Open Water Swimming for Beginners – Hints & Tips

As I have previously testified, swimming is not one of my favourite activities, HOWEVER, sensible me decided giving into peer pressure at work to take part in the Henley Swim Club to Pub in July was a good idea.

Which meant one thing…I had to get back in the water. For me, swimming in a pool is a bit like running on a treadmill – boredom factor 100. Plus, the event is in the Thames, which is not a pool…therefore, I should not do all my training in the pool. Go figure.

Initial reservations about open water swimming often include “it’s not that easy to get to”, “it’s more difficult” and “it’s less safe than a pool”…and I can imagine “open water swimming for beginners” is a heavily Googled term! So, this post is here to quash some of those fears and streamline your introduction – it was written with the help of Henley Swim who have years of experience in this sort of thing, unlike my relative newbiness.

  1. Find a good location for your ability

There are a large number of lakes that run managed open water swimming sessions. These are safe places to start your open water career, and learn the basic skills, before becoming more adventurous and heading off into the rivers and sea. This list on 220 seems fairly up to date, but lakes have a tendency to open and close (!) so make sure you check the website before turning up.

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Shepperton (above) is convenient if you are in SW London but it is also often very busy and can be full of people who seem very fast – but one of best things about OW is how friendly and willing to help people are. The majority of reputable lakes will give a full safety briefing before allowing you to swim, as well as making you do a small demonstration that you won’t drown (typically a short swim, plus that you are able to perform the safety signal.

It’s often better to find somewhere that is fully focused on swimming (rather than also offering wakeboarding etc), simply because it means there are less obstacles (e.g. buoys) to worry about when you are on your swim, and you’re more likely to get dedicated attention. If you can’t get to a lake, you could always start with a lido – Tooting Bec (one of my despised locations) is 90m long. So it’s practically the same as being in a lake (feels like it anyway) but you don’t have to go as far.

NB Make sure you take into account whether they have cake. I would highly recommend the Victoria sponge at Trifarm.

  1. Never open water swim alone

This applies to both lake swimming (i.e. go during supervised sessions and flag if you are new/less confident) as well as when you are braving it in the more wild locations. There are a number of elements outside your control. Even the most experienced of swimmers can get into trouble, and being on your own can quickly make a bad situation worse.

These days there a large number of open water clubs springing up who can help new open water swimmers and offer coaching sessions which will help you build both your confidence and technique. Most lakes will link to sessions they hold on their websites or social accounts.

  1. Prepare for your open water swim – before and after

Standard kit would include wetsuit, goggles, high visibility swim hat, flip flops, towel, changing mat, and (waterproof!) watch.

After your swim the important thing is to get dry and warm as quickly as possible. A good post swim routine is key, for example: 1 – wetsuit off (and rinse it), 2 – flip flops on, 3 – get dry, 4 – layers on (hats are very welcome early in the season), 5 – hot drink. All fairly self-explanatory, but it’s amazing how many people get it wrong. If you have driven to your swim; get the heating on full blast on your feet (lovely!!)

As mentioned previously, also look for cake (but make sure you wash your hands…) Coke is good for killing pond bugs (true fact – that I don’t have a reference for) and bin-bags are handy to pop your wetsuit in until you can actually dry it out, just don’t leave it in there to go mouldy…Also, embrace pond hair. Gives it nice waves.

  1. Be ready for the temperature

Often, the biggest barrier is the temperature. It’s colder, pure and simple! Most swimming pools have a temperature of between 27-31 degrees centigrade. The warmest water you could hope to swim in (in the UK) would be about 20 degrees, so there is a big difference. When you first experience cold water your body will have a mild shock response and you will gasp. Gradually your body will adapt and you will become more comfortable – but it’s therefore advisable not to start your open water career in March. Most lakes will post the temperature on their website; 15 degrees is generally a good starting point.

Specially designed swimming wetsuits are readily available and not only keep you warm but also afford swimmers greater buoyancy, allowing you to achieve a better position in the water and have a faster and more comfortable swim.

You don’t need to buy a wetsuit to get started – most places allow you to hire them for a fee. Obviously, if you get into it, that fee per session generally warrants buying your own, but it isn’t a necessity. The best thing about wetsuits is the buoyancy – I’m wondering if I can use this as a technique to float 1100m downstream (although I might not finish within the hour unless the Severn Bore transplants itself to the Thames at that specific time)

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Spot Katie (I am the green hat on the left…trying not to drown)

  1. Remember that a lake is not a pool

There are no sides to push off, no steps to get in (well, in most cases!) and you can’t always feel the bottom. Or see it. Or see anything.

Go in prepared for this – don’t suddenly act surprised that a lake is murky. Some lakes will flag themselves as ‘not having weeds’, which is often something people don’t like, but rest assured, there isn’t much in a lake in the UK that you really need to be afraid of – it’s not Florida! Man up and get in! Supervised lakes will have a lifeguard and/or rescue boat (often a kayak), so you won’t be totally left to your own devices, but this is why it’s key to learn the safety sign. And practice treading water; often, the panic is quickly alleviated with some deep breaths. But this is why you should swim with others and not over-estimate your ability, which moves nicely on to…

  1. Don’t push yourself too early

Always have a plan of what you will be doing, and make sure that it is safe and within your capabilities. Getting tired, cold and cramping are not pleasant if you still have a long swim back to safety.  Most lakes will have both short (200-400m) and long (750+) loops to cater for all, so you don’t have to push further than you are willing – no-one else is counting how far or how long you swim for!

  1. Practise sighting

One of the (if not the) most important skills in open water swimming is sighting (seeing where you are going). Forgetting to regularly check and correct your course can add considerable distance to your swim. This is isn’t just a racing issue, where athletes need to swim the shortest possible distance, but also a safety issue, as it is important to ensure you know where you are and that you are swimming in a safe section of water. A good rule of thumb is to sight your course every 8 strokes. Poor visibility in the lake is also a common initial fear – but rest assured, you aren’t going to come across anything in a lake in the UK that will cause you that much fear.

(NB Sighting is equally important for staying on course and not crashing into buoys as it is for avoiding swans and ducks. Watch out – you have been warned!)

Be aware of who you are sharing the water with if you choose to swim outside supervised lakes (rowers and swimmers do not mix well) Joining a club or contacting the environment agency is a good place to start.

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  1. Relax and enjoy it!

For the first few sessions you will probably be quite tense; for this reason try and keep these sessions short (or even get out and get back in again, a few times). Once you are in, focus on getting a good breathing cycle going. Generally if your breathing is working well, your body will relax.

One of my favourite things about being in the lake is having the sun scatter through the water – or the feeling of being rained on whilst being wet already, such is the weather. For me, it’s like trail running – I can totally tune out and enjoy being outside rather than focusing on hitting times and distances and proving something to myself. Also, you don’t smell of chlorine afterwards…just…nature.

If you’re keen to get involved in an open water event without having to cycle and run afterwards, then Henley Swim offer a multitude of distances, as well as having many resources available like these training plans to help you prepare. (I should probably now start actually preparing as opposed to ‘making up swim sets each time I go’)

And with that, I’m off to don my new goggles and hope they don’t leak!

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