Can I go swimming outdoors?

The Government has explicitly permitted swimming outdoors from May 13th. This decision has sent the outdoor swimming community into a spin. Just because we can, should we? And how can we keep people safe?

It's the announcement we were all waiting for, permission to pack out togs, hop in our cars and head to our favourite outdoor swimming spots. But while many outdoor swimmers are planning their much-awaited swims, others are saying that they won't be partaking. Why not?

The case for

Let's start with the reasons to go for a swim. The benefits to our health and wellbeing are many and they are substantial. The mental health benefits, in particular, are needed now more than ever as we try to cope with lockdown, loss, illness, loneliness and anxiety.

For those of us who struggle with poor mental health and those of us coping with mental illness as well as some physical complaints and auto-immune conditions, swimming outdoors in cold water has almost magical restorative qualities. Even for those of us who have good mental health and live in nice homes with people we love, escape and me-time is invaluable.

In terms of Covid19, outdoor swimming is low risk. It's outdoors, there are few surfaces that get touched by many hands, it's fairly easy to maintain social distance. There's no research about whether or not the virus can spread through water, but it seems not to be a concern. In other words, the benefits outweigh the risks... until something goes wrong.

The case against

And here lies the concern. There are three groups of people likely to take to the water in the next week or two: 1. The seasoned outdoor swimmers, 2. The summer sea dippers and 3. The never befores.

Groups two and three may take to the water for the first time or earlier in the season than normal. The water's still very cold, and as well as being inexperienced outdoor swimmers, these two groups may also be weak swimmers. Is now the best time for them to discover swimming outdoors?

The body that governs swimming, Swim England says not, advising that only "competent and experienced swimmers use this form of exercise." The worry is not only that swimming spots become too busy to safely observe social distancing, but also that there's huge potential for accidents and mishaps putting extra strain on emergency services and putting others at risk.

But it's the first group, the seasoned outdoor swimmers, that causes the most controversy. The RLSS (Royal Lifesaving Society) says the swimming outdoors in spots that are not lifeguarded poses a significant risk to the public and puts a strain on the emergency services. It recognises that there are seasoned swimmers who are capable of enjoying the water safely, but asks "for this short time, for everyone, including seasoned open water swimmers to refrain from exercising in water."

Your choice

Whether or not you swim is your choice. It's worth reading what the RLSS, Swim England and British Triathlon have to say, as well as the RNLI before you make your decision, and then asking yourself these questions:

  • Will I be able to travel easily and park without impacting on the local area?

  • Will I be able to maintain social distancing? That means not getting help with your wetsuit or getting changed close to other people.

  • Is someone able to spot for me during my swim and keep an eye on me while I warm up?

  • If I get into trouble, who will help me?

Please also bear in mind that:

  • The water is still very cold indeed

  • Regular, experienced groups are not meeting, so there won't be experienced swimmers at your venue for help and advice

  • There won't be pubs and cafe open where you can go and warm up afterwards

  • Open water venues are not currently open, and

  • wild swim spots are not lifeguarded and the RNLI is asking people not to swim in the sea.

Your own risk assessment

Ultimately, the decision about whether or not to swim is nobody's but your own. You should weigh up the pros and cons, consider the case against, research your swim spot and make yourself aware of the dangers and the position of the official bodies that promote outdoor swimming and protect lives in the water.

That all sits on one side of the scale. On the other sits your needs, your wellbeing and your confidence in your swimming abilities and knowledge of the place where you swim. Only you know whether or not you can swim safely and whether the risks, however small, are worth the benefits.

Further reading

Open water swimming guidance

What the RLSS says

What the RNLI says