OSS Survey results

Swimming alone, staying healthy, and definitely feeling joy: results reveal what swimmers are doing now

Niall Meehan

Outdoor swimming is fast becoming a mainstream pastime in the UK, with an astonishing 7.5 million venturing into rivers, lakes, lidos and seas. In the last few years, The Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS), the pioneer of open water swimming events and provider of free, authoritative information, has seen its membership expand to more than 170,000 across 28 countries.

So, what do all these outdoor swimmers do and think about? The OSS, a largely volunteer-run organisation, has conducted a new survey of its community. The results reveal outdoor swimming is a way of life and a liberation: community-binding, life-affirming and deeply satisfying. More than 1,000 respondents took part. Here’s the low down on the results:

Why swim outdoors? Joy, nature and solitude

When questioned why they swim outdoors, the overwhelming reason was “joy”, with 94% saying they felt happier and less stressed after a swim. 68% swam for physical fitness, 62% for resilience (agreeing with the statement ‘outdoor swimming has made me braver or more stoic’), 58% for social reasons and 55% for spiritual ones (connection with nature and deeper self). 55% also swim for adventure.

“The exhilarating sense of being 100% alive, the deep sense of being one with nature, the renewed sense of utter joy and gratitude, and the awe I have for all the women I get to meet.”

“The tranquility of moving through the water as the sun sets or just reflects on it, whether in conversation with another or alone is something that has literally changed me over the last 18 months.”

“In the water I am strong and graceful. On land I am losing strength and don’t feel as coordinated. I swam competitively as a youth and in college so swimming comes as easily as walking. When I’m in the water I am still young and powerful.”

John Anderson

There are many ways to outdoor swim, and most swim in a variety of ways. Asked what types of swims were important to them, 84% of swimmers said scenic swims with a focus on landscape and nature, and this love of nature has fed into their behaviour: 53% of swimmers litter pick at beaches or swim spots and 50% have made lifestyle changes to help protect blue spaces as a result of being a swimmer. 70% said winter swimming was important to them; 69% swimming for mental health; 65% for health and fitness; 42% like solo swims; 39% like adventurous swimming; 33% swim at night; 23% do distance swimming and 15% swim competitively.

While 60% like social swimming (and two thirds say some of the relationships they value most are with other swimmers), the same number of people (61%) also choose, at times, to swim alone – for solitude and quiet, because they like the freedom and flexibility of being able to go when they want, do the distance they want, or swim at whatever speed they want.

‘It’s a misconception that you have to swim with other people or that being with someone necessarily makes a swim safer,’ says OSS Founder Kate Rew. ‘In terms of safety, other people can be a liability as well as a help. There is no such thing as a safe swim, only safe swimmers: no water is safe if you can’t swim. With the right knowledge and skill level people do swim safely alone.’


John Anderson

“Swimming solo is quiet thinking time (or just quiet time with no thinking at all other than the next stroke or breath), but swimming with friends is joyous and uplifting.”

“When I’m swimming my anxiety takes a back seat. I’m focused on me, the water and what’s around me, not how crazy the world is and how little I can affect it. I’m braver and happier, and I love sharing that with my wife and children.”

“I feel like part of the natural world when I swim, which is comforting.”

“After years of disabling illness, being a swimmer has changed my sense of myself so that I feel like a stronger braver person.”

Free swimming: lakes and sea popular, with inland access a key concern

Lakes now have as many fans as the sea, with 41% of people choosing each as their favourite type of water to swim in. 14% chose rivers as their favourite water, with the remaining 4% spread across open water venues, lidos, tidal pools and estuaries. 89% of people have one to 10 swim spots on their doorstop: free unsupervised locations they use regularly, but they still want more: 85% of all English and Welsh respondents would like to have access to swimming in reservoirs (access that is already granted in Scotland). No surprise, perhaps, that hundreds turned up to make this point at the Kinder Swim Trespass.

‘Many swim spots have become crowded since lockdown and with more people swimming and more pools closing, this pressure will continue to grow. It’s clear that we need greater access to inland water going forward,’ says Rew.

Staying healthy after swims, but passionate about protecting blue spaces

Correspondents logged 1.85 million outdoor swims between them over their lifetimes and 90% of respondents had not had an incident of sickness they attributed to water (average number of swims per correspondent 1434). Many take common sense steps, such as avoiding some bodies water after heavy rainfall (63%), looking at water to assess if it is ‘good’ to swim there (72%), cleaning hands before eating (31%), and using apps that show water quality or sewage overflows (31%).

‘We all want cleaner water and healthy ecosystems around it,’ says Rew, ‘it’s natural as a swimmer to want to protect what you love. But swimmers do not generally swallow water, so we are more resilient to poor water quality than a lot of creatures we share the water with.’

And as for how and why the swim community has grown? It’s a borderline cult, built around enthusiasm. Nearly half of respondents have either had or are still in a messianic phase of trying to convert other people to outdoor swimming; and a quarter have done something proactive as a volunteer to improve the world for other swimmers.