A Beginner’s Guide to Open Water Swimming By GE Ambassador Todd Leckie Swimming in the open water (e.g. lakes, rivers and the sea) can be a very daunting experience for people new to triathlon. I’m not going to lie to you, it is very different from jumping into a nice warm pool, however in the right environment and with a bit of practice it can become a real pleasure, personally it’s one of my favourite sessions of the week.
What you’ll need: Wetsuit: Realistically (unless you’re hard as nails/or the water’s well above 20 degrees Celsius) you’ll need a wetsuit. The most important function of the suit is to keep you warm but it also provides a significant level of buoyancy, which has the effect of making swimming easier; I find I swim 5-8 seconds quicker per 100m with my wetsuit on. It’s important that you get hold of a triathlon specific wetsuit as standard surfing/sailing wetsuits are not designed to have the flexibility required for swimming. Any good triathlon shop will be able to take you through the finer details but I’d imagine you would be looking to spend a minimum of £140 for a new suit. Or you can rent one for the season for around £40 Lubrication: Have you stopped sniggering yet!? In all seriousness, using a lubricant to prevent chafing is pretty essential…unless you want to sport the ‘I recently fought off an attempt to strangle me’ look. The constant head/arm movements mean chafing is inevitable and can cause some pretty uncomfortable sores. Apply liberally to the neck and armpit area, plus the arms and legs when racing to speed up wetsuit removal. All manufacturers will recommend a water based lubricant, Vaseline is a definite no-no, it degrades the neoprene embarrassingly quickly (I say embarrassing because everyone ignores this advice initially and then feels rather foolish after only a few wetsuit destroying swims). Goggles: Specific open water goggles are almost de-rigueur now! Like everyone else, I first sniffed at the scuba-sam look, however the field of vision and comfort is incredible with these specific goggles so on balance they probably are worth the fashion faux pas. Swim hat: It’s amazing how much warmer a silicone hat will keep you and prevent initial brain freeze. If it’s particularly cold or you easily suffer from an ice-cream head like me then it is worth looking into the neoprene hats that will keep your head positively toasty. An experienced swimming buddy: It’s highly unadvisable to go open water swimming on your own, ideally it’s best to have someone with you in the water and another person on the land spotting the people in the lake. That may not always be possible but I never will go into the water with no one around. Personally I find that having someone swimming beside me makes the whole experience much more enjoyable and will certainly increase your confidence if you’re new to it all. A body of water: A quick Google shows that open water/outdoor swimming is a burgeoning sport in itself in addition to triathlons so there will hopefully be plenty of opportunities close to you. I would recommend contacting your local triathlon club (a comprehensive listing can be found on the British Triathlon Federation’s website). Most will run open water sessions in the summer or can point you in the right
direction if not. Obviously you will need the permission of the person who owns the water. We use Eastbourne beach (once the water temperature gets above a sprightly 13 degrees Celsius), the sea’s a great resource and often overlooked by triathletes as there are comparatively few sea swim races, however if you can swim in the sea you’ll be fine in any open water conditions and many beaches will have life guard provision for added safety.
A few sessions to get you up to scratch Do the distance: First off you need to get used to swimming the distance you’re planning on racing. This may sound obvious but swimming a straight 1500m without a wall every 25m and with a wetsuit is very different and will take a couple of sessions to get used to. You might find your shoulders feel much more fatigued then usual and perceive the wetsuit to be restrictive, this is perfectly normal but I promise that you’ll still be swimming much quicker than without it and the muscles in your arms will gradually adapt to the slightly different forces that a wetsuit puts on them. Taking the right line: Once you’ve mastered the distance, the next step is too look for the free speed i.e. getting from A to B by taking the shortest possible line. To perfect your skills you ideally want to be swimming somewhere with buoys to allow you to practice your sighting. I like to look forward and try to catch sight of the buoy I’m heading towards every 4th stroke, some people like to look more/less frequently so have a play and see what feels most comfortable and effective. Getting around the buoys is also worth perfecting, most buoys will require a 90 degree turn so practice increasing your leg kick as you round the turn and getting through it as quickly as possible. Buoys are often a (literal) crunch point in the swim and you can find yourself coming to a standstill due to the congestion of other swimmers, being able to get in and out of the buoy will not only save you speed but also a lot of energy. Do some reps Having got to grips with the basics, there’s no harm trying to convert the sessions you’d do in the pool based swim to what you are doing in the open water. If you’re lucky they’ll be buoys floating that you can use to construct suitable distance loops in order to swim reps (e.g. 5x300m at 1500m race pace with 1.5 min rests) however if your body of water is buoy-less then count your strokes to gauge distance (e.g. 5x240 strokes with 100 strokes easy recovery).
Final words… Hopefully my mumblings will have given you a few useful tips for getting stuck into swimming in the glorious outdoors and away from the hot chlorinated mind-numbing pool toil. By far the best advice I can offer is to find a local group of open water swimmers and get stuck in with them, they’ll be all to happy to help and will undoubtedly convey what I’ve just attempted to do in a few minutes and you’ll be cruising along in no time.