Open Water Swimming – A beginners guide

Details of the TriHarman Open Water Swim sessions are here

It is quite possible to enjoy the sport of triathlon for many years without ever doing an event away from a swimming pool.  Every region has a multitude of sprint distance races, where your swim will be in a warm, clean, protected environment, but if ever this loses its challenge the open water awaits…………..

Open water swimming is different, every swim is different, its not always cold but it usually is, the water may be salty, flat or rough, still or flowing, shallow or deep, clear or dark and you rarely have the water to yourself.  These differences are the attraction, but also cause anxiety for even the most competent and experienced pool swimmer.  Whatever they may say, all those neoprene clad ‘experts’ you see at the races suffered the same anxiety when they first swam in open water, some still feel it every time they race, but they race and enjoy the experience.

When a race organiser chooses an open water swimming venue, safety is at the forefront of their mind.  The water will be tested, it will not have excessive currents, there will be a safe way in and out, there will be race officials out on the water able to quickly respond if a swimmer is in difficulty.  There will also be full safety support at the venue.  You will wear a bright swim hat so you can be seen, you will also be wearing a wet suit (unless the water is uncommonly warm), this offers considerable buoyancy so if you stop swimming you will not sink.  If it all goes wrong just roll on your back and float with your arm in the air until a support boat arrives.  With all these safety precautions in place you can just concern yourself with learning the techniques and dealing with that anxiety.

So now you want to get into the open water races, how is it done………

Like any other new skill it is best to learn and practice before the race, so you do not have the added stress of a race environment the first time you swim open water.  Choose a place that is proven safe to swim, there are various open water swim venues which have clean safe water.  Never swim alone, so go to a coached session or with an experienced swimmer who will help you along.

The wetsuit is an important piece of kit, it will keep you warm and buoyant but it must be a good fit and specially designed for swimming.  They are available in a variety of makes and models with prices starting around £100.  As with bikes the sky is the limit on cost, but the same as bikes buy a quality product and to make sure its a good fit is the most important thing, you don’t need the top end product to race fast and safely.  Go to a reputable wetsuit supplier, they will allow you to try a number of designs to find one which suits you best.  If you are an unusual shape, you may benefit from a custom made suit which cost just a little more.  You will also need some good fitting goggles which seal well against your face.

Put on your wetsuit carefully, they can be damaged by toenails and objects on the ground.  Ensure you put it on the right way round, the zip goes at the back!  Use some lubricant on your legs and round your neck to reduce rubbing and ease removal of the suit.  Avoid petroleum based products as they can damage some delicate neoprene suits.  Doing up the zip can be a challenge, get the help of another swimmer, even a total stranger will help if you offer to do the same for them.  Make sure the suit is fully pulled up before you try to do up the zip, otherwise it will be tight and very restrictive, or the zip may not even close.  The long strap on the zip is usually secured to the suit somehow, so you can find it at the end of the swim to release the zip unaided.  Be familiar with how your suit comes undone, some unzip normally, others release and break away completely.  There is often a Velcro strap on the suit to stop the zip coming undone by accident.  Put your goggles on as normal, then put your swim hat on top.  This traps the goggle straps and makes it less likely your goggles will be kicked off accidentally by another swimmer.  If the water is very cold, you should wear a thick silicone cap under the event cap, as your head needs to be kept warm to keep you alert and swimming well.

Once fully dressed you are ready to enter the water.  Unless you are very confident of the water depth and absence of obstructions never dive in.  Walk in or slip into the water feet first, slowly immersing yourself.  You will feel the cold water slowly fill your suit, this is quite normal as the suit traps a thin layer of water which your body soon warms.  The cold water round your pelvis often triggers a warm liquid to enter your suit, this is perfectly normal you can be sure those around you are taking advantage of the warming (theirs not yours!).  Once in the water find a clear area and lay forward with your face in the water.  The water will feel very cold, but you will soon get used to it, just swim a few strokes and stop.  If you are now unable to stand you will find the wetsuit keeps you afloat and you can decide where you are going to swim to.  Pick a location about 25 meters away, a buoy, the other side of the river or other suitable location then swim normally towards this point.  Try to swim with a ‘buddy’ or around other swimmers in case you do get into any difficulty.  You may find you cannot see anything in the water, don’t worry, just get a routine of looking forward every six strokes to ensure you are on course and there are no obstructions in your path.  Don’t swim too far on your first open water swim and if you start to feel the affects of the cold call an end to the session.  You will get used to the cold and find subsequent swims easier.

With a few practice swims completed you will be ready for your first open water race.  This will be a different experience as there could be between 50 and 2000 swimmers starting to swim with you, all heading in the same direction as fast as they can.  You will hear stories of swimmers being kicked, hit, pulled, swum over, suits pulled open, googles dislodged and otherwise abused.  Unfortunately this is true, but almost always its an accidental contact which causes this.  The best way to avoid it on your first swims is to start at the side of the group, or even at the back, letting the rough and tumble occur ahead of you and joining the fray once things have spread out a little.  Once your confidence grows you can consider starting in the middle of the washing machine.

When putting on your suit, first put on your trisuit or whatever other race kit you are to use.  You can if the organiser allows, put your racebelt under your suit to save a little more time, just make sure the number does not rip as you remove the suit.  Before you start the swim, check where the course goes, it will look very different at water level with swimmers all around you.  The coloured buoy which looked so big will be hardly visible, so find a large object behind on the bank/shore to aim for, something easier to see when you lift your head to sight.  It is natural to limit the strength of your kicking as you want to save your legs, but in the last 100m or so kick a little harder.  This will encourage the blood supply back into your legs and get them ready for transition.  As you stand on reaching the shore you may feel dizzy and disorientated, just move slowly and carefully as your body gets used to being upright and you will soon feel better.  As you head towards transition you can unzip your suit and pull it down to your waist, this will save time.

Many of the skills you need for open water swimming can be practiced in the pool.  Swimming in a straight line can be practiced in an empty lane.  As you swim, close your eyes for first one then two then more strokes.  See how you go off course as you swim and adjust your stroke to balance it out.  Eventually you will be able to swim in pretty much a straight line without looking at the pool bottom.  You can practice your sighting strokes by looking up every six strokes, looking at the lane end as if you are sighting a buoy.  You can get used to the rough and tumble by swimming three abreast in a single lane, getting used to swimming in close proximity to others.  Turns round buoys and deep water starts can also be practiced with ease.

The open water swim is a challenge, but triathlon is full of challenges and it just adds to the appeal of the sport.  Take advice and keep safe in the water, just enjoy the adventure.

Mark