Essential guide to open-water swimming

Adam Walker takes on the ocean.

Adam Walker is the first and only Briton to complete the Oceans Seven Challenge - swimming seven of the world's toughest ocean routes unaided. After surviving freezing water temperatures, being stung by a deadly Portuguese man o' war and fending off great white sharks, Adam knows a thing or two about open-water swimming and all it entails. Here are his must-read tips for getting started...

Where to swim

There are often many lakes and open waters which have organised sessions and have suitable safety in place. I would recommend you swim in one these locations and as there will be other like-minded swimmers there who you can buddy up with and swim in pairs or a small group. In addition you can also make new friends as open water is a very social sport. Not only is it another good safety measure, it makes training easier supporting each other.

When to start

The temperature of the water may still be quite cool at the start of the open water swimming season around May in the UK and much will depend on the sort of winter that has preceded it. July and August are normally the best months to swim outside.

How long organised open water swimming lakes stay open for also depends on how warm the summer has been. Towards the end of the season in September in the UK, temperatures will start to drop. I suggest you train in the pool throughout the winter, unless you are travelling to a warmer climate and can get into adequate open water temperatures.

Getting acclimatised

Open water in lakes, rivers and the ocean is likely to be a cooler water temperature than the 29 degrees of an indoor leisure centre pool. With this drop in temperature, initially it can take some getting used to. By doing small frequent dips you will soon find how much easier and longer you can comfortably swim each time. It will also increase your confidence.

On entering the water, I recommend wetting the face and back of the neck, which will prime the body for entry as these are sensitive parts of the body. As you immerse yourself up to your shoulders, I suggest exhaling on entry as the ribcage contracts it will make it easier to get a second breath without gasping, particularly if it is very cold.

Exiting the water

When leaving the water be prepared to warm up quickly. The first thing to do is dry your swim hat and put a woolly hat over the top to keep the heat in. Only take the swim hat off when you have suitably warmed up to your normal body temperature. There are different types of robes you can purchase that go over your head and cover your body, helping you warm up quickly on exit. When getting changed, dry your feet off and put socks on first. 

Once you are fully dressed, taking on a warm drink can also help insulate your core, however be warned if you have been in colder water - what seems lukewarm to other people who haven’t been in the water, can be volcanic to you when your body temperature has dropped, so warn the person who brings you the drink.

Equipment

I recommend buying a wetsuit, this will give you an additional layer to keep you warm and help you against the temperature. There are many different brands and types available, they also help with buoyancy in the water. It is important to try on beforehand to make sure it fits and doesn’t restrict you. 

A thick swim hat is necessary to keep you warm - neoprene is the warmest, however you can also get a silicon and latex. Around 80 per cent of heat is lost through your head.

Ear plugs not only stop water getting in your ear, they also keeps your inner ear warm.

Other necessary equipment includes a good pair of goggles that fit your face well and keep water out of your eyes, a comfortable costume and some good footwear when approaching the lake.

For added safety you can purchase inflatable tow floats which attach around your waist and make you visible to ongoing boats or other swimmers. 

Stroke technique

Practising and perfecting your stroke in the pool will really help when you go into open water as you want to be as efficient as possible. It is of particular importance if you swim in the ocean, where there are potential waves and choppy seas. It is important to practice breathing both sides separately and doing bilateral breaths, as you may need to breathe different sides as a result of waves or to see other swimmers/competitors.

Sighting is also another important skill to master. You can again practice initially in the pool where it’s controlled and then move to open water. My tip is use a slightly deeper pull to lift just your eyes above the water and keep the front arm wide as your hips in place with fingers pointing downwards under water to enable you to glide as you sight.


Man vs Ocean by Adam Walker is published by John Blake and is available on Amazon.