Top Tips for Open Water Swimming*

*Or, “So you’ve signed up to a Triathlon but now are having a meltdown at the thought of swimming in a lake,” but that would’ve been too long. I’ve written this as a guide for beginners to open water swimming (OWS) or those who are just generally nervous about getting in deep water. 

The ever growing popularity of multisport events like Triathlon in the past five to ten years means that many of us non-sporty types may know at least one person who has decided to swim in a lake or other OWS venues. The initial thought for many might be Eww why would you want to swim in a cold, dirty lake? and a few years ago I would have agreed. But reader, I have changed!

I wasn’t a sporty person and I would still struggle to call myself one, but when hubby started joining in on RG Active sessions I found myself going along. There’s no peer pressure like triathlete peer pressure and despite saying never never never to all three disciplines, within a few years I had entered a Triathlon. Before that though I needed to be able to battle my fears of swimming and deep water.

If you are afraid of open water and don’t regularly swim in it – DON’T SIGN UP FOR AN OWS TRIATHLON WITHOUT EXPERIENCING IT FIRST!

Surely no one would do that I hear you say?! Such foolishness, much error! Indeed. Still happens though. For me personally it just couldn’t. I wasn’t a good swimmer in a pool and I was scared of the depth and cold. Thankfully the excellent team at RG Active built up my swim strength in the pool and my comfort in the water. I’m now more comfortable in a wetsuit in open water than in a cossie in a pool. (Well, at least when it’s warm!)

Love your wetsuit! It shouldn’t be a daunting thing to wear – it makes swimming easier, keeps you warm and lets you float, all good things. Make sure it is specifically for Triathlon, not surfing and that it fits well and yes, it should be tight. Putting it on is akin to wearing full body Spanx. GET USED TO IT; swimming in outdoor pools and lidos, putting it on and taking it off, wear it around the house if you so desire!

My first foray in the water was with a tri buddy who took their time getting me into what felt like the coldest depths of the Arctic. (Yep that’s me below, the shock caught on my face!) This was the best way for me to be introduced to it, with no expectations, minimal fuss and a very understanding and calming teacher, which helps when your brain is shouting at you to GET OUT, YOU LOON!

If walking in beach-style, then make sure to GET YOUR HANDS AND FACE IN THE WATER as soon as possible. A gentle blowing out of bubbles will help acclimatise you to the shock of the cold water on the face.

The next bit can be uncomfortable – when the water seeps in past the zip (I call it zip leak) and it feels like you have an Alaskan pipeline up your back. Lie back, face up and relax. Calm your breathing. Let the water go through the back of your suit. Flip over and breathe out bubbles. Now you’re ready to go swimming.

YOU CAN’T DROWN IN A WETSUIT – unless you really tried *shocked face* but mostly you will just float belly up. Test it, make sure you feel comfortable in the water.

I’m writing this bit of the post the evening before going in to the cold, dark waters of Stoke Newington West Reservoir. My first OWS of the year. *panic face* My brain has decided to remind me of all the terrible things I’m scared of when I’m near water and mostly it’s trying to get me to hyperventilate at the thought of the cold whilst I’m tucked up on a snug sofa. Nice brain, eh?

To ensure I can cope, I’ve packed a few training aids that will keep me comfy and as warm as possible so those pesky brain waves don’t have a chance to get a hold.

NEOPRENE SOCKS, GLOVES, HAT AND VEST all provide an extra layer of protection against the cold; the hat and vest are great against brain freeze and a chilly core. I tend to use the socks throughout the OWS season mainly because I don’t like anything weird touching my feet! You can’t use them in a race unfortunately.

Once you’re in, try and stay in. Keep moving so you don’t get cold and if you’re really panicking or having a sputter then switch to breast stroke – I prefer to lie on my back and go to my happy place.

Lying on your back (with your arm up) can be a distress signal for the safety crews in a race but I find it calms me quickly especially if I think of STROKING KITTENS, MICHAEL FASSBENDER AND FROLICKING PUPPY DOGS which are my go-to happy places; whatever will disrupt the brain waves and gets you to regulate your breathing to a calmer rate. Feel free to borrow those images or add your own!

Then, dear reader, you must simply practice, practice, practice. The more often you do it the better you’ll be. I’m writing this bit of the blog a few days after my first dip at Stoke Newington and I can safely say I HAD NOTHING TO PANIC ABOUT! In fact I’m gutted that I’ve not been back in – I was buzzing with post OWS joy as soon as I got home. There’s just something about being suspended in an element within the liminal space that makes my soul sing. Although it’s not like I wasn’t cold – my forearms ached and felt locked in to place but on the bright side my stroke was slightly better.

SWIM IN AS MANY OWS VENUES AS YOU CAN. By dealing with lots of variables you’ll be better equipped for your event. Try all manner of entries and exits, types of water and you’ll soon find you won’t be as afraid. A lido is not the same as a lake or pond; there’s something about being in a smallish man made structure that doesn’t play with the fears as much as a natural body of water – the Stoke Newington reservoir is large and deep enough to kick those fears up though!

I’m rather saddened that up until this moment, I’ve only been OWS twice this year. Oddly, my second time in the water started off very well but quickly ended up as a battle with my own mind. I couldn’t breathe properly, my shoulders were so tense, my head was all over the place and I wanted to get out. Somehow, I got round in a stupidly slow time (it was a race!) and got out feeling disappointed, especially as the water had been pristine and warm. The next day I dragged myself to the pool, swam 1.6 km and felt happy and free, making me realise the hang up was indeed all in my head.

The point I’m trying to make is that even if you love swimming, even if you’re in your happy place surrounded by friends, it’s still about you and the water; some days you will be fine, some days you will not. I’m looking forward to my third OWS of the season this weekend and hope to remember that I’m there because I want to be, it’s a beautiful way to exercise and a joy to be in, especially when the sun is shining, a swan flies overhead and all you can smell is the sweetness of the water.

WHY TRY A TRIATHLON GROUP? It’s an easy way to get coaching to improve your technique, amazing support and there’s nothing quite like a great coach or team to push yourself when you really don’t want to.

After you’ve swum, you should be filled with the joyous endorphins that accompany exercise perhaps with a few added perks of wobbly limbs and dizziness that I usually get from being in the water. Get in a hot shower and warm clothes as soon as possible (let’s face it, it’ll usually be colder out of the water than in) and my favourite thing is to have a second breakfast or treat from the local German bakery.

I’ve specifically not gone in to depth about techniques or things like that, that’s where your coaches will advise you, but if there’s anything you’d like advice on from someone who still consider themselves a newbie to OWS, then please do get in touch.

Happy swimming!



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