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Outdoor swimming is back, but not as we know it

Outdoor swimming is back, but it will look very different to anything we have seen before, says Simon Griffiths.

Amid the confusion of what is and what isn’t allowed during the UK’s lockdown, one thing that became clearer in mid May was that outdoor swimming is allowed.

Subsequent guidance paved the way for outdoor swimming venues to open (although not outdoor pools). While some rushed to open immediately, others are taking a more measured response and waiting for further guidance from governing bodies. However, regardless of when they opened (or will re-open), swimming at supervised venues will look very different to anything we’ve seen before.

Changes include: arrive in your swimming kit; don’t share lifts; book in advance; separate entry and exit points; no coffee and cake when you finish; leave the venue immediately; do not socialise on site. It’s swimming, Jim, but not as we know it.

Consider, for a moment, what swimming outdoors means for you and why you do it. I’ve concluded that I don’t find the swimming experience currently on offer at venues appealing, although I appreciate the operators are doing the best they can in challenging circumstances. Yes, I welcome the opportunity to swim, but my joy in swimming comes in part (and it’s a big part) from sharing the experience with other people. And by this, I don’t mean posting pictures of my swims on social media, but the actual, shared simultaneous experience of swimming with others.

Swimming in your private bubble has its place. It can be a time and space to unplug, relax and socially isolate. It’s something I enjoy, in normal times. But with social isolation forced upon us, I don’t want more of it when I swim. Swimming sometimes gives us a break from life’s harsh realities. Socially distanced swimming is another reminder of the state we’re in.

Swimming with other people almost always feels easier. When I do pool training sessions with friends, I swim faster and continue for longer than on my own. When I swim outside, it’s much easier to find a relaxed rhythm when swimming in a group. Also, outdoor swimming gives you lots of opportunities to get close to nature. Swimming in the spring, you might cross the path of a brood of ducklings, for example. It’s lovely when you’re on your own. But it’s much better to share it with the people you’re swimming with.

And when you finish a swim, as every outdoor swim is different, what is better than comparing notes and sharing some cake and coffee? Did you swim through that warm patch? Wasn’t it choppy over on the far side? Then there is all that time we spend planning future swimming adventures…

I’m not arguing that venues shouldn’t open. If they can do so safely, I’m happy that they can, and I know many of you are desperate to swim, and the joy of swimming will outweigh the inconveniences of social distancing. I hope people swim and support their venues in these difficult times. I will, when I can. But we might have to wait a long time before we can return to the full social outdoor swimming experiences that so many of us love.

From ‘View from the water’ – published in the June issue of Outdoor Swimmer.

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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.