Pool swimming drops by a quarter over a decade. But what about ‘wild swimming’?


More empty pools? Swimming participation has fallen by a quarter in a decade, but is it because we are all heading outdoors?

Sport England data shows 2.5 million people swam in pools weekly in 2015-16, down 776,000 from 3.27 million in 2005-06.

This represents a fall of 23.7% despite 564 new swimming pools opening across the country since 2006 (how many have closed in the same period?)

Of these new pools, 73% have been built in London or the south of England which perhaps explains why in some regions such as the North East there has been a such as massive drop in swimming participation of over a third – see regional breakdown below.

Nevertheless, swimming remains England’s most popular mass participation sport, with about one in every 20 people aged over 14 swimming at least once a week.

The Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) said more people were choosing activities such as aquacise and wild swimming with Nick Caplin, director of participation at the Amateur Swimming Association, suggesting it is partly a marketing problem.

“We have a real challenge with swimming because it’s not a sport that is continually at the forefront of people’s minds,” he told the BBC.

Keri-Anne Payne

Olympic silver medallist Keri-Anne Payne thinks that people are still choosing to swim, but just in different ways, particularly open water

For Olympic open water silver medallist Keri-Anne Payne, it isn’t so much that we’ve seen a decline in swimming, it’s just we now want different things from the sport.

“There are triathletes who do wild swimming and people who just like a bit more adventure; people who like to go to Lake Windermere and swim there, or Loch Lomond, or down to Dover to swim the Channel. It’s a new element people are looking for.”

David Wilkie, who was Olympic and Commonwealth Games champion in the 1970s, believes the popularity of swimming has declined because of increased competition. He told the BBC: “The choice now in sport is much more varied than it used to be…there are more gyms where you have activities like pilates, zumba classes, weights.”

He added: “I think the most impact though is swimming with children. Schools don’t really offer any swimming because it is expensive, it takes a lot of time to get children to pools, get them changed and get them on and off the bus.

“Also I think obesity is a big problem, we are getting much bigger and I think people are embarrassed about how they look.”

Nevertheless, The ASA reported a “surge” in the number of people searching for details about local swimming pools after the success of the Great Britain swimming team at the Rio Olympics in August.

I echo some of the comments made by Wilkie regarding increased competition from other sports. Certainly in the 1970s and 1980s there generally wasn’t the option of going to a gym because there were very few gyms – either public or private – around.

However, I think another factor is that many people are put off by public pools, many of which are overly chlorinated and not very well maintained, particularly the changing rooms. In short, they have failed to keep up with the standards that many of us now expect when engaging in leisure activities.

Pools in private leisure centres are generally in much better shape but tend to work out much more expensive to run and also to use (some leisure chains such as Pure Gym have closed pools altogether to save money).

At least the picture isn’t all doom and gloom with an increasing number of people abandoning chlorinated pools for the open water phenomenon. And while the overall numbers are still small, it is clearly growing in scale, especially in the summer.

What is the regional swimming picture?
Area People Swimming 2005-06 People Swimming 2015-16 Number of people Percentage Change
England 3,273,800 2,497,800 -776,000 -23.7%
North East 157,600 103,400 -54,200 -34.4%
North West 453,400 313,800 -139,600 -30.8%
East Midlands 284,100 206,600 -77,500 -27.3%
West Midlands 326,100 238,900 -87,200 -26.7%
East of England 366,500 275,600 -90,900 -24.8%
South East 558,300 427,100 -131,200 -23.5%
Yorkshire & Humber 322,700 247,500 -75,200 -23.3%
South West 354,000 278,300 -75,700 -21.4%
London 451,000 406,700 -44,300 -9.8%


One Comment

on “Pool swimming drops by a quarter over a decade. But what about ‘wild swimming’?
One Comment on “Pool swimming drops by a quarter over a decade. But what about ‘wild swimming’?
  1. Wild swimming…isn’t the best way to look at “the other side”

    Based on overall numbers:

    First: summer time, Christmas and 1 January dippers….they are swimming

    Second: Triathletes are the largest number of routinely swimming (as opposed to dipping). Many will hit the pool weekly/monthly – but come warmer times they are in the open water

    Third: Open Water swimmers (up to 1 mile) – some are Outdoor Swimming Society types (many say “wild swimming”)and others are training for that upcoming event/race – like the great swim series.

    Fourth: Open Water swimmers (more than 1 mile and less than 10k) – some are Outdoor Swimming Society types (many say “wild swimming” and others are training for that upcoming event/race – like the BLDSA events.

    Tied Fifth: Marathon swimmers – 10k and above

    Tied First: Cold water swimmers (including up to ice mile) – growing fast

    Our pool colleagues tend to look at everything in terms of “cement ponds”. Broaden the conversation – starting with facilities. Count Dover Harbour with 100 + marathon swimmer in training every weekend as a FACILITY. Stop talking about ASA registered clubs and start talking as well about Tri-Clubs, Outdoor Swimming Society, Open Water Clubs and PODS of swimmers (2 or more) who meet regularly for an open water swim.

    Add all these…and swimming is more popular than every. The regular pool number are just part of the picture.

    Ned Denison
    Marathon swimmer, Ice Miler, Open Water Swimmer and training in pools in the winter to get the meters I need (sorry
    I don’t own runners or a bike)

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