• Taking the plunge – your first open water swim

    Open-Water-DraftingGetting into open water swimming because you have entered “that darn triathlon” could be one of the best things that you ever do.  Lake swimming on a summers evening, as the sun goes down, can be one of many magical experiences that you may have as an open water swimmer.  So it is really important that get to love your new activity and start as you mean to go on!

    This is article is for athletes that will soon be going down to a lake for their first open water swim.

    Be comfortable in the right gear

    You will know that you need a wetsuit!  Water temperature in UK lakes range between May and September from 11 degrees to 25 degrees.  Wearing a wetsuit in races, according to BTF guidelines, is optional between 14 and 24 degrees but we want to be comfortable and buoyant – no need to be a hero!

    Talking of being comfortable – make sure your wetsuit fits you properly.

    I would encourage you to take your wetsuit to your local pool and have a short swim in it before you go to the lake – do ask the lifeguard before you jump in.  Swim nice and easy for no more than 10 mins just to get the feel of the suit and highlight any issues.  (If you swim too hard for too long you could overheat so keep it short and easy.)  If your wetsuit fits you well then you really shouldn’t get any chafing around the neck for example.  But if you do, then know that there are plenty of anti-chafe products on the market that you could apply before the big day!

    Ensure that your goggles are well fitting – you don’t want to be dealing with water leaking in and distracting you.  And wear a brightly coloured swim hat (for safety reasons)- if it is very cold then you can wear two.

    And while we are thinking of cold then be aware that you can buy neoprene swim hats for swimming (but these are usually black so put your fancy one over the top) and neoprene boots.  These are, I admit, useful for very early season swims but they are not allowed in races so consider them a treat but not the norm.

    Buddy up

    It is a good idea to always go open water swimming with a swimming partner.  Even the most experienced swimmers can develop cramp at the most unexpected times and if this is in the middle of a large lake it can be distressing and dangerous.

    The time is right

    If you can plan ahead, you can plan for the best possible first open water experience.  If you are thinking of taking part in your first triathlon in May/June then a good time to first get into the water would be the September before.  It is much more pleasant getting into 20 degree water for the first time than into 14 degree water in May.  Or stick to early season pool swims and go for your first open water triathlon later in the season.

    Practice in the pool

    Probably the most important skill that you will have to get used to, is sighting.  This is how you navigate around a course or training swim – you have to see where you are going. 

    But, you don’t have to wait until you get into open water to practice this.   You can practice your technique in your pool as part of your regular swim sessions.

    Use your head

    It can be useful to mentally prepare yourself for your first swim so there are no surprises to deal with when you are in the water.

    Ask yourself (and remember to answer) what are you going to see? (could be very murky water and you could see nothing!) What could you see?  Are there any unusual divers objects in the water?  You may want to ask other swimmers.

    I clearly remember one of my first open water swims.  No one told me that there were divers, diving in the lake, at the same time.  So, imagine my reaction when I saw a stream of bubbles coming up to me from the black depths.  I turned and swum back to the jetty as quickly as I could!

    Just have a think before hand so you aren’t completely startled when you see a fish or an old boot or a diving stage!

    Before you get in

    Whether you are open water training or racing you should be warming up your muscles, getting blood flowing to the joints, and visualising your perfect swim stroke before you approach the water.  Now is a great time to start that habit.  A warm up routine can also be helpful in controlling any nerves – gives you something else to think about.  See here for warm up routine suggestions.

    Time to take the plunge

    This paragraph is possibly the most important!  Acclimatisation just means getting used to the coldness of the water gradually rather than diving in and giving your body a shock.  This is a process that you should go through every time you swim open water not just the first time!

    The 5 step acclimatisation process

    Get into the water and stand in the water up to your waist.

    1. Put your hands in the water and splash water onto your face
    2. Duck down until your shoulders are in the water to get a thin layer of water into your suit (this is what keeps you warm)
    3. Put your face in the water – what do you see?
    4. Lay on back, arms stretched out nice and relaxed  (this is a good time to remind yourself about the safety position – on your back with an arm in the air).  See how you float!
    5. Finally, lay on your front with your face in the water

    That is it!  You are ready to swim! You are now an open water swimmer.