A Beginners Guide To Open Water Swimming

You are not alone…many triathletes fear the swim!

Practical tips on getting started with open water swimming…and enjoying it

Definition of fear: a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined.

By breaking down the components of open water swimming we will be able to see where the fear lies, real or imagined.

It’s perfectly normal to have an anxiety or a fear of swimming in open water. For many new triathletes it will be a daunting experience and venturing out into a lake, the sea or a river will be way out of their comfort zone.

Our friends at Orca want you to take control and enjoy the swim.

There are many reasons for this fear; the deeper water, poor visibility, plants, fish/creatures, fear of sinking, the unknown, a wide open expanse of water, the cold… the list goes on, but you are not alone. Anxiety is perfectly normal and you can overcome it!

Reassuringly, if you speak to fellow triathletes you will often find that the swim is or was their main concern, even for ‘good’ swimmers. Often however, it turns out to be their favourite part of the race. Give it a try… you might like it 🙂

Taking mental control

You should be able to control and eventually overcome any initial anxieties by planning ahead and understanding your fears. In time you will be able to relax and enter the water with confidence. Don’t worry if it takes a few swims to get that control, things will start to fall into place with practice.

Let’s look at some of the factors involved with open water swimming and break them down. We can then minimise any fears or unexpected factors that might arise.

Going from the pool to the open water

Open water swimming is different to pool swimming but there are things you can take from the pool to give you confidence as you tackle swimming outside.

  • Pool swimming is very controlled. The water is clear, you’re never far from the side, a lane rope or the bottom if you get tired or in trouble
  • Outside everything seems out of your control. This is mostly a mental battle that you can overcome with a bit of preparation

We all started as non-swimmers but with lessons and practice we progress, just like going from pool to open water. 

If you are confident in the pool then transfer that mental strength to the open water. You went from being a learner and progressed, probably with the help of a teacher or coach. Try the same for open water swimming. Look up a local swim coach, triathlon club, outdoor swim club or lake venue with swim sessions. They are coached or supervised and help will be on hand should you need it.

Find an open water swimming club and a coach

It is not advised to go straight into the lake or river without some guidance. Signing up for some coaching sessions will pay dividends to your technique and confidence. Remember, if you have got this far you are probably a capable swimmer already. You just need to be at ease and become familiar with the new environment.

Having some support in these first few swims will help so much and be much safer than trying by yourself. You might meet some fellow beginners and gain even more confidence through your shared situation. A helping hand here will be a huge step towards taking control mentally.

Consider your equipment

The type of event you are undertaking will determine the right equipment you will need. Having the right gear will also help with overcoming anxiety in the water. Planning will bring things under control.

Triathlon

A wealth of specific wetsuits are available from beginner to advanced from many brands at various price points. If you are buying a triathlon-specific wetsuit, providing it fits correctly, they are almost certainly going to be suitable as the sport (and its products), are very well developed. Even a budget suit these days will have solid technology and flexibility in the right areas to get you started.

As you investigate the various suits you will discover that they are carefully designed to help with movement and buoyancy. The panels of thinner neoprene allow a greater range of movement at the shoulder. Thicker neoprene will offer better buoyancy, keeping you in a better swim position you on top of the water.

If you are a less confident swimmer then have a look for the suits designed for additional buoyancy. Orca’s Sonar wetsuit for example offers extra buoyancy over some of its other suits. Other brands will offer a balance of float and flexibility options within their product ranges.

SwimRun

You could get away with an adapted triathlon wetsuit, but specific suits for this increasingly popular sport will offer a better experience. Shorter leg and arm lengths, often a frontal zipper and pockets for storage will be practical and more suitable for running as well as swimming.

Open Water Swim

Here you might consider a suit with highly visible panels to allow boat users to see you clearly or better thermal capabilities for colder conditions. There will be less of a need for so many flexible body panels; unlike triathlon you won’t need to take it off in such a hurry to optimise your transitions.

In your pool training it is unlikely you will have worn a wetsuit so the first time using one is probably in open water. Time to get wet.

Getting in the water

Fitted correctly, the wetsuit will be snug and may feel as if it is slightly restricting you breathing slightly on dry land, but you will find this will ease once in the water. It will not affect your swim!

Getting in the water can be a bit of a shock at first. It may feel colder than you think, so be prepared. Take care, get in slowly at first. 

Do this for two reasons; sometimes you will not know just how deep the water is and jumping in could be very dangerous. Secondly, the sudden exposure to the cold water can cause shock and heart issues… so go steady.

Your wetsuit is designed to allow a thin layer of water in. This will quickly warm up and provide a layer of insulation.

Shortness of breathing

Once in the water, as you get to chest depth you may feel a tightness and shortness in breathing. This can be quite scary, this is perfectly normal and will pass once your head regains control. Control your breathing and do not panic. You may feel the buoyancy and your arms feel light. This is the wetsuit trying to float!

Now, splash your face and as you get accustomed to the water, gradually submerge your head. Don’t worry if water seeps down the back of your neck. That’s great, it will warm up very quickly and provide that insulation layer.

Practice in shallower water

A significant advantage in a wetsuit is the additional buoyancy it provides. If you’ve been swimming lengths in the pool in your regular costume, you will be amazed how different it feels. Now is a good time to try floating. Practice in the shallower water and this will help you with controlling your anxieties. You will float exactly the same in the deeper water as you will in the shallows. Another one for the memory bank – that buoyancy offered by your wetsuit is the beginner’s friend.

The panel locations of more buoyant neoprene will support you in the water and help you with your swim position. If you stop swimming the buoyancy in the suit will allow you to float. Rolling onto your back will give you an opportunity to catch your breath and gather your thoughts. Trust in the suit and it will be one less thing to worry about.

Start slow and shallow, gain confidence. Swimming near the shore will provide reassurance and allow you to develop without fear of the deeper water creeping in.

Goggles, hat, nose clip, ear plugs?

A few other items of equipment will greatly enhance your open water experience. Correct goggles for example will help you with the differing outdoor light conditions:

  • Bright/Sunny conditions – a tinted lens will allow you to sight better
  • Dull/overcast conditions – a clear or polarised pair for overcast days 

Putting your swim cap over the top of your goggle strap will help keep them in place. It also helps stop other competitors (in a race situation), accidentally knocking them off and minimise the chances of losing them mid swim.

Nose and ear plugs can offer additional comfort keeping water out. This is a small thing, but if you are new to the open water lots of little things can become big issues. Water splashing up your nose can be very off-putting if you’re not expecting it. Neither are essential equipment, but if you find they work for you, then stick with them!

Plan for your environment

Rivers:

  • Current: shallower and slower at the sides, deeper and faster in the middle
  • Swim near the sides if you’re swimming against the current. Just be careful it’s not too shallow, don’t hit the bottom!
  • If the swim is out-and-back will you be fighting the current in one direction
  • You may be able to stand up in many rivers

Sea:

  • Waves, wind, spray
  • Strong currents can take you off course quickly, keep regular sightings to stay on course
  • Faster stroke cadence, straighter arms avoid catching choppy waves with your hand that can sap energy
  • Bi-lateral breathing can help as waves can interrupt your breathing rhythm.
  • Regular sighting to keep on course, keeping your swim distance to the minimum

Lake: 

  • Calmer than the sea, but in winds can still be choppy with smaller, energy-sapping waves
  • Breathing to the side away from the waves will avoid you getting a mouthful of water
  • For deep water starts practice treading water. Give the person in front a bit of extra space. When the gun goes, their feet will suddenly be in your face!
  • Consider faster, punchier strokes. Long, slow, gliding strokes are not easy to maintain in choppier and busier open water conditions compared to the pool
  • Some lakes are not very deep. The water at Holme Pierrepont, Nottingham for example is quite shallow around the edges. You can swim confident that at any point you can stand up

Plan your open water race experience

Ready to race? Here are a few thoughts on choosing where to start.

  • Consider your first events swim section carefully, pool, lake, river or sea swim?
  • One thing to consider is the temperature of the swim in a triathlon. If the water gets too warm then the swim may be a tri-suit only. This can be a cause of concern for some swimmers who rely on the buoyancy of the suit for comfort. Most triathlons in the U.K. are wetsuit-legal, but an extended heatwave can increase the water temperatures.
  • Remember that for all of those pool swims you didn’t need your wetsuit for help, so enjoy the warmer water… should it arise!

You can find the British Triathlon rules on open water swimming temperatures HERE.

Planning your race

  • Control your start and have a goal to try to stick to
  • Where are you starting? Will it be quieter to stay back and to the side and avoid the pack thrashing when the gun goes? If you are a weaker / slower swimming, then placing yourself right at the front in the centre is likely to be a mistake.
  • Avoid the congestion and control your immediate surroundings
  • Stick to the outer edge of turns to reduce the chance of swimmers coming across your line
  • Visualise the start, the course and any points of exit that will help you beforehand
  • Visualise contact points and plan to avoid them if you’re concerned

If panic sets in 

  • Be prepared for panic – that might sound strange, but just having that thought at the back of your mind that, “Sometimes, stress can happen for anyone, it’s quite common”, can help you should the situation arise.
  • Roll onto your back and float for a moment. Remember, particularly in a wetsuit, you’ll have practised floating many times before.
  • Treading water – with the benefit of that flotation – will ease your panic and help you gradually relax.
  • Manoeuvre yourself to a safety point if required
  • Take a moment to compose yourself and start again
  • Focus on the next few strokes to maintain composure
  • Focus on breathing, stroke technique, direction
  • Count your strokes and maintain breathing control
  • Focus on the now – you have swum the distance, rationalise the situation

Sighting

Sighting and navigation are an essential when swimming outdoors, with no lane ropes and black tiles to guide you. Finding a far off buoy, a flag on shore, a tree on a hill, a building to focus on etc, will be valuable once you are in the water. Regular checks will keep you on target (and also save you time and energy).

Currents can take you off course and result in longer swim distances. Try to feel how this will affect your swim and take that into account whilst you are sighting. If the current is flowing across your path (left to right for example) as it may do in the sea or lake, you will have to adjust your course to find a target farther to the left of your anticipated exit point. Aiming (left) into the wind, waves or current will compensate for it  naturally pushing you to the right.

Final thoughts

By thinking ahead you will be able to anticipate what problems you might encounter and plan for these. If you can visualise these issues in advance, then you will significantly improve your chances of an enjoyable and pressure-free swimming experience. And if issues should arise, calling upon your learnings through training, will provide more opportunity to reduce their impact on you.

Hopefully you have an understanding of the elements of open water swimming and be able to see which are imagined fears and which are real threats. Overwhelmingly the fears are imagined or the very least, can be mitigated. Taking control of your fear will enable you to safely enjoy open water swimming.

There’s a lot to take in but the more you practice the more you can control the anxiety. After all it’s meant to be fun!

Now, get out there and enjoy swimming outdoors…!!!

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