Open-water swimming (OWS) is a brilliant discipline that requires a little technique, a lot of confidence and some essential pieces of kit. It's also perfect for runners, whether you want to complement your running with an exciting form of cross training, looking to lose weight or you’re preparing for your first triathlon.
And now is a perfect time to take it up, as open-water swim season is well underway, with many of the UK’s OWS centres and lakes now open for training.
We asked Fenella Langridge, a professional middle-distance triathlete (who's usually based in Salisbury when she’s not competing around the world), to talk about the benefits of swimming and her advice on how to dip your toe in the world of open-water swimming.
Swim at a centre, in summer
‘Even I’m not comfortable swimming in open water on my own,’ says Langridge. ‘It’s always sensible to have someone with you, or someone spotting you from shore in case you get into difficulty.’ She recommends newbies book into a supervised open-water swimming centre, where you will often be given an introduction to the centre and the basics of OWS. There will also be a marked-out course and a team of lifeguards, often patrolling the water in kayaks or small boats. Langridge trains at Vobster Quay near Froome and New Forest Water Park; Outdoor Swimmer has a list of supervised outdoor-swimming centres in the UK. Expect to follow a circuit (anything from 100m up), which will be marked out with buoys, with a clear entry and exit point.
Most centres operate from May to October, which Langridge says is a sensible time to take up the sport as the water will be warmer (17-20C) and, as a result of the balmier conditions, you’re more likely to commit to training. ‘Some people swim in winter, but remember: those people do it week in, week out, and year-round,’ warns Langridge. ‘It would be quite dangerous to jump into open water in December if you’d never done it before.’ If you do decide to swim independently, ‘tell someone where you’re going, make sure you’re confident with your surroundings and know what you will do if you get in trouble’.
It’s nothing like pool swimming
‘You can be phenomenal in the pool but useless at open-water swimming,’ laughs Langridge. ‘That’s because your strength and skill set are not suited to OWS, but you can learn it – you just have to practise.’ The most important skill in OWS (apart from the swimming itself) is to be adaptable. ‘Strong open-water swimmers have the ability to change their stroke depending on the conditions – for example, a change in current, being hit by a wave or if they are swimming alongside someone,’ says Langridge.
She expects that a person confident swimming for 30 minutes nonstop in a pool will manage 15 minutes in open-water conditions before fatigue sets in. ‘Wetsuits offer buoyancy, but that’s very different to pushing off from the end of the pool, or stopping on the side for a rest or a drink.’
Improve your open water swimming technique
Front crawl is the chosen OWS stroke because it’s the most energy-efficient, but if you’re not concerned with speed, then Langridge suggests you do whichever stroke you’re comfortable with, ‘except backstroke, because it will be hard to navigate and floating on your back is often a signal of distress in OWS’. You should work on a high stroke rate and bilateral strength, which will help you tackle changing conditions and enable you to stay on course – a necessity in conditions that are often low in visibility and high in distractions (which could be anything from fellow swimmers and paddle boarders, to fighting ducks and algae tickling your feet).
‘In order to swim as straight as you can, imagine train tracks underneath you and encourage your arms to follow them,’ recommends Langridge. ‘Keep your head still and smooth because once that moves, your whole body moves.’
When it comes to sighting – following buoys to stay on course – Langridge suggests you look every third stroke until you find your rhythm. ‘You don’t need to lift your head too high unless it’s really choppy,’ she advises. ‘In still water, act like a crocodile – have your eye out of the water but your nose and mouth in. This will keep your head still and help you stay on course.’
Use the pool for training drills
While pool swimming is nothing like open-water swimming, the enclosed, safe nature of a pool makes it the perfect environment for practising without battling wind, currents and fatigue. Langridge trains three to four times a week in her local pool, using the time to practise her technique and endurance.
For newbies, she recommends practising sighting in the pool: ‘Have someone stand at the end of the lane and hold up fingers – your goal is to look every other stroke and count the fingers,’ she says. She also recommends tying a band around your ankles (or using a pull buoy) to immobilise your legs, which, in turn, helps increase your arm turnover. If she doesn't have a band or buoy, Langridge improvises with an old inner tube that was once part of her Parcours bike wheels. ‘You use your legs less in OWS – they are mostly for balance and efficiency,’ she says. ‘An increased arm turnover makes you stronger, straighter and more resilient in currents and chop.’
Wetsuits are essential
Most supervised open-water swimming centres stipulate wetsuits when the temperature drops below 16C. However, Langridge advises you wear a long-sleeve suit regardless because ‘you will glide through the water and they give you buoyancy, which is helpful if you get tired and want to float’. You can often hire wetsuits from swimming centres, or brands such as Zone 3 will rent you a wetsuit from one month to an entire season; if you’re committed, it’s more cost-effective to invest in your own westuit.
‘It’s essential your wetsuit fits properly, or it will impede your swimming,’ says Langridge. ‘Every suit is made differently – there’s usually detailed guides on their websites. Make sure you pull it up enough around your shoulders and hips so you have room to move, and flexibility in your shoulders – you should feel comfortable to do 10 arm turns without it feeling too draggy.’ Langridge recommends a 3mm thickness for summer swimming and triathlons. To help get into her suit, Langridge keeps her socks on to help slide her legs in and she often wears gloves to protect the material from her nails. When you get in the water, splash some water inside the suit to help ‘sucker’ it to your body and acclimatise yourself to the temperature.
Other helpful outdoor swimming kit
‘I’d suggest buying two pairs of goggles,’ says Langridge. ‘One pair that are clear and a pair that block out the sun. If it’s a dark day, you don’t want to be wearing tinted goggles that stop you seeing where you’re going.’ She recommends larger-coverage goggles for open-water swimming and tests them out by sticking them to her face without the straps. ‘If they stay in place, that’s the sign of good, water-tight goggles.’
She always wears a standard swimming cap in a bright colour so she is visible, and if she’s cold, she wears two. If you’re susceptible to the cold, she also recommends thermal hats, booties and gloves. A tow float is helpful in the sea, so boats and jet- skiers can spot you. Prone to ear infections? A pair of ear plugs, or Swim Seal, will help.
What to do when the fear strikes
When you’re far from shore, surrounded by dark water and thinking about Jaws, it’s understandable to feel scared and vulnerable. Langridge recommends you set yourself targets to keep your mind from considering impending doom. ‘Break your swim into blocks of, say, 50 strokes, or tell yourself you will commit to swimming to a certain buoy before your turn around. Focusing on small goals will help you relax and – hopefully – the experience will start to become more enjoyable.’
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