Open water swimming’s popularity has grown significantly since the 10km Marathon races were included in the 2008 Olympic Games. The explosion in growth can also be attributed to the increase in commercial operators organising open water races and events suitable for all abilities.
According to Swim England, the number of regular open water swimmers in the UK is now an estimated 550,000, with around 120 open water competitive events ranging from fundraising swims to the national Swim England championships each year So what is it that draws individuals to swim in lakes, rivers and oceans in all weather and seasons?
Like indoor swimming, open water swimming is a very good form of exercise, and regular outdoor swimmers will say it boosts their fitness, circulation, energy and immune system, and helps their bodies to recover from trauma, injury and mental health issues.
Hannah Maia, open water swimmer and creator of the film ‘My Big White Thighs & Me’, encourages us all to turn down the volume on the demands of the world. Her award-winning short film is about womanhood, miscarriage, healing, loving your own skin and freezing your bottom off in cold water. My Big White Thighs & Me is Hannah’s personal account of how she rebalanced her life and began to appreciate the small things by dipping her feet and taking the plunge.
Maia says: “I started open water swimming as a way to heal my mind and body after suffering a miscarriage. I wanted a series of small monthly challenges that over the course of the year would add up to something bigger, enduring the coldest swims in the iciest of waters; to seek out the adrenaline and the endorphins from nature to restore me.”
The open water swimming community has hundreds of clubs across the UK, which are famously inclusive and sociable. They are community-based and consider themselves to be very much a swimming family, organising regular group swims at sites around the country.
Ilse Powell who regularly swims at Bournemouth with her local open water group, says: “Swimming in the sea is a million times better than being in a pool. I feel alive in the waves; I love the feel of the water, its life-affirming. In many ways, it’s similar to practising yoga, you have to focus on your breathing and feel the rhythm of the sea. It is important to control your body’s natural gasp reflex to the extreme cold.”
Powell who recently trained in a Surf Life Saving Course continues “We swim together in groups for our safety, and although our group doesn’t have hard rules, we are always sensible in the sea and constantly reassess the conditions. It’s important to have an understanding of the preparations necessary for open water and cold water swimming and to take acclimatisation seriously.
Sharon Lock, National Masters and Open Water Development Officer for Swim England says: “Over the last few years there seems to have been a change in attitude towards open water swimming. People are now embracing the outdoors and its natural elements and want to get away from their concrete lives. There is something profoundly liberating about stepping foot in open water and swimming; its escapism at its best.
“If you want to try outdoor swimming, you must be a confident pool swimmer in the first instance. Swimming outside requires common sense. Practice your strokes and treading water, and be aware of your surroundings and what to do if you need help. There are not always lifeguards and a support system nearby so we would always suggest you go with other people and never on your own.
“If you are not used to swimming in cold water, you must prepare your mind and body for a shock, and learn to control your breathing. We recommend using listed open swimming venues, wearing goggles, a wetsuit in the colder months and to always wear a brightly coloured swimming hat.”
The Swim England website has full details of open water venues and locations around the United Kingdom. Swim England Open Water Venues
In addition to the swimmer who wants to be at one with nature, there has also been a growth in the number of competitive multi-disciplined open water races, including triathlons and ironman competitions. The Open water swimming nature of these events can appeal to the adrenaline-seeking, highly competitive swimmer.
According to Triathlon Industry Association, in 2017 there were around 150,000 committed active triathletes in the UK. Other people do triathlon as a ‘bucket list’ activity. Sport England believes approximately 215,000 people in England did at least one triathlon in 2017.
Our SEQ Level 2 Coaching Open Water Swimming course uptake has nearly doubled in the last three years; further demonstrating the growing interest in this sport. The course is designed for anyone who is a Swim England swimming coach, swimming teacher or triathlon coach who wants to become an independent open water coach. The qualification is delivered through a mixture of online, classroom and practical learning, both poolside and in an open water environment.
Janet Slack, Institute of Swimming’s Delivery Manager and Open Water Coaching Tutor says: “We are thrilled with the demand for our open water coaching courses. It ensures that the best techniques and safety are being taught throughout the UK. Open water swimming is a fantastic form of exercise and we expect the popularity to keep on growing.”Whether you are an elite, competitive athlete, someone seeking the thrill of open wild swimming or simply someone who enjoys taking a dip, open water swimming does seem to appeal to the masses. It’s a leap of faith, it’s mind over matter, and once you’ve taken the plunge the benefits are limitless and without bounds.