duration. I always take my tow float safety buoy just in case I get into difficulty. It also has a dry bag compartment for your phone while swimming and I use this to put my wet kit in on the walkout afterwards.
What is your most memorable open water swimming experience?
I was always intrigued by the story of my namesake, Hero, who, according to Greek mythology, lived on the European side of the Hellespont and would light a lantern each night to guide her lover Leander so he could swim across from the other side - but one time it blew out and he lost his way and drowned. She then threw herself into the sea and died as well. I swam it when I was 14, and it was quite incredible and a bit scary. The wind had picked up and the sea was really rough, but I made it across in 1 hour 48 minutes.
Do you have any top tips?
I’d recommend everyone to start open water swimming and although the easiest way is to keep it up all year round so the water temperature changes imperceptibly, it’s also fine to just start now. Give it a go and I absolutely promise your life will improve. The wonderful thing is also there is no body shaming in the open water swimming community. We come in all shapes and sizes and it is the most welcoming group you could ever meet. No one’s elitist or cares how fit you are or the distance you can go. Everyone you meet will encourage you every stroke of the way and will just be thrilled you’re there enjoying this sport which is like nectar for the soul. And you don’t need any kit to get involved other than a bit of time. I love how open water swimming makes every particle of my body feel regenerated and my mind razor-sharp. The overriding sensation post-swim is euphoria and a long-lasting sense of joy. I think of it as a soul sport.
Where is your favourite place to swim in the UK?
I’m a bit of a creature of habit when I’m home and so most days I take my pup Mabon out into the Gwydir Forest and we do a circular walk which includes a dip in Llyn Bodgynydd. It’s a hidden off the beaten track lake that most people can’t be bothered to get to and so you’ll probably have it to yourself even on a summer bank holiday weekend. It is technically a reservoir but I’m part of the growing swim trespass movement calling for open access rights to swim more freely. I hope that Wales will soon follow Scotland’s lead where swimmers have the right to swim in almost all the Scottish reservoirs, thanks to the 2003 Land Reform Act and ‘right to roam’ but my second recommendation for the law abiding is Llyn Mymbyr!
Hero is an Orca Sportswear ambassador. You can follow all her wild adventures here
All photographs courtesy of Hero Douglas.