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Why do an open water event?

An opportunity to swim somewhere new, to improve your fitness and to soak up the atmosphere. Simon Griffiths explores the benefits of joining an open water event and answers your most frequently asked questions.

The big change we’ve seen in outdoor swimming recently is the growth in recreational swimming. Fifteen years ago, the majority of people we saw in open water wore wetsuits, swam head-down front crawl and were often training for a triathlon. Now it’s mostly people dipping and swimming for the joy of being in the water and the health and wellbeing benefits of being active in nature.

If the latter describes you, it’s legitimate to ask, why should I do an event? Events are for fast, competitive people, aren’t they? Triathletes who can no longer run, for example.

Actually, no. As outdoor swimming has evolved, so have events. Racing has become less of a feature (although it’s still available if you want it) while the importance of the overall experience, for all swimmers, has improved. So, even if you’re not an ‘events’ person in general, it’s worth considering an outdoor swimming event. Here’s why…

An opportunity to swim somewhere different

Some events are held in places where it can be difficult or dangerous to swim on your own, perhaps due to tides, boat traffic or access. When you do an organised event, the safety and access issues will be taken care of.

The challenge 

While you can test how far or fast you can swim yourself, there’s something special about doing it in an event scenario. I can usually swim further and faster in an event than in training.

It’s something to focus on

There’s nothing like having an event in your calendar to give you focus and get you thinking about how to swim the required distance. Even if you’re not racing, taking on an event can be a great push to help you access more of the fitness benefits of swimming.

The atmosphere

Events are supportive and social occasions. Most people are not in it to win it but to savour the occasion and do something fun and challenging in the company of like-minded people.

They create memories

When I look back on my year, it’s often the events I’ve done that stand out. I love my regular river swims in my local spot, but they merge in my mind, while the unique experiences of events stand out.

They take you to new places

Swimming events often take me to places I wouldn’t have considered visiting yet turn out to be places I would have wanted to visit, if only I’d have known about them. Don’t just look local. Seek out an event further afield and make a break out of it.

Raise money for a good cause

Many swimmers use events to raise money for causes close to their heart, either independently or through a dedicated slot from an event charity partner. As well as reserving spots for their swimmers, event charity partners often provide additional support, such as training advice and refreshments on the day. Alternatively, pick an event organised by a charity. WaterAid, Macmillan and British Heart Foundation have charity slots at popular events this year.

Outdoor swimming offers a lot but some of my best swimming experiences are linked to events. There are events to suit a wide range of swimming abilities. We hope this guide helps you find a few to create fond, lasting memories.


Do I have to be a fast swimmer?

Not usually. A few events have cut-off times because of tides or access requirements so you should always check, but most will accommodate swimmers of any speed.

Do I have to swim front crawl?

No. You can swim breaststroke, butterfly or side stroke. Backstroke is sometimes not allowed because it’s harder to navigate, and someone swimming on their back may be mistaken for someone in need of help (or vice-versa).

Do I have to wear a wetsuit?

You’ll have to check the event rules. You will find the full range:

  • Wetsuits forbidden
  • Wetsuits optional
  • Wetsuit use dependent on conditions
  • Wetsuits compulsory

Why do events cost so much?

Organisers need to cover a lot of costs including (but not limited to): staff, volunteers’ travel expenses, medical cover, safety cover, water quality testing, access to private land, marquee hire, timing system hire, website build and maintenance, payment processing fees and bank charges.

Will the event be accessible?

Most event organisers are keen to support and encourage swimmers with different access requirements but due to the nature of outdoor swimming sometimes find it difficult to cater for all scenarios. It’s best to contact the organiser directly and discuss your requirements.

Will I get pushed under in a mass start?

If you want to avoid a mass start, hang back at the beginning and wait for the competitive swimmers to race ahead. It will only hold you up by 5 to 10 seconds. Some organisers now offer rolling starts and your time is only recorded when you enter the water or cross the start line.

Will faster swimmers swim over me?

Most collisions in outdoor swimming are unintentional. Organisers sometimes send slower swimmers off first, with faster swimmers following behind. They could potentially swim over you, but they will do their best to avoid it as it would slow them down. If you wear a bright hat and use a tow float, they’ll be more likely to see and avoid you.

Download the Outdoor Swimmer Events Guide 2023. Join us at this year’s Outdoor Swimmer Henley Swim Festival, a weekend celebrating open water swimming set in the most stunning location on the banks of the Thames just outside Henley.

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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.