Wild swimmers revolt over British Triathlon efforts to prevent people swimming in cold water

Yohannes Lowe
Wild swimmers have voiced disquiet at British Triathlon over safety advice - Getty Images Europe

Wild swimmers have voiced disquiet at British Triathlon over safety advice warning people not to enter waters below 11 degrees, as they claim the coldness helps improve “mental wellbeing”.

Last year almost half a million people swam in open water venues such as lakes and lidos, with many hobbyists claiming health benefits are among the attractions to immersing themselves in chilled water.

Swimming in colder temperatures can relieve symptoms of depression and improve people’s moods, research by the British Medical Journal Case Reports has found.

The number of people regularly taking part in open water swimming rose by over 80 per cent between November 2016 and 2018, according to Sport England.

However, enthusiasts have warned the growing trend may come to a halt as a result of the initiative by British Triathlon to encourage more people to compete in the sport.

Sh2out, which is a partnership between the Royal Life Saving Society UK and British Triathlon set up in 2017, are in the process of asking managed venues if they wish to be accredited in the hope of staging future triathlon competitions.

Any deal would involve venues adopting British Triathlon's safety regulations, which include a recommendation that swimmers do not enter the water if the temperature is below 11 degrees.   

Organisers insist the directives will not affect wild swimmers entering venues during the winter, but hobbyists fear any introduction of regulations could cause participation to decline, arguing it would affect the freedom of the discipline.

Colin Hill, Founder of Chill Swim, an open water event specialist, said: “There are now more people talking about swimming in cold water for health benefits and mental wellbeing because you feel so refreshed after swimming. 

“So having people say you can’t swim under certain temperatures just isn’t needed. We have a long tradition of open swimming and we don’t need overreach from a relatively new sport who doesn’t really understand.”

There are currently 30 UK venues who have Sh2out accreditation, where the operator has been recognised as reaching a minimum safety standard for enthusiasts wanting to swim there.

Many organisers of open water swimming sessions seek their professional guidance and benefit from their venue appearing  more secure to the public after they have been approved.

However, a sense of unease over a blanket safety standard that does not factor in the different conditions of individual sites and swimmers has been voiced by many.

There is concern among organisers that an increasing number of private venues will feel pressured to adopt the accreditation in reaction to their competitors doing the same.

Kate Rew, from the Outdoor Swimming Society who has seen her group's membership grow from 300 in 2006 to 70,000 members today, added: “Everybody wants people to be safe, but there’s no absolute danger in swimming under 10 degrees that  means it shouldn't be allowed in a public venue. 

“It is completely arbitrary to pretend there is a temperature that is safe or not safe to swim- it entirely depends on the individual and how well acclimatised they are and what their physical health is.”

Sh2out dismissed claims that the guidelines will lead to a fall in open water swimming, pointing to the rise in participation rates since their introduction two years ago.

A spokesperson  for the Sh2out partnership said: “Whilst we would always encourage swimmers of any age or ability, to take sensible precautions before they swim, it would be naïve to think that anyone could ‘police’ or restrict the desire of someone determined to swim anywhere they chose, through Sh2out or by any other means.

“Sh2out is not designed to be a ‘one size fits all’ approach as in practical terms, this simply isn’t possible but rather, Sh2out aims to provide a framework of advice, guidance and support for venues, who want to maximise their water assets and increase their leisure offering, to the communities they serve, however they see fit.

“Sh2out is designed to facilitate open water swimming for the benefit of everyone, making it accessible, safe, affordable and inclusive. Swimmers who see accredited venues as ‘restrictive’, ‘regulated’ or ‘killjoys’, are free to swim where they feel better suits their needs.”

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