Group Swimming………….The Joys And The Challenges

This is a mirror piece to Never swim alone…….really? on solo swimming. It’s written from the angle of informal swimming groups. Swim venues, organised training sessions or being out with a swim guide or coach are a different environment. Whoever’s organised it has a clear responsibility to you as a participant. However, much of what I say here is useful to be mindful of if you do swim outdoors in a more formal organised setting. I know as a venue manager I’d prefer people to take some responsibly for themselves, I’m there as the trained backup if something goes really wrong, not to hold everyone’s hand 😉

Many organisations, media outlets, social media posts say “Never swim alone”, sometimes the more toned down “Swim with others”. Often as a one liner with no explanation of why. Lack of explanations frustrate me sometimes, I understand the need for simple one liners, they grab people’s attention. A proportion of people just accept them and aren’t interested in the why, but I think a big proportion want to know why we’re ordered to do something. Certainly when it comes to “No swimming” signs more and more people are questioning why. A lone “No swimming” sign doesn’t explain why swimming in that location might be hazardous. More and more people are ignoring them, devaluing them more widely and potentially putting people at risk of swimming in places that genuinely are unsafe. These signs keep people ignorant and ignorance can be dangerous. “Never swim alone” is not dissimilar, it neither outlines the benefits, which are plentiful but, also doesn’t touch on the potential risks. And yes, there are risks to swimming in a group.

So, why is this message bandied about so often?

As a brand new swimmer there is unquestionably a lot to learn, being around others allows you to absorb some of that knowledge. Having more experienced swimmers with you can help you to spot the signs it’s time to get out or give the opportunity to suss out which kit you do or don’t need. There’s a plethora of useful information to share and support you can get from the swim community. The laughter, the chatter, the cake. Fundamentally, if something goes really wrong you have some back up, to help you out of the water or to call someone for support if it’s needed.

But, there’s a big but. The times I’ve got into the biggest mess is when I’ve been swimming with others. And I know this isn’t just me, I’ve seen it and been told about it time and again by others too. I’ve seen the distraction of chat lead to people tuning out from their bodies and not noticing their cues to get out. I’ve seen confusion, dawdling and getting cold in the water if a plan of action hasn’t been agreed before setting off to swim as a group. The subtle effect of being with others, even where there’s no overt peer pressure can often make us push further than we usually would. There is nothing wrong with pushing ourselves, pushing boundaries is what outdoor swimming is for a lot of people, but there’s a fine line between keeping it safe and pushing that little bit too far. This stuff should be enjoyable for everyone after all.

Also, think about it this way, is it OK to rely wholly on a friend or stranger you’ve just met on a facebook group to keep you safe? Do you know whether that person is capable and experienced enough to do that? What can the people you’re swimming with actually do if something went very wrong? Realistically unless someone you’re swimming with has had some lifeguard/emergency/first aid training there may well be a limit to how they can help you. They may not be capable of towing you back to shore if you get into serious difficulties. As someone who takes people out swimming as a job, it’s absolutely my role to be able to do that but is it fair to expect that of someone on an informal basis? There are many, many people who’ll happily help you out in an informal capacity, it’s why the swim community is such a special and beautiful place but in an informal setting I believe we should all be responsible for our own safety.

Here are some top tips to help you be safe whilst swimming with a group

  • Do your own risk assessment. It’s really easy in a group to assume that someone else has thought about whether it’s a hazardous get in or get out, if the weather’s a bit too crap or the current’s too strong. Important to remember your perception of risk may be very different to the person next to you too.
  • Know and accept your own limits. If you’re new to outdoor swimming take it steady. Don’t expect to be able to swim 5km outdoors or get into ice swimming from day one. Everyone’s been new, everyone in a group will understand where you’re at.
  • Accept that you’re responsible for your own safety. Of course, people will always help when it’s needed but you should know and understand the risks before you enter the water. If you’re new to outdoor swimming do some research before you go and if you’re hoping for advice from others at a swim, do it before you get in the water not whilst you’re flapping around freezing your bits off unable to think.
  • Agree what you’re all doing before you get in. Are you staying as a close-knit group? If one person gets out, do you all get out? Are you all swimming your own swim and just meeting back at shore? Always better to have this conversation on dry land than have a panic that one member of the group’s belted off, heads down front crawl and you don’t know whether you need to follow or not.
  • Swim your OWN swim. If you need to get out, get out, don’t let others push you beyond what you’re comfortable and able to do. That applies to what you wear too. Wetsuit or swimming costume, who cares, not me…………….What to wear, or not
  • Try and stay tuned in to your body and not get too distracted by that debate about the best post swim snack. Cake, pie, crisps?

This is just my experience of group swimming, if you have any useful nuggets to add do pop a comment below. There’s always something to learn.

Happy swimming x


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