The beauty of open water swimming is just as it says on the tin: it’s in open water, which mean it’s free to use and knows no boundaries. No lanes, no ropes, no walls; just you and the open sea (or lake, reservoir, canal or river). But between battling currents, swerving pond weeds and coping with UK water temperatures, heading outside the pool comes with some serious challenges.
“If you want to do open water swimming you really do need to ultimately practice outdoors to acclimatise and get you used to it,” says Speedo coach and Commonwealth and World Champion swimmer Karen Pickering. “To start getting used to the cold, which can be a massive shock, you could go along to one of the open air pools that are around the country. There are many lidos that you can go to that offer a controlled environment.
“However, you don’t need to do all your training outdoors; a lot of training can be done in the pool and that doesn’t have to be big distances – it can be targeted training.”
Open water technique
Open water swimming comes with specific techniques you’ll want to practice before a race.
With no lane lines or ropes to guide, and next to no visibility, it’s easy to swim off course in open water. Most of us naturally veer left or right when we swim, especially if one side of your body is stronger than the other. To see how hard it is swimming in a straight line, close your eyes and try swimming straight as the crow flies.
Sighting will help you swim in the right direction – that’s sighting a buoy or a landmark in the distance and looking up every few strokes to spot it to stay on track. Sighting isn’t especially tricky, but you need to factor it into the rhythm of your stroke to really get the knack of it.
Waves and the sheer length of some open water races can make breathing on alternative sides essential. If you only ever take a breath on one side, try swapping sides for a few lengths to get you used to the different movement. If you have muscle tightness on one side that restricts your movement, do some flexibility work at home or in the gym around your shoulders, neck and upper arms to help.
Swimming in a pack
Open water events bring people, and with lots of people comes splashing – and elbows. If you plan to enter open water races or triathlons in the future, get comfortable swimming in packs by going out with friends or joining a swim group. If you’ve entered an event as an open water newbie and feel the nerves creep in, stick to the outside of the pack to get used to it.
Most open water races are 1km to 25km and beyond, so you’ll want to get used to swimming the distance before entering a race. If you mainly train in a pool, that’s without putting your feet on the floor. “By the time you come to do your open water swim or swim part of the triathlon, ideally for confidence you want to know you can swim a little bit further than the race distance in a pool so that you know you will be OK when you get outdoors,” says Karen. “But a lot of the training can be done indoors safely.”
Deep water starts
Unless you start on a bank, there’s no wall to hold on to or kick off from in open water so get used to starting from treading water.
Most open water events will involve turning around a marker buoy a number of times. With enough space, you can practise turning in a pool – grab a friend and swim around them without touching them, the wall or the bottom of the pool.
Open water swim gear
Ready to make a splash? Here’s the gear to get you out there.
British water temperatures mean you probably need to invest in a wetsuit to keep warm. Swimming wetsuits are designed specifically for the swimming movement and to keep you toasty. Don’t swim in a surf wetsuit since they are more restrictive and won’t give you full movement in the water.
Getting the right size wetsuit is important to keep you warm and give your joints their full range of movement; any restriction can cause injury from repetitive load over time, so always try before you buy. “If you need a wetsuit, get one that fits and make sure you’ve tried it out and don’t wear anything for the first time in a race. You wouldn’t run a marathon in a new pair of shoes so don’t swim an open water race in a new swimsuit and goggles!” says Karen.
Open water swimming goggles
For easier sighting, open water goggles are sometimes larger than those you wear in the pool. Goggles with UV protection and tinted lenses will also help outdoors. In a race, make sure goggles are secure before you get in the water – getting your goggles knocked off mid race or seeing them sink to the bottom of a murky lake will take minutes off your time.
Swim hats are useful for all types of swimming, but in open water they help to keep you warm as well as keep hair away from your face. “If it’s going to be cold, wearing two swimming hats will help,” says Karen. Although if you’re swimming in January, realise that a chilly scalp is just something you’ll have to deal with.