How do you get into the water? Do you wade against cold waves, feet arched away from potentially sharp pebbles? A quick shower and a sudden splash into chlorinated turquoise? Climb calmly, backwards, down metal steps – ones with a slight bounce and spring – and push off serenely?
Most of us can swim, even if the memory of learning is marred by memories of school swimming hats and not wanting to be seen in a bathing suit at a particularly self-conscious age. But, in recent years, other fitness activities have muscled in on the main share of attention. Runners share their personal bests. Yogis pose on Instagram. The swimmers are out there, but they are suspended in an environment where no smartphone can follow.
“I would run up and down the seafront and see the swimmers in the water,” says Alexandra Heminsley, author of the newly published Leap In. “They seemed so tranquil and other-worldly.”
Now, swimming is taking a turn in the centre lane. Alexandra’s book will be joined by Jessica Lee’s Turning: A Swimming Memoir in May. Jenny Landreth, writer of the guide Swimming London, is publishing a new book, Swell, this year, described as “part memoir, part social history”. The Outdoor Swimming Society has over 23,000 members. And Virgin Active has stated that water-based workouts will be one of the biggest fitness trends of 2017.
“The sport has become more accessible and affordable with the increase in the number of swimming pools in both private hands and local authority ownership,” says Seyedeh Mohammadi, a Virgin Active swim manager whose mother used to coach a county swim team in Iran. “Successful Olympians such as Rebecca Adlington and Michael Phelps have played a big part in motivation. An hour of swimming can burn 400 – 500 calories and, since the water has 12 times the resistance of air, it helps improve muscle strength and flexibility.”
People also fall in love with the water for less practical reasons. “There’s a grace to it that can’t be matched. It’s such a sensory and immersive, sorry about the pun, experience,” says Jessica Lee whose Turning chronicles her experiences swimming in a different lake each week. “It’s that weightless, magical feeling.” When we’re in the sea or the pool or a river, we’re literally out of our element.
Also, as Jessica and Seyedeh both point out, you need very little kit to get started. “Anyone can show up and give it ago,” says Jessica. Alexandra Heminsley agrees. “Running was becoming a massive maths project,” she says, referring to collecting timings and other statistics. But swimming appeals to people who are looking for a less commercial activity: fewer sponsored races and no classes full of people in designer sportswear.
Aficionados also speak about the sense of calm they get in the water. “There’s a real reassurance to it,” says Alexandra. “Swimming outside is so connected to the tides and the seasons. You can look at the sea and say ‘In six hours it will be low tide again’. And that will always happen, whatever else is going on in the world.”