Open Water Swimming: help, advice, kit and tips

For many, swimming is a key part of their training either as it’s own discipline, as part of multisport training such as triathlon /aquathlon, or used as low impact cross training for running. The closures of pools across the UK during the Coronavirus pandemic has left many swimmers getting creative with their land exercises, finding innovative ways to get some daily strokes in (think paddling pools and dog leads!) or simply missing the pool. However, in England some hope has been given to swimmers with the re-starting of the open water swim season. From the 15th May in England, the relaxation of exercise rules means water sports such as lake or riving swimming, rowing, canoeing, sailing and angling can take place. For those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland the wait may be a little longer.

Whilst Rivers and Lakes are immediately available (although more on this later) it is up to individual open water swim venues if they choose to resume business. SH2OUT- a partnership between British Triathlon, Swim England and the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) have issued COVID-19 guidance to  open water swimmers, effective 12 May 2020, which you can read online here. In this, the group urge members of the public to apply caution when considering open water swimming and carefully consider the dangers and the potential demand on the emergency services if you get into difficulty. The general advice is that if you are new to open water swimming to swim at a supervised venue which have on site (and often on water) safety crews. This is something I completely agree with and I really encourage you to find a centre if you’re new. Whilst there is the temptation to swim in rivers, lakes and the sea- these bodies of water all present their own dangers if you are not familiar, confident and comfortable with open water swimming or wild swimming. For example, the sea is subject to tides and currents which can often be strong, lakes can also have currents and rivers can be faster flowing or deeper than they first appear. In rivers and lakes there is also the added potential danger of algal blooms and it is for these reasons I primarily advise choosing a designated swim centre as you know the water will meet bathing quality standards.

Whether you’re a seasoned open water swimmer (OWS), a novice or a complete beginner, here are some of my top tips to make your open water swim experience run smoothly. For the reasons above, these primarily apply to open water swim venues or designated swim spaces such as tidal pools.

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Before beginning Open Water Swimming

If you’re completely new to the concept of OWS ask yourself if you feel ready to begin. Just because we can open water swim, doesn’t mean you need to, or that you need to right now. Open water swimming is very different to pool swimming, the water is often cold and murky, there can be currents, you’re exposed to the elements and the wildlife (hello reeds that touch you whilst you’re swimming along!), there is no wall to take a break at and you often don’t know how deep it is or what is concealed below the surface. Additionally, it is still early in the season and the water is cooler this time of year.

Finding an Open Water Swimming centre

So many of you might be asking, where can I find open water swimming near me? Google is a great starting point. As are websites such as Swim England, NOWCA and The Outdoor Swimming Society

When using an OWS centre, ring ahead if anything is unclear, read all the information and advice online and check any emails or communications prior to your session. You may need a membership for the centre so check this too.

Each centre will have different regulations and many will require you to listen to a safety briefing prior to entering the water, even if you have visited before. Arrive in good time, respect social distancing (even in the water) and follow all the instructions given to you. These are to protect you, the swimmers around you, the staff and ensure the centre can remain open. Many centres will not offer changing facilities during this period so make plans for this (I have a lovely robe to throw on afterwards).

Your Swim Experience

Upon entering the water gently swim away from the point of entry so you aren’t in the way of other swimmers and then give yourself a few moments to adjust to the water temperature. I tread water or float for a minute then begin swimming. You might find it is rather chilly, especially early in the season and may take your breath away. Don’t jump in, don’t rush, and don’t panic as this can lead to cold water shock. If you’re not at a centre, or not at one that offers a pontoon or point of entry carefully plan you route in and out.

You’ll find a lot of people swim freestyle, but lots swim breaststroke too and if you don’t want to put your head under the water that is your choice. The only stroke I would advise against is backstroke as you can’t see where you’re going, and this can often mimic a swimmer needing assistance.

Sighting is even more important right now. Every few strokes you should raise your head above the water and look forward, known as sighting. This helps you navigate where you are going and is even more essential at the moment to help maintain social distancing in the water.

Give others space. Not just to follow social distancing guidelines, but also many newer open water swimmers may be nervous.

Don’t swim with deep cuts or scratches as there is a risk of infection. Similarly don’t swim if you are unwell.

If you do choose to swim outside a designated centre look out for safety signs, do not swim where signs advise against it (even if others are), avoid locks, weirs and other aquatic structures, avoid swimming alone where possible given social distancing, don’t swim in stagnant water and be aware of tides/ currents.

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Equipment 

For temperatures below 20degrees Celsius I strongly advise a wetsuit. Not only do wetsuits help keep you warm buy they provide buoyancy and help hold your posture in the water. The water is still cool at this point in the year so check your centre’s restrictions with regards to wetsuits as many have rules about compulsory use below certain temperature points. You can also invest in gloves, socks and hats for cold water swimming. If you have long nails I advise using fabric gloves to get your wetsuit on and don’t dig your nails into the neoprene. Wear a swimming costume, bikini or tri suit under your wetsuit.

I use Zone3 wetsuits, these have been my go to since I began open water swimming. They are extremely comfortable and durable. My first wetsuit was the Zone3 Vision Wetsuit which I have used for almost three years now. I recently upgraded to a Zone3 Aspire Wetsuit. I am a Zone3 ambassador and if you follow this linkand copy the code you can enjoy 15% off full priced products (affiliate link).

A brightly coloured swim hat is a must for visibility in the water and I also strongly advise using a tow float (currently compulsory at many centres). A tow float is a brightly coloured inflatable that attaches around your waist and floats behind you in the water. Whilst these are not life saving devices they can help if you experience cramp in the water, need a breather between swimming loops or want to hold on whilst you adjust to the water temperature.

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Goggles- often polarised ones are best for outdoor swimming to help reduce glare from the sun, but your usual pool ones can suffice. Even if you don’t intend to put your head underwater still use goggles as wind or waves may splash water into your eyes and inhibit your vision.

Take a towel and warm clothes which are easy to get on post swim. I also use a changing robe which I absolutely love. Its exceptionally warm and helps alleviate the lack of changing facilities. Again you can obtain a code via this link for 15% off (affiliate link).

Sunscreen- especially for your neck when the weather is good!

Post Swim

Once you get out of the water, place on your warm clothes and pack your wet kit away. Grass and sand can get everywhere so be mindful to keeping your kit off the floor. Sanitise your hands and have a hot drink, sugary snack or usual recovery products to help warm yourself up and replenish your energy levels. Whilst it is chilly my go to post swim drink is Science in Sport Chocolate Orange Rego mixed with hot water- it is a total game changer!

When you return home shower and brush your teeth then wash all your kit. To do this I hose down my wetsuit, goggles, tow float, swimsuit, hat and goggles with warm water in the shower then leave to drip dry on a drying rack. Wash both the inside and outside of your wetsuit.

So there you go, if you have any additional tips add them in the comments and enjoy open water swimming if you’re able to. 

You might also like: My top tips for avoiding cramp when swimming

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