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Beginners’ guide to open water swimming

Beginners’ guide to open water swimming


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As the sports of triathlon and open water swimming grow ever faster in the UK, we bring you a guide to getting started.

Swim fit: Fitness is an important part of swimming outdoors. You might find that open water swimming is more tiring when you first try it so it’s important that you have built up your swimming fitness in a pool first.

Aim to swim at least twice a week and attend coached sessions with a swimming club or triathlon club for the best fitness benefits.

Right technique: Whether you plan to swim breaststroke or freestyle (crawl) you should practise the right techniques before launching yourself into open water swimming.

As well as the correct swimming styles, there are techniques that are specific to open water swimming, too, such as diving in, starting a swim in deep-water, “sighting”, swimming around a buoy and learning to swim as part of a group rather than up and down a lane in a pool.

Many triathlon clubs and open water swimming groups will show you what you need to know and then it’s a case of practising in the pool and open water.

Swim-specific wetsuit: There are different types of wetsuits, such as those you might wear for surfing, others for diving and swim-specific wetsuits. In most open water situations in the UK a full-length neoprene wetsuit will be needed to maintain your core body temperature.

There are swimming wetsuits ranging from 2.5mm to 6mm neoprene but for summer swimming and most people choose to wear a 3mm wetsuit. The 3mm refers to the majority of the neoprene thickness used in the wetsuit. The 3mm neoprene will normally be sited on the body and thighs of the wetsuit.

Around areas such as the shoulders and arms, the neoprene will be thinner and more flexible so that it is easier to perform your swimming stroke.

When being fitted for a wetsuit make sure it fits very snugly. You do not want areas of bagginess in a swimming wetsuit for two reasons. First, the areas where the neoprene is loose will cause cold spots.

A wetsuit is meant to be tight enough to form a layer of warm water between the skin and neoprene. Secondly, a loose wetsuit will create drag in the water when you are swimming.

Feel the float: A wetsuit does offer more buoyancy when swimming in water. You’ll find that your lower body in particular has greater buoyancy than when compared to swimming in only a costume. It can take a little getting used to but it’s a good benefit.

Chill out about the cold: When you first get into open water it will feel very cold. Even in the height of summer there are few areas of open water in the UK that will be warm.

Try to get into the water slowly and allow your body to adjust to the cold. You will feel the wet suit “filling up” with water from the torso down. Once you are up to your waist, walk into the water a little deeper and allow the cold water to seep into the rest of the wetsuit.

Now splash the cold water on your face and over your head. Next, you can fully immerse your body and head. It will be cold but if you stay calm and relaxed you will be better able to cope with the cold.

Good sighting: Swimming in a pool allows you to sight on the lines at the base of the pool, the lane ropes and also the pool ends. An edge is never far away. In open water it is very different. Try swimming with your eyes shut in a pool to see how it will feel in open water.

As well as open water being a large open space there are water currents and the wind to factor in, too. All this can leave you feeling disorientated and “lost”.

So it’s vital that you learn to sight correctly. If there are obvious markers such as buoys or boats (that remain still) you can use these as your sighting point. If not, you need to find a prominent point or marker on the wider landscape, such as a tree, building or hilltop.

Look up and ahead as part of your swim stroke every four to six strokes to ensure you stay on target. If you feel you are swimming way off target make small and subtle adjustments over the course of the next few minutes rather than stopping, turning and make one large adjustment.

Every time you stop, when in a race, you will love valuable time and momentum.

The stronger side: We all have a stronger swimming side, or one arm or pull that is more powerful than the other. Learn which side this is by swimming with your eyes closed in the pool so you can make adjustments when swimming in open water.

The drafting saviour: Swimming on the feet of another swimmer can save up to 38% in energy output. It’s similar to cycling in the slipstream of another rider. It is far better to draft another swimmer than to try to take the lead, especially in a race.

Be safe: Always swim in open water with other people. You will never know when you might get into trouble, be hit with cramp or lose your way. If there are others around you there is a greater chance of help if you should need it.

Wear brightly coloured swimming hats for easier identification in dark open water and for extra safety on longer distance swims you might consider a small floating safety raft that drags out behind you attached to your body. On days with less light you can add a small waterproof torch to the float.

Enjoy the freedom: Swimming in open water is loved by so many people and they talk about the sense of freedom and their enjoyment of being part of the natural environment. Take the time when you swim for pleasure to look around and really think about where you are. It’s a great feeling.

Post-swim: Do not be tempted to jump into a very hot shower – if there is one available – straight after a swim. It can be too much of a shock to your body to warm up so quickly.

Instead, dry yourself off well, sip a warm drink and eat something with carbohydrates. It’s better to warm up more slowly after a cold swim.