Preparing for your swim
While open water swimming offers many different challenges (and advantages) to open water, if you’re not lucky enough to live close to a stretch of open water that's safe to swim in, there’s still plenty you can do in the pool to help prepare you for your challenge.
Focus on technique
Whatever stroke you prefer, it is vital to make sure it’s in good shape. A few tweaks to your technique could make huge differences to your efficiency and save you valuable energy for that sprint finish!
It's worth investing in a few lessons with a professional to get this right, and giving yourself a strong base to build on through your training. Try counting the number of strokes it takes to complete a length then aim to reduce your stroke count but maintain a similar speed.
Breathing on alternative sides is recommended for pool swimming anyway, but in open water events it may become a necessity. If you're swimming side-by-side with another competitor, it's preferable to breathe away from them to prevent splashing or being caught in the face by their arm. Breathing both ways may not feel natural at first, but focus on your technique and it will become more comfortable.
Get used to the distance
Open water swimming is no splash and dash; most mass participation events are at least 1 mile, or 64 lengths of a standard 25m pool. If you’re new to open water you may want to stay to the outside or back of the pack in your event, which might mean swimming further than the stated distance.
You need to be confident you can swim your challenge distance or further without stopping at the wall to take a rest, or putting your feet down. Pool swimming is the easiest way to build up to swimming this distance non-stop.
Make sure that you stretch after each session. You will build up a lot of tension in your back and shoulders so stretching after the session will help your recovery, ensuring that you are able to train just as hard at your next swim. You can find some great tips on stretching on swimming.org
Practise open water techniques
One of the joys, and challenges, of open water swimming is getting away from the restrictions of lane swimming, however it’s surprising how difficult it can be to swim in a straight line without them there to guide you. You will need to practice sighting in your pool training sessions to help ensure you don’t end up swimming in circles on your big day.
All this means is that you need to lift your head to get your eyes above the waterline to look forward in rhythm with your swim. It sounds simple but can be difficult to pull off without interfering with your stroke. Start by looking up every eight strokes, eyeing a target past the end of the lane (a window, deck chair or small building will do) and gradually work up to more strokes between sight-checks. Practicing in the pool will also help train the muscles in your neck you need to lift your head out of the water.
If it’s quiet in the pool, you might want to practice swimming in a straight line by closing your eyes while swimming and seeing whether you naturally swerve off left or right. Try tweaking your stroke to straighten your natural line.
Very few open water swims are a completely straight line from start to finish - most will involve turning around a marker buoy, often four or five times in a race. If you have space in the pool and a willing practice-partner (you could take it in turns?), swim up to and round your friend without touching the walls or bottom of the pool.
Pool training is great to help you increase your distance, pace and technique but nothing will prepare you better for race day than heading in to open water. Here’s our top tips for aclimatising and staying safe.
- TAKE THE PLUNGE! – Much of the acclimatisation process is mental - knowing the moment of immersion will feel cold, and embracing it anyway.
- EXHALE AS YOU GET IN – In cold water the ribcage contracts, which leads many swimmers to feeling that they can't breath. Exhale and the next breath will come naturally in. Shrieking, grunting and fwaw-fwaw-fwawing for your first strokes are perfectly natural accompaniments to a wild swim.
- WAIT 90 SECONDS – The pleasure of open water might not be immediate. Give your body a little time to react, and soon your circulation will start charging around and you'll feel alive.
- FIND A ROCK OR TREE TO SWIM TO – Don't just jump in and think about how it feels, as the answer is likely to be 'cold', even unpleasant (particularly in wetsuits, where the expectation of warmth makes the cold dribble in around the zip particularly cruel). Set your intention (to swim to x), and then get in and do it. You'll feel good once you get moving.
- Plan your route and your entry and exit (egress) points; ensure you can get in and out again safely. Things to consider include: obstacles, underwater obstructions, high banks, weeds, environmentally protected areas.
- Check the water temperature and enter the water in a controlled manner to reduce the effects of cold water shock and panic.
- Check the weather; the water can change rapidly depending on the weather conditions, persistent rain could lead to flooding or swift currents, wind can produce challenging waves. Be aware, short choppy waves can make it difficult to catch your breath.
- Be aware of moving water; there may be currents in lakes, rivers and the sea.
- Check the water bed; the floor of the lake, river bed may be unstable and be too soft or too sharp to stand up in.
- Never jump in without checking the depth! Check for obstructions and weeds.
- Never swim alone, take a swimming buddy or spotter.
- Beware of other water users and avoid boating areas, remember they may not be able to see you.
- Increase your visibility to others; wear a bright hat, tow a swimmers buoy/float or swim with kayak support.
- Do not swim after a meal or drinking alcohol.
- Ensure you have the right open water swimming equipment and consider using a swim wetsuit for warmth and buoyancy.
- Do not disturb wildlife and check that your chosen area is not environmentally protected.
- Check Water Quality; the environment agency website and local sites are a good place to start.
One of the wonderful things about open water swimming is that it’s free to do, however you’ll need to invest in a few essentials for your big day.
Depending on the water temperature, most events will require that you wear a wetsuit for your challenge. As well as keeping you warm it will make you more buoyant making it easier to swim in choppy water.
Wetsuits specifically designed for swimming have many benefits over a surfing suit. They are more flexible, particularly in the shoulders, have a slick external layer (reducing drag) and manufacturers design the buoyancy of the suit with swimming in mind, ie your legs aren't so high in the water you're kicking in thin air.
Your wetsuit needs to be quite a snug fit, so no water is coming in and out of the suit. It should feel tight on land (but not so tight that you can't breathe), should not gape at the ankles and wrists or be baggy at the small of the back. It is obviously essential that you have enough room in the shoulders to swim.
You can rent a wet suit for your events, but it’s a good idea to try it out in a pool first so you get used to the fit and the added buoyance it’ll give you.
Goggles are essential for open water swimming. If you’re not that comfortable putting your head under the water when you’re swimming just watch how a pair will transform your swimming.
Make sure you are able to try the goggles on before buying, there’s nothing more distracting than springing a goggle leak half way through your challenge! Test the goggles to see that no air enters them. Put the goggles on and press them tightly against your eye sockets, if they feel like they are sucking onto your sockets and causing some form of pressure then they have a good seal for the shape of your eye socket and will work. If they expand outwards or pop off too quickly then these do not fit well and will not work for you.
Bear in mind that everyone’s eye socket is different, so one pair of goggles that might work for someone might not work for you.
Swim hats are usually provided by the race organiser with your race number on, but it’s a good idea to make sure you're comfortable putting the hat on and that your goggles sit snuggly over your hat.
Towel and clothing
Whether training or racing you will want a towel close by when you finish. This will ensure that you keep warm and that your muscles are able to cool down slowly and retain heat. On race day, when you might not be able to get changed as quickly as you would like, it is useful to have a spectator with you that can hold some essential warm gear like a thick towel, a hat, some jogging bottoms and a zipped jumper; all items that can be put on quickly and will keep you warm after the swim.