Open Water Swimming for Beginners

Dreading getting into open water for the first time?

With the weather beginning to warm up, training plans will be starting to include open water swims. Below is a blog from one of our holiday coaches, giving some top tips as to how to conquer the open water fear.

Big waves can seem intimidating at first

I get it; swimming in open water for the first few times can be scary. Besides the normal feelings of being in a big expanse of water, there are no lane ropes to follow, no side to cling to, and worst still… can be deep. Very deep.

The first time I swam in open water I was terrified. I had only been swimming properly for about 6 months, but I had entered an open water swim race as a goal to aim towards. Arriving at the lake, I was horrified that there were over fifty other swimmers, all there to laugh and point at me when it all went horribly wrong.

It didn’t go horribly wrong and my first swim experience was mildly pleasant. In part due to the advice and guidance given to me by various well-meaning friends. 

By following these top 10 tips, you should be able to start an open water swim with increased confidence and ability.

Here goes:

1. Get into your wetsuit properly. Great video (below) of making sure that it is really up high over your shoulders and hips. If it isn't on properly then it can restrict your shoulders and make everything feel really tight.

2. When you walk into the water and the water comes up to your waist, start to breath out really heavily. Your bodys natural instinct when it hits cold water is to take a sharp intake of breath. This muscle reaction then carries on and you can't ever breathe out properly and can lead to hyperventilation shortly afterwards. (Next time you get into the shower, turn it to cold. You’ll tense up and hold your breath. This is exactly the same as getting into cold water, you tense up and forget to breathe). 

3. Walk into the water and breathe in slowly and out long and hard. When you are waist high and the water starts to get into your wetsuit, make really big breaths out so you don't have that sharp intake of breath. Remembering to exhale properly is the key here.

4. Splash water on your face to get your face used to being wet and cold. Remember top tip number 2.

5. As soon as you are in, drop under the water so your shoulders are submerged and open the front of your wetsuit to let all the water in. It's hideous, I know – it’s really cold, so whilst you are doing this, remember the exhaling out and not the sharp intake. Surprisingly, a wet suit is designed to work when it is….well, wet! It works by keeping a layer of water (warmed by you) trapped next to your skin. Hands up who is comfortable walking around in a wetsuit with no water in it. No one? Thought not. (This is also the point that if you need to warm up, you can have a pee in your wetsuit; for starters, it's nice and warm. Gross I know, but we all do it - besides, you’re nervous and you need a pee, right?). Before you head into the water walk back out into the shallows and let the excess water out the bottom of your suit and make sure once again that your suit is on exactly where you want it. The layer of water will make the fine adjustments easier to make.

6. This is the critical you're bobbing about or standing with your shoulders under if it is shallow enough, put your face down into the water (so you are looking at your toes) and make long breaths out. Turn your head to the side to breathe as you normally would and then blow out again under the water. Really long slow controlled breaths. This then calms you down and gets your body ready for what is coming next. You're already adrenalined up to the eyeballs so you need to introduce some relaxed technique to ensure that when you set off, your body doesn't suddenly go into sharp intake of breath mode and can't remember what it is supposed to be doing apart from inhaling and exhaling too quickly!

7. If you start to panic, don’t panic. That sounds counter intuitive, I know. Once you realise that the feeling is normal for a lot of swimmers and you aren’t alone and all you need to do is stop, bob about and float until you get that breathing under control again. Top tip number 5 comes in handy here. 
Wetsuits add buoyancy. This means that you will float. Even if you stop swimming, you will float. Use this to your advantage and if you want to have a little rest to catch your breath/look at the scenery/watch that family of ducks swim past, then have a little sit in the water. You may have to go without a cup of tea, though.

8. Look up. Unless you are very lucky, there won’t be any swim lines or ropes on the bed of the lake/sea. That’s also assuming you are swimming in crystal clear waters! Every few strokes you are going to need to look up to see where you are going and make sure you are going in the direction you are planning (and not into a boat/pier, ahem!). Nobody wants to swim any further than they planned, stay on track by looking up. There are a couple of different ways of doing this, but for now, gain some confidence as the specific sighting skills can come later.

9. Little and often. If you are a nervous swimmer and want to master the art, then nobody said you had to get into the lake/sea and swim a 1km loop straight off. By all means, swim 1km but take a little break, enjoy the surroundings and how far you have swum, have a little bob about and do some breathing and then start swimming again. Nobody said you had to swim a certain stroke so if you want to swim breaststroke for a bit, then do!

10. Choosing the time to stand up and get out of the water is key, especially if you are in a race. When your hands start to grab the bottom of the lake/sea, then that’s the time to stand up and run/walk out of the water. If you stand up much earlier, then you will have to wade through the water…you’ll swim more quickly than you can wade, so no standing until you are grabbing. (And don’t be scared to use ‘the grab’ to help propel you forward more quickly!)

Fundamentally, these steps take time. Give yourself time to adjust to your new swimming surroundings and make sure you practice before an event.  During these practice swims you can build up a familiar routine that you can take with you to race day and use to keep you calm and in control.

Sometimes this isn’t possible to do frequently, some of us just don’t live near any open water swim venues, so if you find that you arrive on race day having never swum in open water before – make sure you arrive early so you can execute the above to ensure you are calm, reassured and can complete your warm up plan.  

Being comfortable in the open water will increase
your enjoyment from swimming
Even if you have practised beforehand, it is always advised to arrive on race day early, get into the water early and give yourself time to acclimatise and follow your newfound open water swim entry protocol.