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  • Writer's pictureIan Thornley

Taking the plunge into open water swimming?

As the lockdown starts to ease you may be looking to get back into some of the activities which have been unavailable for the last few months.

For many people swimming was an important and enjoyable part of their routine. It is a brilliant activity for mental health as well as physical fitness, however, with indoor pools and gyms still closed you may be looking at venturing into the wild with some open water swimming.

For me Open Water Swimming (OWS) is a wonderful form of exercise. I love being able to get outside, surrounded by nature and swim free from constraints or lanes and black lines, but it's always best to be prepared for your new sport. In this blog I'm going to address some common concerns and give some hints and tips when you are starting out.

First off it's quite normal to have some worries when starting something new. Here are some of the common worries I hear when talking to OWS newbies.

1) I don't look like a swimmer - I'm not sure I will fit in.

I can categorically say that I have never come across a more inclusive, accepting group of people than open water swimmers. You will see swimmers of all shapes and sizes and of all abilities as well - from the speed merchants to the leisure plodders who are out for a swim and a natter. All are accepted, and encouraged.

And guess what - unless you are all out for speed a little extra padding can help with insulation and staying a little bit warmer.

2) It's going to be too cold

I'm not going to lie - it's not going to feel like your 25C indoor leisure pool. Swimming outdoors leaves you open to the elements and the water temperature can vary. Typically if you are swimming in the sea you might expect a temperature of 16 or 17C in the middle of summer, in smaller bodies of inland water even up to 19 or 20C at the surface depending on the summer. But the temperature can be much less.

However, there are 2 main strategies to deal with the cold. Wet suits and acclimatisation.

Using a wet suit will help to keep you warm and give some extra buoyancy. They trap a thin layer of water between the suit and your skin, which your body then warms up. Making sure you have a correctly fitting wet suit is important - too loose and you don't trap the water, too tight and it can be a struggle to move! Wet suits are compulsory at some open water swim venues (most offer a hire service - check with your venue) but outside of that the use of a wet suit is a personal choice.

Acclimatisation is something you must do whether wearing a wet suit or not. In short it is getting your body used to existing and swimming in the cooler temperatures. The cold water will wick heat from you quickly, and the last thing you want is hypothermia, but you can train yourself to withstand these temperatures for long periods of time.

It's not difficult to do either - It's a case of being patient and spending gradually increasing time in the water. Your starting point will depend on the water temperature. 5 minutes may be enough if cold and then start to increase over time as you become more accustomed to the cold. There is no definitive way to do this - listen to your body and go at your pace.

3) What's it going to be like?

It's different to swimming in a pool. That's a given. But other than that your experience will differ depending on your venue.

Apart for the water temperature the most obvious think that is different is visibility. You will not always have clear water and certainly won't have a nice line on the bottom to follow. A new skill to learn is sighting - lifting your head to see where you are going - and until you master it you can expect to zig-zag a little. But don't worry - it's part of the fun and there's plenty of space!

If the water is clear you may see some wildlife down below you. If it isn't you may not be able to see your hands at the end of your outstretched arms. While that can be disconcerting at first you will soon get used to it.

You also need to be prepared to not be able to see or touch the bottom and I would suggest that you do need to be comfortable being out of your depth.

So what do you need to get started?

A birghtly coloured swim hat - it'll help keep your head warm and help others see you.

Always be visible.

A good pair of goggles - I would suggest having a pair with tinted lenses to reduce sun glare - it can get very bright when reflecting off the water. If you can afford a second pair then clear or very light tint lenses can be better in overcast conditions

Proper swimming trunks/jammers for the men and a proper costume for the women. Loose fitting shorts will not fit well under a wet suit if you are wearing one and will create a ton of drag if not, slowing you right down!

Wet suit - as said before it's a personal choice unless your venue insists on you wearing one. It is worthwhile investing in a swimming wet suit if you can - they provide the buoyancy and flexibility you need to swim properly. Surf style wet suits tend to be thicker and less flexible and I have seen patient who have come to me with shoulder problems after swim training in a surf wet suit. If you are not sure what you need many of the organised swim venues offer wetsuits for hire. It can be a great way to try a few out and find the right fit for you before you buy.

Ear plugs - not for everyone but the cold water can irritate the ears. A well fitting silicone earplug, tucked under the swim hat as well can help keep the cold water out.

Watch - a waterproof watch is a good idea to help you monitor the length of time you have spent in the water. If you want to splash out a bit more there are a number of watches which will track your swim metrics such as time, strokes and distance and even a GPS tracker to show you where you have been.

Post swim clothing - even on a warm day it is wise to have warm clothing to put on after your swim. You may come out quite cold and it is important to get dry and dressed quickly to retain your heat and warm up. The easier to put on the better - a big sweatshirt and loose fitting joggers are the order of the day here - along with a nice thick pair of socks and a woolly hat. You may not need it all but better to have it with you and not need it than not have it there at all.

Open water swimming is generally a safe sport but it is always worth considering the risks and doing what you can to stay safe. A few simple safty step are

- Swim at an organised venue - you will often get the benefit of lifeguards and sometimes kayakers out on the water looking out for the swimmers

- If you are swimming in a wetsuit for the first time build up your swim time and distance. Going too far too soon can take it's toll, on the shoulders in particular. If you find you are getting pain or discomfort give us a call at Ian Thornley Osteopathy and we can help you out.

- Get some coaching if you are not confident - learning new skills can be daunting - a couple of OWS specific coaching sessions can be a great help.

- Try not to swim alone - swim with a friend or with a friend keeping an eye on you from the shore of at all possible and always make sure someone knows where you are going.

- Use a swim buoy - these bright, inflatable buoys attach round your waist and have the dual benefit of improving your visibility to other water users and giving you something to hang on to should you need to rest/stop swimming.

- Finally - get to know and understand your body and your limits. Don't push too far too soon - allow yourself the time to adapt and most of all enjoy what is a brilliant sport to be involved with.

Ian is an osteopath and experienced open water swimmer.

P.s. - I almost forgot - SUNSCREEN - if it's exposed stick a high factor water resistant suncream on it - you won't want to come out of the water with a sunburn face or back!

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