Swimming in open water such as lakes, rivers and the sea is on the rise thanks to books like Roger Deakin’s influential Waterlog and the increasing popularity of ‘wild swimming’ events, like The Great Swim series. But open water swimming isn’t like swimming in a pool. There aren’t any black lines on the bottom of the lake to guide you to the end and the imagination can run wild thinking about what lies in the murky depths.
In reality though open water swimming needn’t be much more challenging than swimming in a pool. In fact it can even be easier if you are wearing a wetsuit as that will give you extra buoyancy. However, you do need to be aware of the dangers, particularly in dealing with the cold. Here we give our Top Tips for safer and more effective swimming in open water.
1. Swim with a friend – if possible
Even if you are super confident, it is always best to have someone with you. You never know what might happen. Heaven forbid you could have a medical emergency and need to be rescued.
If it’s not possible to swim with someone else and you are swimming in a lifeguarded bit of sea then inform the lifeguard that you are going in. He or she will normally ask you how far you are intending to swim and give you advice about what the tides are doing and the current water temperature. They will also keep an eye on you and come out to you if you get into trouble.
If you do plan to do a lot of swimming alone in open water then look to get a Swim Safe Buoy such as Kiefer’s Safer Swimmer (http://www.kiefer.com/kiefer-safer-swimmer-buoy-products-279.php). Costing around £40 this ties around your leg and will make you more visible when you are swimming. It will also act as a flotation device should you get into trouble.
2. Pick a known swimming area
Some places may look OK to swim in but in reality are not suitable – either because swimming is expressly forbidden, water quality is poor (ie too much algae) or because there are other hazards to watch out for (such as shipping).
But fear not. There are so many books and websites featuring open water swims that it’s really not difficult to find somewhere to swim even if you live in a city. A great place to start is the Outdoor Swimming Society’s Wild Swim interactive map (www.wildswim.com) which has information on all the places you can swim nearby.
You can also find out more general information about open water swimming on the Outdoor Swimming Society’s website (www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com).
3. Stay warm!
Undoubtedly one of the biggest problems of swimming in open water in Britain is the cold. Whereas an indoor pool is heated to around 27 degrees centigrade, you are lucky to get temperatures of more than 20-22 degrees centigrade swimming in lakes and rivers, even in summer. In the sea it’s even colder with The English Channel rarely rising above 18 degrees centigrade.
As it’s the extremities of the body that get most cold, you should wear multiple swimming caps and booties on your feet to keep warm. You should also buy a decent wetsuit to swim in temperatures of around 16 degrees or less – especially if you are planning a swim longer than 30 minutes or so.
Hypothermia can set in quickly in very cold water so it’s worth being aware of the main early symptoms including an ice cream headache (sometimes called brain freeze), shivering and a feeling of disorientation and dizziness when you try to get out of the water.
It’s also important to get acclimatised to the cold water gently to prevent hyperventilation when you get in. Sometimes the water can be so cold it literally takes your breath away but the body does get used to it!
4. Be visible
Unlike a pool environment where you are sharing with other swimmers, in open water you can find yourself sharing with other users including canoes, boats, jet skis and even ferries!
Obviously you should never swim in a shipping channel without a proper ‘pilot’ – this is something you would have for a Channel crossing (see http://www.channelswimmingassociation.com/). But sometimes it’s difficult to avoid some of the other hazards.
Jet skis are a particular menace to the open water swimmers as they are very quick and their drivers are unlikely to see you. And while wearing a bright cap isn’t going to save your life unfortunately, it might just provide a visible warning that you are in the area. It also alerts the rescue services as to your whereabouts if you get into trouble.
5. Keep an eye on changing conditions
Living in Britain we know how quickly the weather can change. If it’s just a little bit of rain then it’s probably not going to do you any harm, but always, always get out the water if thunder and lightning are nearby.
The chances of you getting struck by lightning remain very small, but you really don’t want to increase your chances (albeit very slightly) by swimming in an open body of water.
Likewise heavy wind can cause problems for open water swimmers, creating swells in the water which can reduce visibility and blow you off course. They can also be very scary.
Obviously, open water swimming isn’t without risks but the trick is to manage the risks as much as possible.
6. Buy decent goggles!
You wouldn’t climb a mountain in flip flops, so why would you go for a swim in open water without the right gear?
At the very least you should invest in a decent pair of goggles – mirrored goggles are best for swimming outdoors in the summer because they will reduce glare from the sun and the water.
You can also buy goggles with a photochromatic lens which get darker or lighter according to sunlight. Generally speaking wider, wrap-around style goggles offer better peripheral vision than narrower ‘racing’ goggles. It’s also important to ensure that the goggles don’t fog up to ensure optimum visibility at all times.
7. Learn to breathe to both sides
For head up breaststroke swimmers who like to look around this may not be so much of an issue. But if you swim front crawl you need to learn to breathe on both sides, known as bilateral breathing.
This will help you keep an eye on everything going on around you so you don’t swim off course. It’s particularly important if you are racing, but also during general open water swimming sessions.
8. Keep hydrated
Some people assume that you can’t dehydrated when you are swimming, but that isn’t the case at all. It’s important to drink plenty of fluids before setting off on an open water swimming session and if possible during the swim too.
This is particularly important if the weather is hot as even experienced open water swimmers have been taken to hospital because of dehydration during races in overly warm water.
9. Don’t panic!
Easier said than done perhaps, but people often panic needlessly in open water. Particularly common is people’s imaginations running away with them as they think about all the creatures there are below the water.
In reality, in the UK at least, there are very few creatures that will cause us any harm except perhaps jellyfish which are a risk in certain parts of the sea. Obviously wearing a wetsuit and keeping your hands, feet and head covered up as much as possible will help prevent stings as much as possible, but you may still get stung from time to time.
10. Practice makes perfect
Swimming in open water is generally more challenging than in a pool. You have far more to deal with including contending with cold and choppy water. Though it’s not possible to recreate the open water environment in your local pool, swimming in an unheated lido is good practice for dealing with the cold.
It’s also worth entering races such as The Great Swims (www.greatswim.org) which will give you the opportunity to practise open water swimming in a controlled environment where the wearing of wetsuits is compulsory. This will help build your confidence and stamina.
By shinychris | July 17th, 2014