Open water swimming – some advice for beginners

As we are now into May, most of us with triathlons planned for the summer will be thinking about getting ready for open water swimming. If you are like me this year, desperate to pull the wetsuit on and get back into the cold and calmness of swimming in a lake, this post is not for you…. If you are like me last year, dreading the swim, wondering if you will manage front crawl at all, concerned about whether you will be able to finish – this post is for you!

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My first open water swim was horrendous. It was an end-of-May triathlon, my first ever event, in a year when we had seen snow in the UK at the beginning of the month. Luckily it was a “super-sprint”, for beginners, so the swim was only 400m (and the run a mere 2.5km), but unluckily the weather had put many beginners off and so there were only five of us in the event!

first tri wetsuit

The Olympic distance and the sprint distance racers set off, and there were left just five people in wetsuits, new, old and borrowed, standing shivering on the shoreline, watching the other swimmers set off into the far distance. The race director called us all to the water and pointed out our much shorter route. We got into the water and we were off! I put my head under and immediately the cold closed over me, my heart rate felt sky-high, I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I panicked. I ended up swimming the 400m almost all breaststroke, occasionally getting brave enough to put my head in for another few strokes but immediately resorting to breast stroke again.

jilli swim

At the end of that year, in September, I did the Sprint triathlon in the same location. I was really hoping to manage front crawl, but again, really struggled and swam breast stroke most of the way.

triathon swim

Fast forward to the next June – another sprint triathlon. This time I swam front crawl all the way, swam the 750m in 14 minutes and was the second woman out of the water (soon to be overtaken on the bike but shhhh). In my first Olympic distance tri, I managed the 1500m in 28 minutes and really enjoyed myself.

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So what changed?

I learned to love open water swimming. I spent last summer regularly getting up at the crack of dawn and driving through central London to Stoke Newington, or out to Richmond, to swim with the RG Active team. I really, really recommend their swim sessions. This year they start on the 16th May so there is still time to get your wetsuit and plan your transport!

ham lake

They are based in Ham Lake, Stoke Newington Resevoir, Hampstead Heath and Redricks Lake – I have attended sessions at Ham Lake and Stoke Newington. Coached sessions are on Saturday mornings and start at 7.30am (yes, I know, but it is beautifully quiet and so worth getting up at that time). They also have a just swim session at Ham Lake for 5 quid on a Tuesday morning (at 6am – pre work) and Sunday morning (7am). They are really friendly and welcoming and not only are perfect for beginners, but often offer more structured swim workouts as well for those who are stronger swimmers.

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Here’s my blog from when I first went last year…

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But if you can’t make it to London and an RG Active open water training session, here are my five top tips for getting comfortable in the open water and then improving your performance.

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1) Practice! See above – that one was easy.

2) Get in early – get in the water as soon as you can. I always thought this was stupid advice, why would you want to get cold sooner than you need to? That was very, very wrong. You won’t get cold, you will in fact warm up! Start by putting your hands and wrists in and wiggling them around in the water, do the same with your feet. Go in gradually.

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3) Expect your heart rate to rise – especially if the water is cold, when you get in your heart rate will rise and your breathing will quicken. It’s a lot less scary if you know it is going to happen- it is a natural reaction to the shock of cold water and not your body telling you “you can’t do this“. Tread water and try to breath as naturally as possible until your breathing comes back to normal. Now is the time to put your head under. Take a deep breath and fully submerge yourself. When you come back up, your breathing will be fast again! Tread water and wait for it to slow as before. Repeat if necessary. See what I mean about getting in the water early?! If you just jump in immediately before the start, you will be swimming / racing while you acclimatize. If you are anything like me, you might panic, think you can’t do it, and breast stroke the whole way round when really all you needed was a minute or so to settle 🙂

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4) Sighting – this is important, as otherwise you may end up swimming a lot further than necessary and nobody wants that. It’s another area where practice comes in handy. I know I tend to swim slightly off to the right and I try to sight every 6th breath or so. I would recommend getting into a rhythm and counting in your head “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, look!” or something along those lines so that you remember to do it. The trick is to only lift your head a tiny amount, like “crocodile eyes” – so your eyes are out of the water but nothing else. At RG Active I was told to lift my head up before I turn it to breath, but I couldn’t quite get my head around that. I find it easier to breath and then swivel my head forwards to see where I’m going. Whatever suits you best.IMG_4709

If you look and you don’t see the buoy, don’t stop. Don’t keep looking. Put your head back down and take another stroke. Sight on the next stroke and do this until you spot the buoy. This is much quicker than treading water while you look around you!

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5) Don’t be scared. By swimming in open water you get to be in some of the most beautiful, peaceful places imaginable. The difference between a noisy, hot, crowded lane swimming pool is just huge. I find open water swimming so incredibly relaxing. The wetsuit helps – the fact you can just float with very little effort at all if that’s what you want. One of the things we love about running and cycling is the ability to get away from it all, especially if you live in the city. To find hidden spots of beauty, incredible views, peace and stillness that you just can’t get otherwise. Open water swimming is the height of this. There is no reason to be scared, there is every reason to fully embrace it and fall in love with it!

orgon lakeNB: don’t be stupid though – if you can barely swim 20m, good on you for wanting to improve but please don’t get in a lake entirely by yourself with nobody on hand to keep an eye out for you!

jilli coming out of the swim

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9 comments

  1. Thank you for this post! I will be doing my first outdoor sprint triathlon this August and, though I was a competitive swimmer growing up, I understand that open water swimming is a whole different animal. And, I’ve been dreading the cold water (takes me back to the days when I had to dive in at 5 am…shudder). I especially appreciate the sighting advice!

  2. Great tips! I’ve learned to love OW swimming too, but I know it can be scary first time. I did a coached session a few weeks ago with Tri n Swim Well, and that was great for practicing sighting and breathing.

    • Thank you! Coached sessions are brilliant – I would recommend anyone to go and try one, it just takes away most of the nerves and gives you some really useful tips.

  3. Thanks for this. I’m still trying to get my swim down. I feel like I breathe too quickly and start doing that panic breathing. I’m really trying to get it down for my triathlon at the beginning of June.

    • I’d recommend just slowing everything down, maybe counting in your head i.e. 1, 2, breathe, 1, 2, breathe. The more you slow down, hopefully the less you will panic breathe! Then when you’ve got that sorted, you can start speeding up again 🙂

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