During the Covid-19 pandemic virtual running races have become popular. Such races give participants the opportunity to plan and run their own course from their home, running a set horizontal distance (for example 10km). As such each participant would be running a different route with varying amounts of height gain, over the same horizontal distance, whilst adhering to the social distancing guidelines.
In April 2020 Dave Talbot, an adventure specialist from Bristol, devised a simple method to help calculate fair results so that they reflected each respective height gain by subtracting 1 minute for every 25m of height gain. On a bigger scale: subtract 4 minutes for every 100m of height gain.
Dave shared his initial tests with myself, I then derived this formula based on Dave's initial predictions and testing:
TT = CT - (2.4 x HG) / 60
TT = Talbot Time (minutes)
CT = Clock Time (minutes)
HG = Height Gain (metres)
As in walking (Naismith's Rule) there are variables such as terrain and amount of kit carried.
We are now testing this formula on a number of virtual races during the Covid-19 pandemic, initially we are looking at distances of 10km to 21.1km. These virtual races provide focus, motivation and fun to runners all over the world.
When lock down first started, the media and governing bodies were quick to point out that swimming outdoors was not permitted (article from The Independent) however, these announcements did not stand up to what the original lock down laws stated and there was no specification in law about what type of exercise was and was not permissible, each nation later evolved the legislation to their own lands. But after some unusual measures in the early stages of lockdown, such as Police dying lakes black, and some nations banning outdoor swimming completely, I had to ask myself were outdoor swimmers disproportionately hard done by?
Between 2014 and 2018 the drowning fatality totals in the UK were:
There are several other "groupings" of people who drown such as angling, commercial, powerboating etc. but the largest grouping is consistently walkers/runners. Without the total numbers partaking in each activity it's hard to fully assess risk, but at the very least, this highlights why it is important for all of our society to be able to swim, and cope with immersion.
WHY WAS SWIMMING SINGLED OUT?
A key problem is that the term "swimming" is used loosely. Often anyone in water is called a swimmer (particularity by some reporters), even though they may have never swum in open water before, or may not know how to swim.
In the first weekend after water activities were "allowed" (16th - 17th May in England) there were 194 rescues reported by HM Coastguard, none of which involved swimmers:
"Coastguard rescue teams from around the UK were called out 194 times to incidents including inflatables drifting offshore, crashed and broken down jet-skis and pleasure boats, people injured while out walking or cycling along the coast, paddle boarders, kayakers, windsurfers and kite surfers who found themselves in difficulty and people cut off by the tide or stuck in mud." published on HM COASTGUARD official social media accounts.
During the last weeks of May there were several coastal fatalities involving people jumping off cliffs, upturned boats, jet-skis, kayaks, and surfers. Participation in these activities often includes high speeds and hard objects, unlike swimming at, say 2 mph, unless you get hit by a Jet-ski.
As a RNLI Beach Lifeguard, and keen swimmer, I realise the awkward position HM Coastguard and the RNLI have been in during this uncertain time. That said I can't help get frustrated with how swimming is portrayed as a higher risk activity than many others. The evidence simply doesn't stack up. Outdoor swimmers who swim are relatively safe. Fish who can't swim are relatively unsafe.
PRESSURE ON THE NHS
In 2018, 99 cyclists were killed, 4106 seriously injured and 13345 slightly injured in Great Britain (from ROSPA). That's one heck of a pressure on the NHS. I tried to find stats on serious injuries to swimmers. Nothing. It makes sense, in swimming you are generally travelling less than around 2mph.
In May the cycling website road.cc reported "Cyclist deaths double during lockdown at twice the average for the time of year".
Which is more risky cycling or swimming? Which activity will put the most pressure on the NHS? The evidence points to cycling. Indeed running, walking, and DIY could also be up there.
Some would argue that smokers and the obese lead the way in putting pressure on the NHS, indeed in Wales heart disease is the biggest cause of death with around 9,500 deaths per year. Many of these deaths could be prevented with healthy eating, exercise and lifestyle change.
I know of three members of my extended family who attended A & E during the "lockdown" period. All of these injuries happened at home or in the garden. This isn't surprising, when I think of the all the times I or members of my family have had to go to A & E the accidents overwhelmingly occur at home. Never as a result of swimming.
It wasn't long ago that Dr Chris van Tulleken (the doctor who gave up drugs) advocated outdoor swimming as a treatment for depression (BMJ Article here). Note - the number of drownings classed as suicide are on the rise.
Is swimming mis-represented at authority levels? If you are an adult who can't swim do you become anti-swimming? Are you resentful that your school or parents didn't teach you to swim? I think I would be. Does this skew your perception of the risks involved with swimming? Do decision-makers see swimming as a life-skill? And if not then why is swimming the only sport to be included within the national curriculum?
In 2019 I volunteered in the delivery of the superb Swim Safe program organised by The RNLI & Swim Wales, it was notable how many parents asked if their was a similar course for adults.
One of the joys of swimrun is shared experience, but racing with a partner can be a barrier to participation. Adopted from the adventure racing world, racing in teams plays a part in your safety - the harder the race, the more important your partner becomes. With the introduction of shorter and less exposed courses there is often a solo option, but it’s not as good as racing in a team.
Finding a Partner
If you have a network of swimming or running buddies it shouldn’t be too hard. Another option is to enter a solo race, stick around for the post-race social and see if any of the other solos fancy teaming up. It’s also worth emailing race organisers as they can sometimes help match you up. Maybe look closer to home - have you got a family member who you could convince to join you? There are several high performing husband-wife, sibling, and parent-child teams on the circuit. If you are travelling to a race it’s nice to share travel and accommodation costs too.
Partner sorted, now on to becoming an effective team.
The basics, compare your times for a 400m swim (pool) and 5km run (parkrun). This is an easy way to give you a baseline. Then compare your time for a 1.5km open water swim and a 10km trail run, ideally wearing what you expect to wear come race day. These comparisons will highlight particular strengths. Also note who is the best at sighting, swimming in a straight line, and running on technical terrain. Once you know your individual strengths you can decide on how you will operate as a team come race day.
Choosing a Race
All swimruns are different, very different. On each event website check the swim to run ratio, the longest swim, longest run, amount of ascent, terrain, number of transitions, expected weather & water temperature, aid stations, and cut-offs. Often there are videos and photos of previous years which can help you build a picture of whether a particular race is right for your team.
Towing makes drafting easy, increases your team swim speed and keeps you and your partner together during swim sections. The bigger the difference between individual swim speeds the more benefit you’ll get from using it. I still use it even when I race with a partner with the same swim speed, in this case you can take turns in leading.
The tow can be of benefit on the runs too. A length of no more than 3m keeps most at the right distance on the runs and swims; however, experiment with your teammate to find out what works best for you. Make sure it is easy to unclip your tow as you will want to unclip on some run sections.
Of course it is important to use what you have trained with. If you are not comfortable with something then don’t use it on race day.
Kit Management & Transitions
Smooth, well-drilled transitions are essential for a good performance on race day, a big part of smooth transitions involves working together. Practice getting in and out of water together (with tow system) as much as you can. Be comfortable and well-practiced with hand paddles and pull-buoy management - recognise when your partner needs help.
Learn The Course
Knowing the length of each leg will help determine your wetsuit strategy on race day. If you are staring down the barrel of an 8km run with ascent, you may want to pull down your wetsuit; if it’s a 1km jog until the next swim, you won’t. Similarly, knowing the length of the swim you are about to undertake will help you mentally prepare for what lies ahead. If you both know this you can anticipate when your partner may need help with a zip.
Tip: write the run and swim distances on your arm or hand paddles. If you do write them on your arm, use the smooth inside of your forearm, as writing on the hairy part is more likely to rub off over the course of a race.
At it's best swimrun takes you and your partner on a challenging, adventurous journey through the natural environment, it makes you happy.
In the words of Chris McCandles “Happiness is only real when shared”.
This article was also published in the April edition of the Outdoor Swimmer Magazine: