Tips for swimming in open water
Whenever swimming open water there are a number of elements outside your control. Even the most experienced of open water swimmers can get into trouble, and being on your own can quickly make a bad situation worse. Always try and swim with a minimum of two people, and agree beforehand how you will swim, making sure you are always aware of the other people in your group. These days there a large number of open water clubs springing up who can help new open water swimmers. Henley Open Water Swimming Club attracts a wide variety of swimmers and on a Saturday swim session in the Thames, will carefully split people into appropriate groups based on speed and ability.
The first thing, and often the biggest barrier to open water swimming 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. Swimming wetsuits such as a Blueseventy Sprint suit are especially designed for swimming and will keep you much warmer than just using a swimming costume.
Henley Open Water Swimming Club (HOWSC) will typically get back in the water in late March, when the temperature is around 12 degrees. First time open water swimmers should try and wait until the water is at least 15 degrees.
Specially designed swimming wetsuits are readily available these days and not only keep you warm but also afford swimmers greater buoyancy than just swimming in costumes. This buoyancy allows swimmers who struggle with their balance and kick to achieve a better position in the water and have a faster and more comfortable swim.
Part of the attraction of open water (or wild swimming) is the ability to do it nearly anywhere; be it lake, river or the sea. All of these are unique and very different environments to swim in and need to be treated slightly differently. Lake swimming wise; there are a large number of lakes throughout the UK that run managed open water swimming sessions (see the list on this page for some examples). These are safe places to start your open water career, and learn the basic skills required, before becoming more adventurous and heading off into the rivers and sea. Once you do head off to the less controlled areas be sure that you fully understand any potential hazards. Kate Rew’s “Wild Swim” is a great book to look into the best swim spots.
When river or sea swimming, it is important to understand the fact that you are sharing the water with other users, so ensure you familiarise yourself with the navigation rules. Please ensure you read the River Swimmers Code of Conduct. Joining a club or contacting the environment agency is a good place to start. For river swimmers it is not a good idea to swim on the same reach as one used by a rowing club. Rowers and swimmers do not mix well. Rowers face backwards and an experienced rower (who knows the stretch) will not check their course that frequently, and could easily go straight over the top of you. That said with some careful positioning, as well as choosing the best time of day, most risks can be mitigated.
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. The skill of sighting can be practiced in the pool. Once proficient you will be able to lift your goggles just out of the water, and then breathe to the side all in the same stroke. A good rule of thumb is to sight your course every 8 strokes.
Learning to breathe bilaterally (ie: on both side) has a number of benefits, especially in open water. Firstly it balances out your stroke and makes sure you are not unbalanced to one side. Secondly it helps with your direction; open water bilateral swimmers usually go straighter. And finally, it gives you greater visibility options, in terms of other swimmers and other water users.
For the first few sessions you will probably be quite tense, as the feeling of swimming in open water is unusual. 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 and you’ll be able to think about technique and sighting.
After your swim the important thing is to get dry and warm as quickly as possible. A good post swim routine is key. Mine is generally as follows: 1 – wetsuit off in the water (and rinse it), 2 – flip flops on, 3 – get dry, 4 – pull in layers, with hoodie and jogging pant on top, 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!!)