With gyms in Britain shut for much of last year, almost a million people downloaded an NHS-backed fitness app over three months in an attempt to get up off the sofa and out for a run.
In subsequent lockdowns wild swimming converts have been evangelising about the healing powers of cold water.
Now the Outdoor Swimming Society has launched a free Swim Couch to 5K programme – echoing the Public Health England programme Couch to 5K – to encourage three months of training for a summer solstice challenge in the sea or in a lake, pool or river.
The scheme, the brainchild of Kate Rew, founder of the OSS, is aimed at competent swimmers who want to improve their front crawl, and aficionados less fit after the UK lockdown.
Rew said she had “suddenly become conscious of how many independent, free-thinking friends” were doing Couch to 5K during the pandemic. “I realised we had reached a point in lockdown where we just needed someone to tell us what to do. I thought it would be really lovely for swimmers to have a plan to follow to get us out of the doldrums and off our couches to pave us towards midsummer,” she said.
The programme is aimed at developing a long, relaxed crawl, with minimum effort and maximum streamlining. “This kind of easy, long-distance front crawl is so fluid it is like taking a long walk, and you can go on for hours,” the programme notes say.
Daniel Bullock, the director of Swim for Tri, devised the programme, which began as British summertime started. It is not too late to join. Training remains on dry land until 1 May, when indoor pools are expected to reopen and outdoor waters should have warmed up for more than just a token dip.
At least three weekly sessions follow until 21 June, when thousands of swimmers across the UK are expected to tackle the 5K challenge.
Among them will be Will Sparkes, 25, a junior doctor, who spent much of the pandemic on Covid wards at a hospital in Portsmouth with little time to swim even when the pools were open.
“It’s been an intense year. With pools closed I probably haven’t swum more than 200 or 300 metres over the last six months,” he said. He managed to keep running and cycling but missed the “mindlessness” of swimming. “Swimming is different because you can switch off, you just have you and your thoughts. Mentally I’m OK now that the sun has come out and I’m much brighter about everything, but the winter was quite dark and difficult.”
Rew said she had had just brief plunges into her local river over winter, never putting her face under, and had been “much grumpier” without her pool swims in the last lockdown.
Although Sparkes used to swim long distances before the pandemic, the prospect of tackling 5K was nerve-racking, he said. “It’s quite intense. Going straight up to 5K in a month and a bit is quite a big task, but the plan is written by a professional, so I hope it will work.”