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Open water competent vs a ‘good’ swimmer

This is something I hear a lot: “I’d love to go wild swimming but I’m not a good enough swimmer.”

Mostly, this isn’t true.

It could be that the people who tell me this genuinely can’t swim and were never offered the opportunity to learn as a child. We know that swimming provision is poor in many schools and Swim England estimate that around 14 million adults in England – around 1 in 3 – are unable to swim 25m in a pool. This is a shocking statistic and I find it painfully sad that so many people cannot do something that brings me so much joy.

However, when I quiz these people who are doubting their swimming ability, it usually turns out that they can, in fact, swim. Often, what holds them back, rather than their lack of swimming ability, are deeply held assumptions about what type of swimmer you need to be or a lack of confidence in their abilities combined with nervousness about open water. They may have memories of floundering through school swimming lessons while those children lucky enough to belong to a swimming club cruised effortlessly up and down the pool. They may think some special swimming skills are needed when you’re in a river, lake or ocean. They may only be able to swim breaststroke and think you need to swim front crawl. Or they may have been warned so often about the dangers of open water as a child that they believe it to be more dangerous than it is.

Being able to swim fast or a long distance clearly gives you lots of options and opportunities in open water but this doesn’t mean that people who don’t have these skills cannot enjoy the health and wellbeing benefits of wild swimming.

More important than being a good swimmer is being open water competent. And note, being a good swimmer in a pool, does not automatically make you open water competent. On the other hand, you can be open water competent without being what you might traditionally call a good swimmer.

Here are some of the skills you need to be open water competent:

  • You can look at a body of water and assess the risks of swimming or dipping in it
  • Once you’ve assessed the risks, you can take steps to mitigate them
  • You can identify safe entry and exit points
  • You understand how you react to water of different temperatures
  • You think before you enter the water
  • You feel calm and confident in the water

None of this says you need to be able to swim any pre-determined distance or use any of the recognisable competitive swimming strokes. If you’re worried about your ability to stay afloat, you could put on a wetsuit until your confidence increases. It’s almost impossible to sink while wearing one. Turn onto your back, watch the clouds and propel yourself through the water with gentle sculling movements of your hands. You could even go into the water wearing a buoyancy aid if you wanted. Practise treading water too. Although it’s a metaphor for not going anywhere, it’s a super-useful confidence-boosting skill in the water.

If you are nervous about your outdoor swimming abilities, investing some time and money with a sympathetic outdoor swimming coach or guide could be worthwhile. Things like being out of your depth, not being able to see the bottom and the possibility of swimming into water plants or fish are all things that commonly make people nervous. A good guide will help you manage these concerns.

Outdoor swimming has something for everyone. Where I regularly swim, I see people wade into the river, dunk their shoulders under the water, take in the sight, sound, smell and feel of the river and then get out again, never having taken their feet off the bottom. Others walk a few hundred metres upriver and drift back with the current. Some basic floating ability is needed but not much more. You do, however, need to understand the river, the water temperature and how long drifting will take you.

If you can’t swim at all, I’d encourage you to learn the basics and increase your water confidence, but once you can float and keep yourself safe, you’re a good enough swimmer to begin your outdoor swimming journey. Just make sure you start in a safe place with people who will support and encourage you.

For more on water safety, please check our safe swimming guidelines.

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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.