Essential Guide to Open-water Swimming

The idea of open-water swimming can be daunting, but once you get the hang of it, you'll wonder what all the fuss was about


Posted: 18 November 2009

If you've only ever swum in a pool, with its clear, clean water easily reachable sides and nicely arranged lanes, the idea of swimming outdoors in cold, choppy, unpredictable water can be unsettling. It's a perfectly rational feeling, but as a triathlete you will eventually have to take the plunge into the great unknown. But every time you brave an open-water session you'll build the crucial confidence and skills that will prove invaluable on race day.

Open-water swimming may seem deep, dark and a little bit wild, but it can also be a wonderful experience: unrestricted, exhilarating and otherworldly. Whether you're a beginner or a world champion, three things will dictate how you perform: fitness, technical skills and mental preparation. You will have built up your swimming fitness in the pool and you should now be working to overcome the technical and mental challenges of open-water swimming.

Specialist swim skills

Bill Black coached the GB men's triathlon team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and now coaches triathletes of all abilities (www.billblackcoaching.com). He points out that cetain key skills can and should be initially learnt and practised in the controlled environment of the pool before you move to an organised open-water swim session. "Distance estimation can pose a real problem to those new to open water," he says. "You can get round this by counting your strokes. You should already know roughly how many you take to swim 25m in a pool. Make it easier for yourself by counting every time one hand goes in, then doubling this. So 50 left hands is actually 100 arm-strokes. This will give you a useful estimation in open water of how far you've swum - and how far you have left to go."

A straight line is the quickest route from one point to another, so take time to learn how to navigate. 'Sighting' means looking ahead while you're swimming. You can follow the feet of the swimmer in front, but if that competitor goes off-course, so will you. Develop your own technique so you don't need to rely on others, and practise sighting during training swims. Xterra World Champion Julie Dibens strongly recommends you become used to sighting in the pool by incorporating it into your regular drills. You can lift your head to sight either before you breathe in or just before you put your face back in to exhale: there's no right or wrong way. "When you breathe, you'll press lightly onto your front arm to raise your head a little from its normal line," says Black. "You only need to raise your head until you're doing 'crocodile eyes' - don't lift your nose out. Remember, the higher you raise your head, the lower your hips and legs will sink. This is like putting the brakes on."

Familiarise yourself with your surroundings and the swim route before you start; this will help you when you sight. Identify a permanent marker, such as a tree or house, which will be big enough to see from a distance, even if the sun is in your eyes. Begin by sighting every couple of strokes but, as you improve, try to cut it down to every six to nine strokes.

Take to the water

Some people will quickly become comfortable in open water, but others will initially find it a very difficult environment. There's no doubt that open-water swimming presents a new set of challenges. There's no black line on the bottom to keep you on the straight and narrow. There are no lane ropes, and there's no wall every 25m to hang on to if you need a breather. The water's colder than the pool, and (probably) murkier. Instead of plasters, you're likely to encounter pondweed. If you are worried about the new world of open-water swimming, there are steps you can take to mentally prepare yourself.

Louise Jones, sports psychologist with TheTriLife.co.uk, says it's important to focus on what you can control. "If you're worried, your anxiety levels are likely to rise before you begin the session," she says. "You need to prepare the mind beforehand so you can relax. If you've planned your swim, start thinking about it the week before. Focus on goals and objectives rather than fears. Ask yourself what you want to get from your session. It could be something to do with technique, or simply completing the session. Focus on this and you'll gain confidence from it." Jones recommends using imagery to help you prepare mentally for your swim. If you've been to the venue before, you'll be able to 'see' yourself there. Make sure you're relaxed and have nothing else to focus on when you carry out your visualisation. "If you can visualise your open-water swim while you're in a pool session, it can make it more realistic," she says.

Jones has tips for those who begin to panic in the minutes leading up to the swim. "Focus on your breathing and try to slow it down. Rapid breathing stimulates adrenalin. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, thinking about a sense of release when you exhale. Our minds can only focus on one thing at a time, so think about the process and what you can control. It needs to be something very specific - perhaps your stroke. If all else fails, try counting your strokes in the water from one to 10." And, finally, Jones emphasises, you should focus on enjoying the race.

Information is power

If it's the logistics of the session rather than the water itself that are worrying you, arm yourself with information. Find out exactly where your nearest session is, what time it starts (and finishes) and what the water's like if you can. Try to talk to people who've been before, and ask one of them to meet you there to show you the ropes. 

Most sessions follow roughly the same routine. You'll sign a waiver that asks for basic information about yourself, so the organisers can look after you. You may be given a numbered wristband or something similar and the organisers will answer any questions you have about where exactly to swim, what distances are available, or whatever's on your mind. You'll then get changed. With wetsuit and hat on, goggles on your head and your swim buddy by your side, you'll then make your way to the entry and exit area. You'll be able to take your time, swim as much or as little as you want and then head out feeling, with any luck, energised and confident. Most venues have hot showers as well as changing facilities.

Coach Rick Kiddle (www.rickkiddle.com) runs swim sessions at the hugely popular Heron Lake open-water venue in Surrey. Heron Lake was the UK's first dedicated open-water swim venue for triathletes; up to 400 swimmers take part over a weekend. Kiddle knows all about the safety aspects of running an open-water swim session. 

"At Heron Lake, we like people to attend a course before they swim. We divide people into groups, based on ability and confidence, and then run through a safety-focused land seminar before getting in the water to work on confidence and skills. Our coaches go in the water, too."

Safety is paramount. There are two boats in the water at all times, as well as people spotting from land, and staff are trained in lifesaving courses relevant to open-water swimming.  

"We help you work on swimming skills but also psychological skills: everything to benefit your training swims and races," says Kiddle. "We ask you to swim with someone else every time you come along. All swimmers give us emergency contact numbers when they first visit, and have to sign in and sign out of the water every single time they swim. There's a strict protocol of safety that we adhere to. Basically, we make open-water swimming as safe as it can be so you can enjoy it."

New to neoprene?

You'll almost certainly be planning to wear a wetsuit in your race, so now's the time to get used to it. Pull the armpits and groin right into your body to ensure the closest fit. The suit should feel very tight on dry land, and ease off a little in the water. Wetsuits tend to come off very easily once you've been in the water, but can be a real struggle to put on beforehand. Double World Aquathlon Champion Richard Stannard has a handy hint for pulling on a tight wetsuit: put your foot into a carrier bag and then slide on the wetsuit leg. The bag will make pulling on the neoprene leg quicker and easier. Slide in the first leg and then repeat with the carrier bag on the other foot. New wetsuits can chafe. Avoid this by ensuring yours fits well and is put on properly, and consider using a product such as Body Glide or any generic body butter to create a barrier between the suit and your skin. Petroleum-based products aren't recommended, as they can damage neoprene.

To look after your suit, always rinse it in cold, fresh water after you've swum, and leave it hanging up to dry. If you notice any tears or nicks, repair them with neoprene glue before they become any bigger.

A wetsuit is the obvious bit of kit to take to an open-water session, but you may find the following useful: a pair of goggles with larger lenses, or a pair of mask-type goggles; two swimming hats (two are warmer than one); and earplugs (water in the ears can disrupt balance and make you feel colder). Take extra layers to put on once you're dry. If you can't warm up, you'll associate open-water swimming with being miserable. It's better to take more layers than you need.

Where to swim

You should always train at an official, tried-and-tested location. Whenever you swim in open-water, never swim alone. Your best bet is to join your local tri club's sessions. The BTA (British Triathlon Association)
has a list of triathlon clubs (www.britishtriathlon.org/clubs/index.php). You could also try searching Tri247's list of resources (www.tri247.com/resources.html) by choosing 'facilities' and zooming in on the interactive map to find open-water sessions near you.


The Power of the Mind

Everyone will react differently to the new stimulus of open-water swimming: what triggers panic in one person will trigger excitement in another. Mental rehearsal and modelling will help you enjoy it, says sports psychologist Stuart Chambers (www.athleticmind.co.uk). "While there's no substitute for technical ability, anyone can use mental rehearsal techniques to help them approach open-water swimming more confidently. The unconscious mind doesn't know the difference between a vividly imagined event and the real thing. Imagine yourself swimming or racing - what can you hear, feel and see? This mental rehearsal triggers neural pathways so the brain knows how to cope." 

Chambers also recommends a technique called modelling. "This involves watching an athlete you admire, observing their technique, body language and preparation routines. After a while, you will begin to adopt their mannerisms. You almost put yourself into their body."

Regular mental training is as important as physical training. Set aside 10-15 minutes a day and find a quiet place where you can relax. The aim is to try to settle into a state where the conscious mind switches off, which allows you to think without disturbance. Reinforcing a positive pre-swim routine that's geared towards building a positive and confident mood will help you even if you're injured, says Chambers. "If you keep practising your mental rehearsal through periods of rehabilitation, when you return to sport, it will be almost as if you never left it."


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