Guest blog by Helen Russell,
Open Water Swimming for Beginners
The weather is slowly getting warmer, as is the temperature of the sea, rivers and lakes in the British Isles. Open water swimming is fast growing in popularity, with an increase in organised swim sessions, as well as more people daring to give wild swimming a try. In less than a decade the number of people taking the plunge outside has risen from a handful to tens of thousands.
When I first started doing triathlons, about 10 years ago, I was reticent about open water as I was scared of fish and nervous about what might happen if I felt something in the water brush against me! However, I quickly fell in love with the freedom of swimming in the open. It really is liberating escaping the monotony of looking at the tiles and lane markers of a pool, to swim either in a group, or alone in a lake or the sea. If you are considering having a go at open water swimming but are unsure about how to get started, then here are my top five tips.
- Swim with Someone
When first starting out, it is best to swim as part of a group, or at least with one other experienced open water swimmer.
Lots of triathlon clubs run organised open water swim sessions where there will be marked swim routes, life-guards and a signing in and out system. Often first timers can swim a few laps with a designated guide until confident to go it alone.
If you can’t access an organised session then do make sure you do your first swim with an experienced friend and ideally have a ‘spotter’ on the shore or the beach who can raise the alarm if you get into difficulty. It is a good idea to take a whistle in your cap to blow in case of emergency as it isn’t always obvious to spotters whether you are just waving or trying to alert them about a problem
2. Get the Right Equipment
The most important piece of equipment is obviously the wet-suit! Not everyone uses one and some ‘die hard’ swim enthusiasts frown upon them but I don’t think I’ve ever swam in the UK without one! Even in the summer the water in the UK can be chilly.
The key is to get a suit that fits properly – too big and it won’t keep you warm and may chafe, but too small and you won’t be able to move or more importantly, breathe! The best thing to do is go to your local triathlon shop, where you will be able to try some on. Some shops rent them out for the season, which is great if you are not sure whether you will like it and continue! Also, at the end of the season, the same shops will sell the ex-hire suits for a drop-down price.
If you are swimming either early or late in the season then you might like to try a neoprene swim cap, gloves and socks for extra warmth.
I sometimes use neoprene gloves but just double up on my normal swim cap. I use different goggles for open water than pool swimming, as I use tinted goggles, which reflect the sun and reduce glare. Some people use bigger goggles to increase peripheral vision but they aren’t essential.
Some beginners wear inflatable tow-floats. These are bright coloured and therefore make you more visible to other swimmers, spotters or water users. They are usually also able to support the weight of an adult should you need to stop for a rest.
Finally, as most open water swimming is done in the summer, you would hope that the sun would be shining! Don’t forget to apply sun-cream to your face as the water will reflect the sun and you can burn faster.
3. Take Your Time Getting Dressed
The best way to put on a wetsuit is…carefully! Long nails can be problematic as they can rip the neoprene. Ideally cut your hand and toe nails and make sure they are smooth. Some people put a plastic bag over each foot and hand as they are putting them through the legs and arms to avoid contact with nails. If you do get some small nicks then apply some Black Witch glue, which is a miracle worker! It is a good idea to get some when you buy your suit to avoid any panics one day in the future if you notice some nicks.
Before you put on your suit, apply some anti-chaffing lubricant on your neck, both back and front to avoid rubbing. There are plenty of lubricants on the market. In races, I also apply baby-oil to my arms and calves, when I need to get my wetsuit off at speed in transition! Do not use Vaseline as this can damage the suit.
4. Practise Longer Distance
The biggest difference between pool and open water swimming is that you can’t stop for a rest every 25 or 50 meters at the end. Therefore, make sure that you can swim a fairly long distance without stopping.
If you are swimming at an organised open water session then the routes are usually 400-750 meters, so have a go at swimming that distance in the pool without touching the wall when you turn.
Practise treading water, as if you need a rest, you can do this.
Check the depth of the lake or river before you enter as you may be able to touch the bottom and simply stand up to rest. Also practise bilateral breathing (breathing both sides), as this makes it easier to see around you and avoid bumping into other swimmers.
5. Get in Slowly
I’ve heard it said that the best way to deal with getting in cold water is just to get in really quickly or even jump in! However, this is dangerous as it can cause our system to go into shock, which can lead to hyperventilating and loss of cognitive reasoning.
Wade in slowly so that your body can adjust to the conditions it is about to face. Be mindful of how long you are in the water. You might be enjoying it so much that you don’t want to get out but staying in too long can cause hyperthermia or cramping. I usually judge it by the colour of my hands. If they are purple, that’s just about ok. If they are completely white, or if I’m shivering then it’s time to get out!
Make sure you have warm clothes to go home in – even in the summer I take a thick jumper, or two, as it will take me a while to get warm. Bear in mind that often, even at organised swims, there won’t be a hot shower therefore take a hot drink in a thermos to warm you up afterwards.
So come on in – I’m sure you will love it as much as I do. Just don’t share any fish stories with me!
You can read other articles from Helen: Five Rites of Passage, Six Steps to Recovery from Your Workout, Triathlete Transition Training and Winter Training for Summer Results, Training Holidays with the Kids on Board and Fuelling on Long Bike Rides.
Helen is a former age group World and European Duathlon champion and European Triathlon champion. In 2015 Helen was part of the One Day Ahead team which raised £1m for Cure Leukaemia by riding the entire route of the Tour de France one day ahead of the pros. This year she is moving to quadrathlons and will be targeting the British Quadrathlon Series. You can follow her on Twitter via @helengoth.
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