Outdoor Swimming in 2020 – The Year in Numbers

Are you still swimming outside this winter? If so, you may find you’ve got more company than in previous years, and your friends and relatives no longer think you’re unhinged. They may, instead, have joined you.

We’ve been looking at trends in outdoor swimming through our largest ever reader survey (many thanks to more than 2000 of you who responded) and a series of interviews with experts, coaches, venue operators, event managers and brands.

One of our main findings, is that winter swimming in the UK has boomed. Nearly 1 in 10 people who responded to our survey said they swim outside in winter four times per week and around 65% of you swim outside two to three times per month or more in winter. In addition, 75% of people who started swimming outdoors this year say they plan to continue through winter. Outdoor swimming venues have noticed, with many extending their season or trying to stay open through winter (although lockdown and covid restrictions derailed some of these plans). Several report that their winter sessions are repeatedly full.

Another trend this year has been an increase in mainstream media coverage of outdoor swimming. We looked at the number of news stories found from Google searches between 2019 (full year) and 2020 (excluding December). This showed a 53% increase in stories linked to outdoor swimming, a 49% increase in articles about wild swimming and a 100% increase in ones about winter swimming.

Part of this media coverage was linked to another important theme for 2020: the importance of outdoor swimming to people’s health and wellbeing. 81% of survey respondents said outdoor swimming is very important or essential to their general sense of well-being while 75% said the same about their mental health.

In early summer of 2020, swimming outdoors was your only option if you wanted to swim and part of the increase in participation was from regular pool swimmers. Of people who started this year, 20% said it was because their pool was closed. A further 25% say they’d been thinking about it and circumstances around the pandemic pushed them to take the plunge. Another 16% were introduced by a friend. Reassuringly, 50.3% of new outdoor swimmers said they liked it more than they expected and only 1.6% liked it less.

The above suggests 2020 was good for outdoor swimming and it’s true that many venues had a busy year, despite the costs and hassles of adapting to covid regulations. Sadly, other parts of the outdoor swimming world have been hit hard, particularly swim holiday companies and event organisers. There is still a cloud of uncertainty hanging over these for 2021, with swimmers reluctant to commit early to either swimming holidays or events. Brands have also had their challenges with retail outlets closing, pandemic-related supply issues and wild swings in demand.

Will people who discovered outdoor swimming in 2020 stick with it? Well, just 2.3% of new outdoor swimmers said they stopped as soon as they could get back in the pool. Potentially then, 97.7% of new swimmers from 2020 could return in 2021. If the vaccine rollout goes well and covid recedes by mid-spring, 2021 could be a much busier year for swim holidays and events, a more predictable one for brands, and (hopefully) a more sociable one for us swimmers.

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Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.