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Feb 2, 2017

Its all going swimmingly

Swimming retains its crown as the UK's most participated-in activity, according to Sport England stats. And even though numbers took a dip last year, the sport continues to evolve, with new ways to swim, big events and technology driving change. Fiona Bugler reports

Swimming is a well established, favourite pastime for Brits, with public baths/swimming pools and lidos being a feature in most towns for over 150 years.

As a no impact sport, swimming has often been though of as the fitness choice for the leisurely, the elderly, overweight and pre and post-natal women. And for many years, serious swimming coaching was limited to young, competitive athletes prepared to put in lots of pool hours before dawn broke.

But over the last decade participation in endurance events that go way beyond running a marathon has opened the floodgates. And just like running and cycling, swimming allows us to set a challenge, stretch fitness boundaries and raise money for charity, with open water swimming, triathlon and mass participation events growing in numbers – and advances in technology giving valuable feedback on fitness.

Openings Taking part in events and raising money for charity is not new to swimming. The Swimathon, a pool-based 1.5 to 5K swim which first started in 1985, has raised £46 billion for charities over its 30 plus-year history.

But a recent trend has been the surge in open water events, with a reported 170 held in the UK every year. It seems that the running event model is one that’s being replicated quickly
in the water.

The Great Swim series (from the people who bring us the Great North and South Run) has 22,000 swimmers taking part in its race series which includes events in London, Manchester, Scotland, Suffolk and this year there’s the introduction of the first Great North Swim Run event.

In 2016, London Marathon Events Ltd got in on the act and created Swim Serpentine, a mile swim held in the famous Serpentine which was the open water Olympics’ venue in 2012.

At the inaugural event, held on September 24, 2016, there were 4,000 finishers taking part in 13 waves. Bedford-based open water swimming and triathlon coach, Mark Kleanthous, who’s been swimming for 35 years and has completed 490 triathlons, has noticed the trend, with a marked increase in the number joining his sessions: “The lakes I work at have seen a year-on-year increase of around 35 per cent, with people swimming before and after work, or at weekends, and many are preparing for open water events.”

New Horizons Participation in triathlon has witnessed a rapid growth, and in the same way that runners seeking new experiences move on to ultra-distance events or off-road trail races, triathletes and swimmers seem to have an insatiable appetite for new challenge.
“More triathletes are getting into longer open water challenges, like 10K swims and Channel swims,” said London-based triathlon coach Rob Pepper.

For those with a sense of adventure, Kleanthous recommends the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun race series, a team event that alternates scenic trail running and open water swimming along a pre-marked course between islands or between lakes, and defines itself as a ‘new endurance sport’.

Tools & tech
As more and more people do swimming as part of a competitive event, so the demand for aids and tools to help performance has increased. Late starter, Jane Hansom, 47, won her age category (45-49) at the legendary Ironman World Championship in KailuaKona, Hawai`i (a tough race that requires qualification). “People are busier now than ever before, and want to see quick results. I love a swim toy and I think using paddles, pull buoys and a powerbreather (see box) can make you more effective in the pool and help you to build good technique and strength over the winter months.”
And with smart gadgets swimmers, like all athletes can measure and track a whole host of variables that can help improve their performance, including, the number of strokes taken per minute, the distance covered with each stroke, number of laps in a pool, distance in open water, water temperature, heart rate and pace per 100M/100yd.

Coaching matters
However, when it comes to performance it seems that improved tracking doesn’t equal improved results. Coaching is still fundamental and expertise is a key consideration for anyone developing or selling high tech products. “It is the translation of this data that is really important and that makes it relevant for the swimmer and the coach. Analytics need to be managed well and it seems some of the apps and gadgets available are striving to do this, but may miss the coach interaction,” says Dr Gary Brickley, senior lecturer at the University of Brighton, and English Channel solo swimmer.

But for a good coach, improved technology is a real advantage.

Brickley has recently been working with elite para-triathlete, Joe Townsend, using an endless pool and camera.

“Endless pools are excellent facilities for filming and providing detailed underwater analysis of the swimmer’s stroke.”

“The endless pool is a very useful tool,” agrees Pepper. “But for the individual coach it does represent an enormous investment, not just for purchase and installation, but also for maintenance and upkeep. It’s a big investment but London is an excellent place for this kind of training throughout the year,” he adds.

The tide is turning “In the coming years expect to see pressure sensor devices to measure the forces produced and devices to measure drag built into costumes,” says Dr Brickley.

He also suggests that feedback from coaches or information about laps and pace may be fed through your goggles or via an underwater MP3 player (see below). And as new events continue to emerge and attract large numbers, there may well be a similar swell in specialist swim shops selling products and services just for swimmers, just as there has been with runners, as well as specialist coaches housing endless pools and pool gyms, and a growth in the already expanding holiday market for swimmers.

Add to that an ageing population looking for ways to stay fit, without joint damage, and the continued societal demand for better health and fitness – and it seems swimming provides an ocean of opportunities.

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