Most competent swimmers are able to plough up and down the fast lane of the swimming pool no problem. But when it comes to open water swimming, it’s a completely different ball game. The etiquette and niceties that surround the neatly arranged lanes of the the local swimming pool just do not apply. And, no matter how far the distance you’re logging in lengths, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be as strong in the open water. It’s a game changer. I’m at the stage now where I feel really confident with 1.5km in the pool and (thankfully) things are starting to warm up a bit in the open water. Therefore, coming down to Cornwall for the bank holiday weekend, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to practice in the sea.
“If you set a goal for yourself and are able to achieve it, you have won your race.” – Dave Scott
First of all, I needed a wetsuit. After doing some research, there really wasn’t much in terms of expenses between hiring one for the season (March – October) and actually buying an entry level suit. So, in the hope that my triathlons this summer won’t be something of a one hit wonder, I thought I would pursue the latter. There are some fantastic wetsuits on the market for beginners. To name a few, Orca, Zoot, Zoggs and Wiggle’s own brand DHB all make high quality wetsuits around the £100 mark that have brilliant reviews. As you can see from the rather lovely turquoise sleeves, I decided on Zoggs, having managed to find the suit online with a 30% discount. I’m so chuffed with it. It’s unlike any wetsuit I have worn before for sailing or diving; it feels like a second skin. The thickness of the neoprene varies all over, with 3mm on the body for warmth, 4mm on the legs for buoyancy and 1.5mm on the arms for mobility. In this sense, it really feels like your friend in the water.
But as happy as I am with the wetsuit, swimming in the open sea for the first time certainly highlighted some areas that I need to focus on in the next stage of my training. So here’s some transferable skills that can be practiced in the safety of the local pool, without having to make the journey to the nearest beach or lake. From experience, they’ll leave you better prepared for that moment when you do take the cold plunge for the first time.
So turns out swimming in a straight line is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Aside from the fact it wastes time and energy, it is also very frustrating when you finally realise you’re way off course. To correct this, it is important to learn how to sight (i.e. look where you’re going). I’m now trying to practice sighting in most of my swimming sessions: every few breaths, raise your head out of the water and double check you’re headed in a straight line. Then in one movement, inhale to the side as you would on a normal breath and continue or adjust your direction if you need to. It feels weird to begin with, but it’s something I wish I had mastered before I got in the sea and couldn’t see above the waves for love nor money.
Open water swimming for the first time, I was expecting the cold to take my breath away. Much to my surprise, everywhere covered in wetsuit was almost toasty. However, my hands and face were frozen from the second they hit the water; the kind of cold that is actually painful. Not only that, who knows what the hell is underneath you. So my breathing went completely awol. And, because I wasn’t fully exhaling in the water, it was very difficult to regain a regular pattern. Therefore, breathing every second stroke, I struggled to keep a symmetrical form, which pushed me further off course. I think acclimatising to the temperature as best you can is obviously important, however ensuring you’re confident breathing whichever and whatever way is equally as paramount. Try swimming one length in the pool breathing every third stroke, then one breathing to the right, and one to the left. Make sure you’re fully exhaling in the water, so you’re ready to inhale as soon as it’s time to breathe. This will help prevent shortness of breath and maintain regular breathing in the open water. And – try not to think about what’s underneath you. Focus on the finish line.
Trying on the wetsuit for the first time was borderline one of the funniest and most frustrating half an hours of my life. So I’d recommend not trying on a wetsuit when you’ve just finished leg day in the gym. But it was the first time I’ve actually considered transition times. I cannot be lying on my back like a beetle in the post-swim chaos, trying in vain to peel off my wetsuit. So this definitely needs some time and attention. Honestly, it’s like a workout in itself. So, just when I was starting to feel confident about the swim, turns out there’s still an awful lot to practice. Hopefully these top three lessons learnt will help you feel better prepared for your first time in the open water!