August 2023,  EXTRA,  View from the Water

Restore playfulness to your outdoor swimming

Swimming has the capacity to bring out our playful side, say Simon Griffiths.

I roughly divide my swimming into two activities: outdoors for adventure, play and relaxation; in the pool for training and fitness. It’s not an exact divide. I race in open water and I’ve been known to engage in handstand wars or games of piggy-in-the-middle in the pool. And just because I’m usually training in the pool doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. I’ve shared some ideas for keeping your pool training enjoyable in our August issue. 

However, I didn’t always allow myself to enjoy open water as I do now. The August issue is loosely themed around nostalgia and childhood memories of swimming, and around the capacity of water to bring out our playful side – something which some of us put aside at certain points in our lives.

As a child, while I trained with a club in the pool, swimming outdoors was about having fun: jumping waves at the beach, swinging on ropes, jumping from high places and messing about on inflatables (one of my treasured swimming toys was an old tractor-wheel innertube). 

Somewhere along life’s journey, that playfulness got lost. I went through a spell when swimming was only about training and performance. When you live with multiple demands on your time, there’s pressure to feel you’ve made the most of every moment. Why waste precious minutes on something as frivolous as play? Time spent in the water should be used to improve your swimming technique and build your fitness, right?

Well, no, obviously. There’s no rule that says that every time you’re in the water you should be training. Besides, being playful is good for us at any time of our lives, even when we’re busy and if the benefits are difficult measure. But there was a time when I had forgotten this.

Hopefully at this point you are shaking you’re head and thinking something like, how could anyone forget that outdoor swimming should be carefree, joyful and playful? But if you have relegated playfulness in swimming to something from your childhood, I’d encourage you to resurface it.

While the long warm days of summer are the best to enjoy playful time in the water, it was outdoor winter dipping that reignited playfulness in my swimming. In cold water, you can’t stay in long enough to train but it enlivens you and enhances your life in way that no training session can do. While it’s important to manage your safety, winter swimming is, by default almost, a playful activity – unless you’re training for something like an ice mile. It is also more social. Less time swimming leaves more time for chatting. And interestingly, while my training time was reduced, I didn’t notice any negative impact on my swimming performance. 

With winter swimming, I was feeling better about life and swimming just as well as before. That seemed like a winning combination to me, so I extended it to all my outdoor swimming. I now frequently stop to look around and take pictures, swing from ropes when I find them, jump from piers (after checking it’s safe to do so), and swim in the breakers looking for the best waves to surf.

When I shared a picture of myself on a rope swing recently, a friend replied with, “you’re such a child.” And I thought, yes! 

There is so much more to be gained from swimming than just improving or maintaining your fitness. If you find your swimming has become training drudgery, try reawakening your inner child and rediscovering the joy of playing in the water.

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.