BEACH SAFETY for ocean fitness

Summer is the ideal time for coastal-based PTs to switch outdoor training sessions from the park to the beach. But, asks Andre Slade, what happens when participants want to cool down by entering the ocean pre, during or post-training?

For personal trainers living near the coast, summer is the perfect time to switch training sessions from the park to the beach. The mixture of sun, sand and sea can make for an invigorating training session as participants and trainers alike breathe in the salty air and embrace summer.

Continued growth in boot camp and outdoor training, soft sand running and ocean swimming has seen the beach become a hotbed of fitness activity. While the metro areas continue to struggle with local council permit controls restricting beach and coastal park use, outside of the cities the beaches are generally free game, so they’re there to be made the most of.

Apart from the effects of the abundance of sand, the majority of exercises you deliver at the beach will be no different to those you prescribe clients at other outdoor locations. Whether you’re training nearby on the beachside parks, in and around the sand dunes or on the beach itself, the activities will be similar and the risk management processes the same.
But what happens when your participants get hot and sweaty and want to enter the water pre, during or post-training? Do you let them go for a dip? Do you integrate water activities into their training?

As much as the ocean might seem the perfect bonus to your training offering, the short answer is that you shouldn’t conduct organised water-based activities unless you’re qualified, insured and have the appropriate water safety strategies in place.
This might seem like a kill-joy answer – being able to swim at the beach is one of the joys of the Australian summer – but you need to be acutely aware of your duty of care and potential liability in this area before deciding to let your participants cool off, or sending them out in the water as part of a run-swim-run exercise.

Case study

In November 2010, 11 people were caught in a rip current after jumping off the rocks as part of a boot-camp training session on Avoca Beach on the NSW Central Coast. Lifesavers were on hand to rescue the group, although in this case the fitness instructor and lifesavers have different accounts of what actually occurred, and whether this was necessary.

At the time a spokesman for the fitness instructor thanked the lifesavers for their support, but suggested that ‘at no time did any of the participants feel unsafe’ and that the fitness instructor was ‘fully certified, outlined and explained the conditions before entry into the water including safety talks.’

Without knowing exactly what the instructor’s qualifications were, and not being able to verify the conditions or state of the participants when the lifesavers decided it had got out of hand, it’s hard to point a finger in this situation. Either way, for it to have got to the point it did, it is safe to assume that it was probably not an ideal situation, and had it ended differently with injury or even a drowning, you would want to be sure you had done everything possible to ensure the safety of participants before entering the water.
There have also been recent cases in both Australia and New Zealand where school groups on organised beach outings have ended in sad and unfortunate drowning deaths as a consequence of a lack of respect for the ocean and questionable risk management procedures.

To swim or not to swim?

Perhaps the easiest way to look at the issues surrounding taking participants into the water is to focus on what could go wrong and what the implications of that might be.

The ocean and other open water locations such as lakes, rivers and harbours, are natural uncontrolled environments where conditions are unpredictable and can change in the blink of an eye. What may seem safe to the untrained eye may in fact present a potentially dangerous situation.

In the ocean alone, you are dealing with waves, currents, wind, marine life, cooler water temperatures and other beach users, to name just a few. You don’t need to enter the water far before it can pose a threat. Even at knee-depth, large waves can knock participants over, and fast flowing currents can sweep people off their feet and carry them to deeper water.
Your participants are also unpredictable; their levels of swimming ability, confidence (also perceived invincibility in the case of many males) and fitness will be mixed.

Are you prepared for all these factors? If a swimmer got into trouble, would you be able to rescue them? And who would keep the other participants safe while you did so?

In the worst-case scenario – a participant drowning – would you be confident that you had made a competent risk assessment and had a comprehensive water safety plan in place? Would you have the necessary public liability and personal indemnity insurance? Could you stand in front of the Coroners Court and back your risk management policies and procedures?
And you thought you were just taking the group for a swim

In a crabshel

In deciding whether to swim or not to swim, there are a number of considerations to weigh up as a fitness trainer (see box below).
Put bluntly, if it’s not your core business and you’re not qualified, insured or prepared then don’t take your participants into the water.
If you’ve got participants who want to swim, tell them they can do so before or after your training session – and always recommend they swim between the red and yellow flags!

Andre Slade
Andre is the director of OceanFit, an ocean swimming and lifestyle business based in Bondi, NSW. He is also an international lifesaving professional with over 18 years experience in water safety and aquatic education, and the managing editor of Lifeguard, the Australian Lifeguard magazine. For more information visit