Picture of a lake in the sunshine, trees in the background, long grasses in the foreground

Open Water Swimming- A Beginner’s Guide

October 9, 2020 No Comments

This year I discovered Open Water Swimming, and my only regret is I didn’t take it up years ago.

So if you are like I was at the beginning of the year and are thinking about giving a go, here’s my Beginner’s Guide to Open Water Swimming based on what I have learnt and my own personal experiences from my first Summer season.

I have always enjoyed swimming, it was the only sport I have ever been any good at. However I was a pool swimmer, with the occasional dip in the sea. We have a freshwater lake local to us that does organised open water swimming, and for years I’ve been wanting to give it a try. The forced pool closures this year gave me the push I needed, and honestly I haven’t looked back since.

I’ve been swimming 2-3 times a week since the beginning of June, and plan to continue throughout the colder months. Not only have I swum in our local lake, but I have also tried out river swimming and swimming in a salt water lake. Next challenge is cold water swimming, then maybe sea swimming next year!

In this post I’ve included when and where to start, what you need, the differences compared to pool swimming, and of course the massive benefits. So if you are a little apprehensive have a read through, hopefully it will give you the encouragement to just go for it.

A Beginner’s Guide To OPen Water Swimming

SAFETY FIRST

Open bodies of water can obviously be extremely dangerous, so it goes without saying that if you are new to the sport you shouldn’t just jump into the nearest river or lake!

As a complete newbie I would advise that you start by attending an organised open water swim centre for your first few swims. These tend to have swim sessions, so you wont be on your own, and also marked out routes with buoys which will help you pratice sighting, and allow you to build confidence in a safe environment.

A lady standing in a lake before a swim

If you plan to swim anywhere in a non-organised centre, local knowledge is paramount. Joining a local wild swim group is really useful (see later), and chatting to other more experienced open water swimmers to find out about the safe entry/exits before you plan your swim. Sea swimming is a whole other ball game which I am afraid I know nothing about. As a beginner I would suggest sticking to lakes, rivers and resevoirs until you are more confident and know your own limits.

Once you have researched where you want to swim and know it’s safe to do so, you need to find a swim buddy, or at least someone who can spot you from the shore or bank (and more importantly be able to help you if you get into trouble). Again joining local groups or attending organised centres can help with this.

Lastly it is important to be visible in open water. Most wetsuits are balck, and you will just blend in with the water. Always wear a brighty coloured swim hat, and abrightly coloured tow float. If you are wild swimming it’s worth getting one that includes a dry bag so you can take your car key with you!

What You Need

Good Fitting Swimming Wetsuit

Lots of people do swim in skins (swimsuit/trunks), but as a beginner I personally would advise investing in an entry level swim wetsuit. I started in a cheap full sleeved wetsuit (the type you buy at beach shops), but quickly invested in a decent fitting one designed for swimming and it made such a difference. The main reasons are the added buoyancy, which makes you more streamline in the water and more efficient; the warmth and constant temperature as water isn’t seeping in and out of a badly fitting suit; and comfort with no chaffing due to having more flexibility in the shoulders and a lower neck line.

Googles

Good fitting googles that don’t let the water in. Tinted are best for summer swimming, but if you plan to swim at low light levels, or plan to continue into the winter then it is worth getting a clear pair as well.

Swimming in the river
Photo courtesy of Swimspirational

Swim Hat

A normal latex swim hat is fine, but it needs to be bright in colour. You may also choose to wear two hats depending on the temperature, and you can also get neoprene swim caps but these aren’t essential for summer swimming.

Tow Float

Another safety first peice of equipment. Increases visibility, and also some will give you somewhere to put your car key!

Additional items such as swim socks, gloves are optional, but if you plan to continue swimming into the colder autumn and winter months then you might want to consider purchasing some.

When and Where To start

The best time of year to start open water swimming is May to September. Generally the weather is warmer and the water temperatures are around late teens to early twenty’s degrees centigrade. It would not be advisable to start open water swimming in the colder months as you wont have allowed your body to adapt to the colder water temperatures.

As I mentioned earlier, the best place to start is an organised open water swimming venue. You can find a list of venues in the UK on the Outdoor Swimmer page.

If you are wanting to have a truly wild swim, then I would advise finding a local group to swim with for your first few times. Local groups will be able to provide you with local knowledge of the water and also provide you with swim buddies. The Outdoor Swimming Society has a comprehensive list of Wild Swim Groups in the UK, and Facebook is also a good place to find and connect with a group. Generally I have found the open water swimming community to be extremely friendly and helpful, so don’t be shy!

OPEN WATER SWIMMING VS POOL SWIMMING

Something I hadn’t realised is how different open water swimming is versus swimming in a pool. It was something I wasn’t prepared for when I first got in our local lake.

The Temperature

Open water is far colder than a swimming pool, even in a wetsuit on a glorius summer’s day. It takes a little getting used to, but things like making sure you are warm before you get in, and taking a few minutes to let your body adjust before setting off and you soon get used to it.

The Visability

As a pool swimmer you’ll be used to seeing everything in front of you, underneath you and be able to see exactly where you are going. This isn’t going to be the case in open water. Water clarity can vary from one location to the next. It can be a bit unnerving when you first submerge your head and can only see green! Again you get used to it, and need to just try and stay relaxed. You also need to pratice sighting using crocodile eyes (lifting your eyes out of the water before inhaling), so that you can see what’s around you. It’s a good idea to focus on an object in front of you which helps you swim straight.

It’s harder than it looks

I was a pool swimmer and would happily swim 3km in a swim session. Open water is a whole different ball game. My first ever swim I only managed 600m. There are no lane ends to push off from and take at rest at, and often you wont be able to stand up so will need to swim continuously. It’s quite tiring if you’re not used to it. Again another reason to swim at a oragnised centre where you can build confidnce and know you limits.

The water is not still

Pretty obvious if you’re swimming in the sea, but you can still get ripples and small waves in lakes, and strong currents in rivers. It’s a very different experience than pool swimming. It makes it easy to swim off course (hence you need to sight regularly), and getting a slap in the face with a ripple of water just when you inhale can be somewhat off putting!

A lady swimming front crawl in a lake
Photo courtesy of Swimspirational

It’s a different type of stroke

The main swim stroke of open water swimming is frontcrawl (although plenty of people swim breast stroke too). Backstroke isn’t advisable as lying on your back with your arm raised is a sign of distress in the open water world. In a pool you tend to windmill your arms and kick as hard as you can. If you do this in open water you will tire very easily. Instead legs are mainly for balance and position allowing the arms to be the main focus of power. It is also all about a steady rhythm at your own pace, to allow steady breathing, regular sighting and good positioning to be the most energy efficient in the water. If you’ve tried a couple of open water swims, and get the bug (and belive me you will), then I would recommend booking a training session with and open water swim coach. I had one a few months back with Swimspirational, and she was able to help me masively allowing me to swim greater distance and in a better time.

The distractions

Good and bad. Chances are you wont be in the water alone. There will be other swimmers, wildlife, debris and other water vessels. You need good sighting to navigate your way around all these obstacles. You also get to see the magnificent views from the waters surface, something you just don’t get to appreciate from the land. I often find myself breaking into breaststroke just to take in my surroundings.

BENEFITS OF OPEN WATER SWIMMING

We all know exercise is good for us. Swimming in general is a great cardiovascular exercise, with minimal impact. Open water swimming takes that one step further, increasing your metabolism as you deal with colder temperatures as well as exercise.

It also has a positive effecct to your mental helath. When I am swimming my mind is completely switched off, focusing on the rhythm of my breathing. It’s the only time I ever really switch off and allow the stresses of every day life to dissapear. I have also read in an article that by swimming in colder water, you body releases endorphins, your happy hormones. This would explain the buzz and feeling of well being you get following a swim (and possible why it’s so addictive).

I have also found that my skin has improved, it always feels so soft after a swim. I’m not sure if that’s the exfoliating propierties of the cold water, the improvment to my peripheral circulation or just the natural algae nourishing my skin, but it’s an added benefit.

As well as health benefits, I have also made lots of new friends.The open water swim community seem to be a really friendly bunch. I love that there are people of all ages, size and backgrounds that enjoy the sport .

Lastly the views form the surface of the water are like no other. Swimming in full sunshine or dusk are beautiful in equal measure but in completley different ways. You are literally at one with nature which I find so relaxing and it gives you an alternate perspective. I find watching the rain droplets hit the waters surface truly mesmerising, like the water is dancing right in front of me.

My Advice

If you’ve made it this far, then you are obviosuly seriously interested in starting your open water swimming journey. My advice is just do it! You seriously wont regret it, and hoestly what have you got to lose?

If you do start your open water journey and found this post useful, then I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Equally if you’re an experienced swimmer, and think I’ve missed out some important points, please let me know.

Happy Swimming!

Kerry x

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