Peta Bee on open-air swimming

The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Friday August 4 2006

In the article below, a misreading of figures published by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents for deaths by drowning last year led us to say that more people die in swimming pools than in rivers and lakes. Fifteen people drowned in swimming pools in 2005, while 356 died in open water. Nineteen of those were known to be swimming accidents, but the activity of nearly four in 10 people who drowned in open water is unknown.

Mention that you are going cycling at the weekend and nobody raises an eyebrow. Say you are off walking for a few days and the reaction is much the same. If, however, you were to drop into a conversation that you were planning to swim in open water, in Britain, for pleasure, then you might expect at least a look of bewilderment.

Outdoor swimming has long been associated with that batty bunch who plunge into the Serpentine on New Year’s Day, Lycra-clad triathletes or David Walliams types who cross the Channel. But a new breed of outdoor swimmer is challenging that stereo-type by claiming it can be more pleasurable than running, more soul-soothing than yoga.

Kate Rew, a journalist and founder of the newly formed Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS), swam in the river next to her Devon home as a child and has quietly continued to indulge in a dip wherever and whenever she can ever since.

For years, she kept her pastime fairly secret. “But once I started mentioning to people that I love swimming outdoors, it became clear that I wasn’t the only one who did it,” she says. Rew believes the appeal stretches beyond the fitness benefits, which are obvious – swimming is one of the best all-body sports, recruiting most major muscles with each stroke, and is kind to the joints with water acting as a giant cushion – to an almost spiritual high “that comes with swimming under the sky”.

It is partly this sense of freedom that sees a growing number of people switch from indoor to outdoor swimming each year. “Swimming in pools is boring,” says Rew. “You count length after length and then get out.”

With no lane dividers, no turning every 25-50 metres, no one getting in your way and no plasters floating past your nose, the attractions start to become clear. You will also get fitter, faster. Swimming front crawl in an indoor pool will burn around 300 calories in half an hour; add the extra calories burned simply to stay warm and the extra energy sometimes needed to cope with waves, currents and the elements and you are looking at considerably more.

There are, of course, two main concerns that cross the minds of those yet to be convinced that this is an activity worth trying. First, that it is likely to be unbearably cold, and second, that the waterways of Britain are at best murky and at worst sewage-ridden with the odd dead animal floating along for company.

Both, say proponents of the sport, are unfair. “Rivers and lakes in this country are cleaner than they have been for 150 years,” says Rew. “Actually, about 75% of rivers in the UK are good to swim in.”

The Environment Agency rates rivers and lakes on a scale of A to E in terms of cleanliness and a quick click on to its website can determine whether your nearest is safe. “Only those on top of Snowdon or similar places have water pure enough to be listed as A-grade,” Rew says. “But there are plenty of B- and C-listed waters that are perfect for swimming in.”

As for water temperatures, Rew says that rivers are warmer than usual this summer – around 20-22C (68-72F) – “so it’s a good time to get started”. Last year, the lake at Ullswater reached a July high of 27C in the top two feet of water – that is warmer than most swimming pools. Even if water is cool, there are precautions you can take to prevent shivering. A person’s body fat determines how long they can withstand cold water, but it is not a precise measure. Other factors that lower your tolerance to chilly temperatures include alcohol consumption the previous day, food intake (you need to eat regularly beforehand) and general health. Wetsuits can help – the Amateur Swimming Association rules state that they must be worn in open-water competitions once the temperature drops below 14C – but outside competitive swims, the decision about what to wear (or not) is down to you.

Despite seeming something of an adventure sport, the risks of outdoor swimming are relatively few. It is wise to check with the Environment Agency for contaminants, although problems are rare. Risks of contamination with blue-green algae are generally high only in contact with visible scum – normally through digestion – and, like Weil’s disease, also known as lepto-spirosis, which usually occurs in animals such as rats but can be transmitted to humans through contaminated urine in rivers, will be clearly listed on the agency’s site.

It is worth remembering, too, that even pools have risk factors. Last week, research at the Catholic University of Louvain, Brussels, showed that the incidence of wheezing rose by 3.39% for every indoor swimming pool per 100,00 population, while the incidence of asthma rose by 2.73%. It is thought that chlorine reacts with sweat or urine to create dangerous fumes that can harm the lungs.

In fact, fatalities among outdoor swimmers are few and far between. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the most common causes of the 427 deaths a year in water (that is indoor and out) are falling in (80) and alcohol (73). More people die in swimming pools than in rivers and lakes combined each year.

Describing herself as a competent but far from elite swimmer, Rew says that “anyone who can swim can swim outdoors” and advises “building up your exposure to the water five minutes at a time until you become more confident”.

For a gentle introduction, try lidos – there are 12 in London – or join one of the OSS introductory swims to be held at different UK venues this summer. Beyond that, the oceans and lakes of the world await. Simon Murie, the owner and founder of what is thought to be the world’s only holiday package specialising in outdoor swimming, SwimTrek, offers week-long swim excursions in venues as diverse as the Inner Hebrides and Greek Cyclades or the German Bavarian lakes. Even two-day trips to swim the Thames are regularly overbooked and not as daunting as one might imagine. “We swim down the upper, non-tidal part of the Thames, which is at its cleanest in living memory,” he says. “There are salmon, otters and kingfishers on some stretches”

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