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Open water swimming: 10 ways to get started

Alice Barraclough
The Telegraph's Alice Barraclough Credit: James Carnegie

Just because you can swim in a pool doesn't mean you can swim well in a lake or the sea. Alice Barraclough reveals everything you need to know to be able to succeed at, and enjoy, open water swimming...

I know how to swim. In fact, I used to spend more time at the local pool than pretty much anywhere else. At one point, aged 16, I was swimming almost nine times a week, every week. I’d turn up to school smelling of chlorine with wet hair and permanent goggle marks around my eyes.

But open water swimmers are another species altogether. You know the type, those – arguably insane – people who strip down on Christmas Day for a morning swim in the ice cold sea. But there’s something a little romantic and enticing about open water swimming – until, of course, you get in, and you can’t see the bottom, and completely panic.

I headed to Denham Waterski Club, a sheltered 20-acre lake, to practice my open water technique (and see if I could conquer my fear of the murky waters). After a good 10 minutes of bouncing around trying to squidge myself into my wetsuit, I lowered myself into the wildly spooky lake. “I’m scared,” I squealed to my younger sister, who’d agreed to come with me and show me the basics. But what am I actually scared of? The weed? Potential eels? The fact that I couldn’t see a trusted line on the bottom guiding me in the right direction?

Goggles on, and ignoring the chilly water creeping into my wetsuit, I started paddling. The sun was still struggling to poke its way through a gauzy coating of cloud. All I could see was the paleness of my own hands under water. I tried to think back to the advice Nathaniel Cole and Peigh Asante from Swim Dem Crew recently gave me at a Nike Swim open water masterclass at Parliament Hill Lido.

Alice Barraclough, second from right, at the Nike Swim event at London's Parliament Hill Lido Credit: James Carnegie

“Get into a rhythm with your breathing before you start ‘sighting’,” Cole explained to me. “And trust yourself. The more you train and become experienced in open water, the less anxious you’ll feel about it.”

Here, then, are 10 tips to embrace open water swimming...

Never swim alone

It sounds obvious, but open water swimming can be dangerous. So the first rule is never swim alone. You need to have at least one other swimmer with you or perhaps a coach watching from the side. Otherwise, you really need to be swimming in a protected, life-guarded area. You have to prepare for the unexpected. And while getting cramp, or hyperthermia, or stung by a jellyfish, might seem like a ‘this-will-never-happen-to-me’ scenario, it really could happen, and if it does you’ll be much better equipped to deal with it if you have a buddy on standby to help.

Familiarise yourself with the area

Think about the water temperature, currents, rocks, shallow areas and any potential hazards before getting in the water. Chances are, you won’t be able to see the bottom, so just be aware of your surroundings. Is there a marked course with buoys? Are there any boats around? Know your limits, and stick to them.

Be prepared for cold water shock

Cold water can be incredibly difficult to swim in. Body heat is lost 25 times faster in water than in air, and cold water can impair your judgement and senses. Enter the water slowly and really focus on your breathing when you first get in. Your body’s natural response to cold water shock is gasping, rapid breathing and increased heart rate. Take your time, get the water in your wetsuit warmed up, splash water on your face and just keep moving.

“Regulate your breathing when you first get in,” says Cole. “I practice taking big deep breaths, so I don’t start hyperventilating.”

Wear a wetsuit

It's essential. And, in a lot of triathlon events – where the water temperature is below 14 degrees – they’re mandatory. Swimming wetsuits vary in thickness (and in price). The thinnest almost mimic a swimming costume, which allows similar freedom of movement as they provide the least insulation and floatation. Do not be tempted to swim in a surfing wetsuit – they’re far too buoyant and will change your stroke quite dramatically. The most important thing is the fit, rather than whether it has shave-seconds-off-your-PB ultra-thin innovative panels. You want something that’s as tight as possible on your torso (without being constrictive). Brands such as Zone3, 2XU and Speedo are great places to start.   

Lather on the anti-chafe

I learned this the hard way, and I’m currently walking around with two gashes on either side of my neck where my wetsuit rubbed so hard it broke the skin. It’s pretty sore, and I wish I’d used Vaseline or a lubricant like Body Glide. Lather on generously.

“Ask someone else to do the velcro strap up for you,” adds Cole. “That way it won’t scratch against your skin. If you have an open wound, don’t swim in rivers – or, at least, cover it up with a plaster to protect it from becoming infected.”

A decent pair of goggles is essential

I used to swear by Speedo’s speedsocket goggles when I competed, but for open water swimming you want to go for a slightly bigger lens to offer a wider peripheral vision. “I prefer the larger goggles for open water swimming – you can see more and it’s less disorentating,” advises Cole.

Mirrored or polarised lenses are a definite plus, but not essential. The most important thing is that they fit and they don’t leak. Wear your goggles under your hat to protect them from being knocked off by another swimmer in crowded conditions.

Wear a brightly coloured cap

Swimming caps are inexpensive and an easy way to make sure you can be spotted in the water. Nike Swim, Speedo and Adidas all sell classic block colours, while you can get bold printed designs from the likes of Funkita, Maru and TYR. I’d opt for a silicone cap over a latex one, as silicone tends to be thicker and more durable (and doesn't snag at your hair). Wear two silicone caps to keep your head insulated or, if you really feel the cold, you should try a neoprene cap, which is designed specifically for keeping your head warm during really cold open water swimming.

Tow a buoy

Some open water swimmers actually tow an inflatable buoy behind them to make sure they’re visible to others – this is especially useful if you’re swimming in the sea in choppy water. Easier to see than a bright-coloured hat and they can double up as a flotation device (should you need one). Some even come with a waterproof section – perfect for your car keys or mobile phone.

Practice ‘sighting’

Sighting isn’t a skill you need in a pool, but if you want to swim in a straight line in open water, you need to be able to sight. Choose a landmark or a buoy to focus on and practice ‘crocodile eyes’ (slightly lifting your head out the water). Do not breathe while looking forward, separate the two actions by sighting forward (to check you’re still on course), and then immediately roll your head to the side to take a breath. It helps to kick a little harder while you’re sighting to help maintain speed.

“You don’t have to sight every time you take a breath,” says Cole. “I tend to breathe bilaterally for three rounds, then lift my head to sight.”

Maximize your recovery

Don’t hang around in your wet kit after getting out of the water. Dry off and warm up promptly. Wrap up in thermals, fleeces and a woolly hat (even if it’s summer, you’ll be surprised how long it takes to warm up). Take a hot shower or have a hot drink soon afterwards if you’re really cold.