River swimming for beginners: how to swim in rivers

Want to swim in your local river but are unsure when and how is the safest way to dip your toe in? Swim coach Richard Smith has all the advice you need before you take the plunge…

Female wild swimmer in the River Lea, Hertfordshire, UK

There are a few things you need to consider before going river swimming – your swim goals, your swimming ability and experience of open-water swimming.


Ask yourself, is the choice to swim in a river based on access, preference for open water or to prepare specifically for a river swim event?

The risks of river swimming

River swimming can be idyllic, however, especially in the winter months, it presents significant risks to the inexperienced swimmer.

As an open-water swim specialist, I’d still recommend the pool as the best environment for working on specific stroke technique drills and winter conditioning.

Why lakes are safer than rivers for swimming

If you’re looking to develop open-water skills then a managed lake would be safer than rivers. However, if you’re looking for more challenging swims or to prepare for a river swim event then river swimming offers unique specificity.

Key guidelines to keep you safe when river swimming

If you are venturing into rivers to swim, then these are key guidelines to keep you safe:

  1. Know the body of water. Water source, risk of pollution/contaminants, flow rates and under currents, safe entry/exits points, potential under water hazards. Local knowledge is invaluable here.
  2. Dynamically risk assess the conditions, i.e. the water temp, flow and depth, air temp/wind chill, potential weather changes, potential debris or pollution in the water. Definitely avoid river swimming for 3-5days after a storm and when a river is in spate (a largely rain-fed, fast-flowing river).
  3. Never swim alone in rivers, and always have shore support, they are your call for help.
  4. Always swim upstream from safe entry/exit points or be very clear on where the next safe exit points are if swimming downstream.
  5. Understand your tolerance of cold water, swim within your capabilities and be prepared for your post-swim recovery if swimming in the winter. If you have a long walk back after your swim be prepared for ‘after drop’ and the risk of post-swim hypothermia. Have an ICE plan.
  6. If the conditions aren’t safe then you should walk away and accept that ‘today is a non-swimming’ day.

For more information on safe cold-water swimming you can find some useful videos here.