FEATURES,  View from the Water

When and how might we get back to outdoor swimming?

I’ve previously written about the impact of coronavirus on businesses involved in or connected to outdoor swimming (see “How Coronavirus will impact Outdoor Swimming). This was written at the start of lockdown, when I hoped that lockdown would be over in a few weeks and we might still have at least a partial “open water season”. That hope is fading.

I don’t have any special knowledge about when open swimming venues will be allowed to open or event organisers can hold mass participation races but my take on it is that one (or more) of these four things needs to happen:

  1. we develop a vaccine and undergo a mass vaccination programme
  2. we find more effective treatments to stop people dying from Covid-19
  3. we utilise mass surveillance and rapid contact tracing to quickly supress any new outbreaks
  4. the infection spreads to a wide enough portion of the community to provide herd immunity.

That latter is based on the unproven assumption that being infected once will give you protection against future infections.

None of the above look like they will be in place or happen in the next few months.

It’s possible that physical distancing restrictions may be relaxed slightly in the relative short term (one to two months) – for example, to allow people to meet in small groups or travel to visit friends and relatives. This might, for example, allow venues to open and operate under strict hygiene and capacity requirements. Swimming teachers may be allowed to give one-to-one or small group lessons. It’s also possible that smaller outdoor events will be allowed to go ahead before mass participation ones.

However, even if restrictions are loosened, it will put business operators in a difficult position, especially those who manage staff that interact with the public. How will you ensure the health of swim teachers and lifeguards for example? In addition, it will be important not only to stick to the letter of the law but also the spirit. Working to find loopholes in the current environment or whatever status we move into could be a public relations disaster.

And how many people will actually turn up? I know many swimmers are desperate to get in the water (so desperate that they are buying mini-pools for their gardens and swimming on-the-spot with tethers) but will triathletes come back if there are no events? Will swimmers be prepared to share changing facilities or bunch up on a race start line?

With venues unable to open and events not happening for now, the most likely way we will be able to return to open water will be through small-group swimming in the sea and publicly accessible rivers and lakes. This will raise several issues.

Currently, whether you can swim in open water is debatable. Swim England say no, based on advice they’ve taken from Public Health England. On the other hand, none of the government guidance that I’ve seen specifically rules out swimming as your one form of exercise per day. Still, we do not recommend swimming outdoors for a few reasons. Firstly, it may involve unnecessary travel. Secondly, we recommend never swimming alone and meeting with other people to swim is definitely not allowed at the moment. Thirdly, if you are an asymptomatic carrier, get into difficulty and need assistance, you may put someone else at risk.

One of my worries for the coming summer is swimmer safety if safe swimming venues remain closed and beaches un-lifeguarded. As soon as there is any relaxation in travel restrictions, I fear swimmers will flock to any water they can get to. Experienced swimmers should know how to take care of themselves and I hope they stick to regular outdoor swimming safety procedures and abide by any other government regulations. It’s the people who are new to outdoor swimming (and there may be many if pools stay closed) that I’m most worried about. We would normally recommend anyone new to outdoor swimming swims at a supervised location or joins an established group. Neither may be possible this summer.

As advocates of outdoor swimming, we love to see as many people as possible enjoying the open water. We also want people to stay safe. It’s going to be more difficult than usual this summer to find the balance between encouraging people to embrace outdoor swimming while staying safe, legal and responsible, but that has to be our mission.

Meanwhile, if you know anyone who is thinking of swimming outside when our freedom of movement is restored, or just want a refresher yourself, please refer to our Open Water Swimming – Safety and Risk Assessment guide.

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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.