We live in the UK, and, with the possible exception of some bits of sea, there are no killer sharks, piranhas or giant octopus in our waters. UK open water is generally safe, if a bit colder than in other parts of the world, and it is the next step to take as a swimmer in accessing more multi-sport events.
So if you have been pool swimming and fancy the challenge of taking to the great outdoors, let’s help get you into open water for triathlons, for open water swim racing or just for fun.
The easiest place to start is an inland lake, and there are plenty now catering for swimmers that run taster sessions or that have ‘just turn up and swim’ times. At inland lake venues, you will not be the only newcomer and you won’t find a seething mass of experienced triathletes all swimming like torpedoes and so feel rest-assured you can relax. Just remember not to swim where swimming is banned, and don’t swim on your own or without a more experienced swimmer if you are new to it.
The key difference between pool and open water swimming is the water’s temperature. Whereas you can turn up to the pool on any day of the year in all weathers and get the same conditions, the same cannot be said for open water. This means that you need to be prepared with the right gear.
First up, you will need to invest in a wetsuit, and it is imperative that your wetsuit fits your body properly. By all means, have a go in your old windsurfing wetsuit but you will find you won’t get far and it may put you off the experience. If you choose to borrow one from a mate and they are a different body shape to you, you will find it either too tight and restrictive for breathing, or all the extra space will let in lots of cold water making it uncomfortable. So borrow one that fits, or hire a good quality swimming or triathlon specific wetsuit.
When it comes to buying a wetsuit, try lots of different designs on to find a cut to suit your body shape. When looking at the features of your wetsuit, you need to think about whether you kick hard, whether you would like warmth over flexibility, how the neck sits and what your budget is. Men and Women are also different shapes (surprise, surprise) so buy a wetsuit designed for your gender.
If you are considering buying a second hand wetsuit it will almost certainly have nicks and tears in it and could be about to fall apart so inspect it carefully before wasting money. And, as a note to bear in mind, it is almost guaranteed that the previous owner will have peed in it…
In a race you will not normally be allowed gloves or socks, but in good, old Blighty they will make a world of difference in preventing you from chilling down in the water when out for a swim. Using neoprene socks and neoprene gloves will extend your outdoor season and will lengthen the time you can spend swimming in the water. Socks are also useful for protecting you from treading on something ungodly under the water with your bare feet, and will stop you stubbing your feet on a barnacle covered rock.
Likewise a neoprene hat (affectionately known in some circles as a ‘prat hat’) keeps your head and cheeks warm and toasty. You are also allowed to race in a hat, so it is worth investing in one.
If it is really cold, a pair of earplugs will stop the water going in your ears, which for some biological reason stops you being so cold. Just remember to pull them out again if you are in a triathlon race, otherwise you won’t hear a thing out on the bike!
Another key difference between pool and open water swimming is the clarity of the water and light conditions outside, which necessitates the use of a good pair of swim goggles.
There is a dark art in finding goggles that fit properly, that don’t fog up and have a bit more sideways vision than regular streamlined pool goggles. Again the advice is to try on lots of different designs to find the perfect fit for your face.
The more often you swim in open water, the more you will demand of your goggles. Consideration should be given to the type of lenses in your goggles. Early starts are quite common for triathlon and swim events and this usually means that the sun is low on the horizon too. At the morning progresses, so does the light and so consider investing in some goggles with photochromatic lens that adjust according to light levels they are exposed to.
Now that you are all togged up you are ready to dip a toe in the water.
Get in slowly, wait for the water to sneak in at the zip and down the collar and get accustomed to the temperature. This is also the point you dip down and secretly have a pee to warm up your bottom half. Everyone does it, and so it’s merely an unspoken secret!
Put your head in the water and just blow out gently, keeping your head in the water for a while. Breathe and then do it again. You will notice that the water is pretty dark and there is a lot of matter floating around in the water around you. But don’t be put off, at least it doesn’t fill your nose with chlorine! Though you can never be certain what it is filling your nose with however.
Now take a swim and get used to how it feels. You don’t need to go steaming off to the other side of the pond, but you will quickly realise that you need to learn how to sight and go in a straight line. There is no handy black line to keep you on track like there is in a pool.
You have swum the swim and now it is time to get out. By now all the blood will have got stuck in your top half and when you stand up, it will fall to your feet and you will promptly fall over!
Here’s a top tip to avoid looking like you are running around like a drunken student when leaving the water. Spend the last 50 yards of your swim kicking like mad to get full circulation going again. Try it. It works.
Open water swimming will open your eyes to a whole new world of swimming, events and races and a whole new group of friends. The more you do, the more confident you will be and before you know it you will find yourself faffing on the edge less and enthusiastically taking the plunge.
Once you have mastered open water in inland lakes and open bodies of water that are still, you can turn your attentions to the open seas with tides, currents and waves to contend. This will open up the exciting world of beach to beach swims, round island swims… and probably no sharks! But that is for discussion in a different post.
See more training and advice articles here.