We occasionally make comparisons between triathletes and open water swimmers – it’s usually a bit of light-hearted fun. The labels “triathlete” and “open water swimmer” are not even particularly helpful definitions. Some people enjoy all sorts of exercise and activities, including triathlon and open water swimming and don’t feel the need to be categorised in any way.
Still, from our perspective as a swimming magazine, we do see significant differences between “triathletes” and “open water swimmers”, and it’s not just an interest in cake.
As a triathlete (and I write from personal experience as well as observation), you don’t just swim, cycle and run, you train. Every time you engage in one of those activities it has a specific purpose to move you closer to your goal, whether it’s an endurance building long distance ride or a gut wrenching interval session to improve top-end speed. Training is necessary because even a short triathlon is hard. Even people new to triathlon get swept up in the training ethic. And with three sports to prepare for, time becomes very precious, so you want to make sure every minute counts. Even a gentle spin around the park on your bike becomes a recovery ride: part of the overall plan, not something you do just for the sake of it.
Clearly some swimmers are like that too. But definitely not all. Last week, for example, I joined a group of swimmers (age range 11 to 60+) for a short swim of about 1km in the tidal part of the Thames near Chiswick. Through careful planning, review of the tide tables, frequent observation and a dose of good luck the swimmers had worked out you could swim around 500m upriver with the tail-end of the incoming tide and then swim back again once it turned.
The swim initially doesn’t look too inviting. The river is muddy and full of debris – mostly sticks and leaves but also the occasional plastic bottle or bag. On the other hand, it’s a surprisingly scenic and green stretch of the Thames. Now, I may be wrong and I will surely receive some irritated replies if I am, but I don’t think I saw anybody training. Nor do I think anyone was using the swim as acclimatisation practice (it was too warm for that). Nobody was doing intervals or sprints or drills and it was too short for endurance building. At least two people had cameras with them, many swam breaststroke (actually a pretty sensible thing to do given how little you could see under the water) and most stopped frequently to chat. They all looked pretty happy too, and after the swim they gathered in a local pub for a drink.
Personally I enjoy training and pushing myself hard but as I’ve been swimming more, and running and cycling less, I’ve really come to appreciate this relaxed and fun side to swimming. And open water swimming in particular lends itself to these social and exploratory events. People do triathlon for fitness and competition. You can get that from swimming too, but there are many reasons why people swim in open water. Simply being outside and being washed up and down stream by the tide isn’t a bad one.
Image thanks to Helena Martins