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Treat the options in open water swimming as a menu, not a ‘to do’ list

What do you want from open water swimming?

I used to do a bit of triathlon, which is a very goal-orientated sport. Whether you’re swimming, cycling or running, the aim is almost always to go further, faster.

Outdoor swimming is different. You can be an outdoor swimmer without ever doing any organised event, race or challenge. You simply swim, outdoors, in nature, because it feels amazing. If you go a little off the beaten track, you might call it wild swimming. Or you might just call it swimming and think it’s the most natural thing in the world to do.

Still, there is often an implicit pressure to have some goal or challenge in the pipeline. What else are you doing all that swimming for? It can be hard for people who don’t swim to understand that you might swim just because you love being in the water and many people who do swim have targets they are training for.

Two questions I am asked fairly frequently are: “have you swum the English Channel?” and “have you done an Ice Mile?”

The answer to both is no, and I don’t have any plans to either, which you might consider a paucity of ambition, but for me neither has much appeal. It’s not so much that I wouldn’t want to call myself a Channel Swimmer or an Ice Miler – I would be proud to do so if I achieved either of these two things – but I don’t want to make the sacrifices, do the work and spend the money that would be needed to do them. To me, the English Channel and the Ice Mile are simply two items on the outdoor swimming menu. They are also high risk items with a significant chance of failure, which is clearly part of the appeal for some people, although not for me. 

I am not saying you shouldn’t take on a demanding swimming challenge if that’s what you want to do but you should never feel compelled because that’s what you see other swimmers doing or read about in magazines! However, with winter approaching, I do fear that some people may submit to a kind of peer pressure to attempt an Ice Mile, which we know to be seriously challenging and potentially dangerous. If this is your first year of winter swimming I recommend considering waiting a year (at least) and making sure it’s really something you want to put yourself through.

We are privileged with open water swimming to have such a diversity of activities to choose from. While it’s sometimes considered as just the first stage in a triathlon, open water swimming is in many ways a much richer sport – certainly there’s a lot more to it than trying to get to your bicycle as quickly as possible.

So the message this week is simple, keep an open mind about open water swimming. Create your own menu of things to choose from and remember that it’s perfectly acceptable not to have any swimming ambition whatsoever.

Outdoor swimming menu

  • Meet friends to do a few relaxed laps of your local lake.
  • Take the family to a wild swimming spot.
  • Join the fun at a cold water or winter swimming event.
  • Explore the Costa Brava from the sea.
  • Take part in a one-mile mass participation swim, for example, a Great Swim event.
  • Complete a long-distance challenge swim such as the Thames Marathon.
  • Do an Ice Mile.
  • Try three races in one day at the BLDSA’s Champion of Champions.
  • Swim the English Channel.
  • Race in the National, European or World open water championships.
  • Go on a swimming holiday.
  • Do a long distance adventure swim over several days.

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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.