Everything you wanted to know about open water swimming (but were afraid to ask)

If you are participating in a triathlon soon, or indeed you just enjoy swimming but are a bit fed up of the pools near you, there is a lot to be said for heading down to a lake for some outdoor swimming. As well as taking a bit of practice to feel comfortable, it can also be just a little bit intimidating if you don’t “know the ropes”,  so this post is intended to help clear things up. Do bear in mind, though, that I’m no expert; my enthusiasm comfortably exceeds my abilities!

Getting ready to swim at the Blenheim Triathlon

First of all, what will you need and how does it work? Well, on the equipment front, there are only two things you will need that you mightn’t take to the pool: a swim cap and a wetsuit. They insist on a cap, ideally in a highly visible colour, to make it easier for them to keep an eye on people. If you don’t have one, you can usually buy one there. A wetsuit is also pretty essential, as the water can be very cold – again, though, you can quite often hire one at the lake. Bear in mind that day hire will add up to a lot more than the cost of a longer-term hire if you do it a few times, so research here can pay dividends.

The other things you will need are the same as at the pool: cash, swimwear to go under the wetsuit, towel and goggles. Pool goggles will be fine, but remember that the water is much murkier in a lake than in a chlorinated pool, so it is quite common for people to get bigger ones for outside use, to make the most of the restricted visibility.

The next thing is to decide on which lake to go to, and when. The three lakes I’ve been to that are local to Amersham are Heron Lake, Bray Lake and Denham Lake. To be honest, there’s not a lot to choose between them, apart from location and timetables; I would happily go to any of them again. £5 seems to be the universal fee for swimming, and you are likely to be going quite early whichever you choose… Information about them is summarised at the end of this post.

OK, so you have put your swimsuit on under your clothes, have your wetsuit and goggles packed with your towel and cap, together with some cash. What happens when you actually turn up? When you arrive, typically you queue up to pay your £5 and write your details down, and are given a numbered wristband so they can keep track of who is in the water. You then go off to a room and get your wetsuit on. While there are changing rooms, there is also typically an open-plan area you can use to change in, so having your swimsuit on under your clothes can speed things up quite a lot.

Putting the wetsuit on can be a challenge the first time. The main things to remember are:

  • take your watch off first!
  • the rubbery side of the wetsuit goes on the outside
  • the zip will be at the back
  • stretch the legs and arm material up sufficiently to make sure you have free limb movement

Once the suit is on – and it will fell really quite snug if it fits properly – you can put your wristband on, and your swim cap and goggles. Hooray! We are now ready to head out to the lake.

On the way, check out the lake instructions; you will want to make sure you know which way you need to swim, and choose a route that is realistic for your swimming ability. In the lake, there are likely to be large, inflatable buoys placed at strategic points to mark out the routes.

Jumping in at the Blenheim Triathlon in June 2013

Remember, the water is likely to be colder then you’re used to; it may take a few minutes to accustom yourself to it. There are three main shocks to prepare for:

  • when you first get in, your extremities will feel quite nippy
  • then, to let the wetsuit do its job, you then scoop water in the neck; for a few seconds, this will paralyse you! It quickly warms, though, so you will feel much more comfortable
  • finally, getting your head and face in will give you a shock! There is no substitute for practice here to deal with this and get accustomed to it

The brave among us might just jump in, of course, as seen in the picture above! That deals with all three of these events pretty simultaneously, saving some time.

And now, you are ready to swim; enjoy it! The only real surprise I had at this point was the realisation that the suit’s buoyancy changes the dynamics of swimming rather. Front crawl benefits quite a lot: your legs hover at the top of the water without effort, to the extent that you can swim with little or no kicking, and breathing is easier. Breast stroke, on the other hand, feels harder since you can’t get your legs down, so you have to bend your neck back awkwardly to breathe.

There are some techniques to be learnt when swimming outside to do with navigation, but I won’t cover them here, not least because they aren’t my strong point! You will find out that you make much more use of the lines in a pool than you ever imagined, though. So “sighting” – sneaking a peek where you are heading, between breaths – is essential to avoid zigzagging around the lake.

When it is time to come out, remember that your legs may feel a bit wobbly! This is because your arms have been doing pretty well all the work, so that is where the blood has been diverted. It can help to make a conscious effort to kick harder for the last minute, in preparation for getting out.

Once you are out, the normal pattern is to take off the wetsuit and rinse it off with the hose pipe (there always seems to be a hosepipe). Leave it to hang somewhere to dry, and go off to get changed. Don’t forget to pick it up after, along with your goggles and cap!

Well, if you are hesitating to try out some open water swimming, I hope this little write-up might help you to take that first step into something rather fun!

Have I forgotten anything really important? I hope not, but if you have any suggestions or comments, please to leave them in the comments below.

Heron Lakehttp://www.openwaterswimminguk.co.uk/
Morning swimming – 6am-8:30am Sun, Wed, Sat
Evening swimming – 5:45pm-8pm Mon

Bray Lakehttp://www.braylakeswimming.co.uk/
Morning swimming: 6am-9am Sun, Tue, Thu, Sat
Evening swimming – 6pm-dusk Thu

Denham Lakehttp://www.denhamwaterski.com/Open_Water_Swimming.html
Morning swimming: 6:45am-8:50am Wed, 6:45am-8:45am Sat
Evening swimming: 7pm-9pm Mon, occasional Thu

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