As the weather gets warmer a number of lakes in Worcestershire offer open water swimming sessions. Swimming outdoors is fast growing in popularity, with an increase in organised swim sessions, as well as more people daring to give wild swimming a try. In less than a decade the number of people taking the plunge outside has risen from a handful to tens of thousands. There are organised sessions at Ragley Hall near Evesham, Upton Warren Lake and Bittell Reservoir near Bromsgrove and Top Barn in Worcester.
If you are considering having a go at open water swimming but are unsure about how to get started, then here are my top five tips.
Although the local lakes don’t open until the end of April or the beginning of May you can already start to practice some open water swimming skills in one of Rivers Leisure’s swimming pools.
The biggest difference between pool and open water swimming is that you can’t stop for a rest every 25 or 50 meters at the end. Therefore, make sure that you can swim a fairly long distance without stopping. If you are swimming at an organised open water session then the routes are usually 400-750 meters, so have a go at swimming that distance in the pool without touching the wall when you turn. Also practise treading water, as if you need a rest in open water, you can do this.
In open water there isn’t a black line on the bottom to guide you like in a pool, therefore you will need to sight regularly to ensure you are heading in the right direction. You can practise sighting in the pool by looking up above the water line every now and again. There is a drill called the ‘Tarzan Drill’ where you swim a whole length of the pool with your head above the water. Another drill is the ‘Crocodile Drill’ where you just keep your goggles above the water, rather than the whole head. It is more efficient to be able to sight this way rather than having to take your whole head out of the water. It is easier to swim in the right direction if you can swim bilaterally, that is take a breath with your head turning alternately to each side. This makes it easier to see around you and avoid bumping into other swimmers. In the pool, try breathing every three strokes. This might take a while to get used to but it will really help when you come to swim in open water.
When first starting out, it is best to swim as part of a group, or at least with one other experienced open water swimmer. At the local organised open water swim sessions there will be marked swim routes, life-guards and a signing in and out system. Often first timers can swim a few laps with a designated guide until confident to go it alone.
If you can’t access an organised session, then do make sure that you do your first swim with an experienced friend and ideally have a ‘spotter’ on the shore or the beach who can raise the alarm if you get into difficulty. It is a good idea to take a whistle in your cap to blow in case of emergency as it isn’t always obvious to spotters whether you are just waving or trying to alert them about a problem
The most important piece of equipment is obviously the wet-suit! Not everyone uses one and some ‘die hard’ swim enthusiasts frown upon them but I rarely swim in the UK without one! Even in the summer the water in the UK can be chilly.
The key is to get a suit that fits properly – too big and it won’t keep you warm and may chafe, but too small and you won’t be able to move or more importantly, breathe! The best thing to do is go to your local triathlon shop, where you will be able to try some on. Some shops rent them out for the season, which is great if you are not sure whether you will like it and continue! Also, at the end of the season, the same shops will sell the ex-hire suits for a drop-down price.
If you are swimming either early or late in the season then you might like to try a neoprene swim cap, gloves and socks for extra warmth. You may wish to use different goggles for open water than pool swimming -tinted goggles are good as they reflect the sun and reduce glare. Some people use bigger goggles to increase peripheral vision but they aren’t essential.
Some beginners wear inflatable tow-floats. These are bright coloured and therefore make you more visible to other swimmers, spotters or water users. They are usually also able to support the weight of an adult should you need to stop for a rest. Many also have a pocket where you can keep your car keys, which is useful for wild swimming. Most organised open water swim sessions will have a secure car keys storage system.
Finally, as most open water swimming is done in the summer, you would hope that the sun would be shining! Don’t forget to apply sun-cream to your face as the water will reflect the sun and you can burn faster.
The best way to put on a wetsuit is…carefully! Long nails can be problematic as they can rip the neoprene. Ideally cut your hand and toe nails and make sure they are smooth. Some people put a plastic bag over each foot and hand as they are putting them through the legs and arms to avoid contact with nails. If you do get some small nicks then apply some Black Witch glue, which is a miracle worker! It is a good idea to get some when you buy your suit to avoid any panics one day in the future if you notice some nicks.
Before you put on your suit, apply some anti-chaffing lubricant on your neck, both back and front to avoid rubbing. There are plenty of lubricants on the market. In races, I also apply baby-oil to my arms and calves, when I need to get my wetsuit off at speed in transition! Do not use Vaseline as this can damage the suit.
I’ve heard it said that the best way to deal with getting in cold water is just to get in really quickly or even jump in! However, this is dangerous as it can cause our system to go into shock, which can lead to hyperventilating and loss of cognitive reasoning.
Wade in slowly so that your body can adjust to the conditions it is about to face. Be mindful of how long you are in the water. You might be enjoying it so much that you don’t want to get out but staying in too long can cause hyperthermia or cramping. I usually judge it by the colour of my hands. If they are purple, that’s just about ok. If they are completely white, or if I’m shivering then it’s time to get out!
Make sure you have warm clothes to go home in – even in the summer I take a thick jumper, or two, as it will take me a while to get warm. Bear in mind that often, even at organised swims, there won’t be a hot shower therefore take a hot drink in a thermos to warm you up afterwards.