It’s been a little while – training and life has been keeping me busy, but I have some spare time to share a new post with you all, having just come back from physiotherapy! This one is all about open water swimming. It’s worth a read if you are a seasoned open water swimmer, triathlete, just starting out, or really just fancy having a go! It’s a nice refresher for myself as well.
I think a lot of people have a little fear of the open water, and for several different reasons. “I’m not a good swimmer”, is a common one. This is something you will have to judge yourself a tiny bit. If you can hardly swim 10 metres (I’ve been there too), then you may need a little more practise in the pool. If you can happily swim 200 metres – it doesn’t matter how fast or slow, and not necessarily front crawl the whole way, i.e. you can breast stroke until the cows come home, then I would say you can brave the lake.
“It’s cold and dirty”, is one I hear a lot. Yes, the lake is colder than the swimming pool, and yes, fish, birds and other life forms swim in it. But, on a warm summer’s day, there is nothing more refreshing that jumping into the cool lake and enjoying a swim where you don’t have to avoid “that guy (or girl)” who has arms like an octopus and won’t move out of the way, or endlessly turning at the ends of the pool to look at more tiles, or swimming in what I have heard referred to as ‘human soup’! (Definition: where people have had a wee, snot-blasted, dribbled, shedded hair balls – true story – or any other human substances in a chlorinated body of water.) Also, most open water swimmers wear wetsuits, which are designed to keep your body warm, so no excuses!
Preparation. As I quickly mentioned just now, you may (probably will) want to wear a wetsuit. They keep you warm, and are quite buoyant, so they will help you float. Most lakes will also allow swimmers to go in without a wetsuit, although you might find you have to sign a ‘no-wetsuit waiver’. I recommend the wetsuit, and if you’re not sure, hire one to try it out. Generally, if you are feeling committed, it will work out cheaper to buy your own than keep renting one – remember, you don’t have to buy a top of the range one – but do go for a swimming one over a watersports one. They are more buoyant, and are built stretchier, to allow for full movement of your arms when you swim. Other than that, you will just need a brightly coloured swimming cap, so that the lifeguards can see you, which you can pick up for about £3 in Sports Direct, and a pair of goggles, which I hope you would have anyway! If not, try Sports Direct, or a similar shop again for a reasonably priced pair (£10?), and make sure you try them on to find the ones that fit your face the best. You don’t need to go out and buy some fancy, expensive open water swimming mask (generally the masks leak – I warned you, ok?).
Finding a lake. Google, ask around, contact your local triathlon club. More and more swimming lakes are popping up all over. DON’T go and find a random body of water and start swimming in it. There are plenty of safe, life-guarded lakes with courses marked out and lots of friendly people! If you are near me/Burnham, you have a choice of Bray Lake, Liquid Leisure in Datchet, Westhorpe Lake in Marlow, and Heron Lake in Wraysbury. All are great lakes, and I believe they all still only charge £5 a swim, which is cheaper than the local swimming pool! My favourite is Bray, because it’s local, and just such a lovely lake to swim in.
Getting help. Find a friend who is enthusiastic and a current open water swimmer, and ask them to go in with you, if you are worried. Another great way into the sport, is to take an introduction to open water swimming course. These are fantastic, as they run you through everything from putting your goggles on so that they don’t leak, to taking you round a small loop in the lake and making sure you don’t drown.
Sighting. If you skipped the introductory session, it may be worth noting one small point. In the swimming pool, it’s well-lit, and the water is clear, so you can see to the other end of the pool. The lake is a little bit different. The water is green-y and darker, so you won’t just be able to keep your head down and swim along – you will need to check where you are going. Open water swimmers use a technique called sighting, specifically for this purpose. During front crawl, just before you turn your head to the side to breathe, lift it slightly so that your goggles clear out of the water and take a peek – I imagine it like taking a quick photograph – then turn your head to the side to breathe as normal. It’s a quick glance, and you are looking for some big, brightly coloured buoys that mark out the course set out in the lake. If you’re still not sure, have a look on YouTube – there are some good videos that run you through the process.
Swimming. Now to get on with the bit you have all come for – the swim! Don your swim cap, your goggles and your wetsuit (unless you are brave!), remembering that the zip goes at the back – we have all been there once – and use the pads of your fingers to pull it up. Avoid getting your fingernails dug in, as this will tear the suit. Get in the water, and allow it to get into your wetsuit and trickle up the zip. It may feel a bit cold, but take a few moments to acclimatize, letting your body adjust to the temperature. I would recommend either washing your goggles about in the water, or for the less precious of us, spitting into them and giving them a quick wash out. This stops them from fogging up, so that when you need to see where you are going, you can. Your hands and neck should go in next, and when you are ready, dunk your head under. This will all help adjust to the temperature of the water. If you’re really cold, have a wee! I’m not joking – everyone does it, and it sure warms you up. To quote something I read recently, “there are two types of people in the world; those who wee in their wetsuits, and liars.”.
Then, don’t think too much about it – swim! If you aren’t feeling too confident, start out on the shortest loop. In some lakes, this may be 400m, and others it may be 150-250m. Don’t panic – if you need to stop swimming, simply stop. Treading water is easier than you think, your wetsuit will aid in keeping you afloat, and if you want to paddle around a bit you can. You can breast stroke if you are tired of front crawl, or you can just float on your belly or your back – just be careful waving your arms around if you are on your back, or staying like it for too long, because floating on your back with your arms in the air is actually the distress signal in open water. So, unless you need rescuing, keep your arms down!
Once you are finished and satisfied with your swim, get out, have a lovely warm shower, and bask in the glory of what you have achieved. Get a hot drink if you fancy one – most lakes have a little cafe on site – and plan when your next swim will be. Most of all, enjoy it!
Some of my favourite things about lake swimming:
Swimming continuously without having to stop and turn around, or avoid people
A sense of freedom, getting close to nature, and being outdoors
Enjoying a sunrise, or a sunset, if you get in early, or out late
Training with and around some wonderful people, who are all as enthusiastic and in love with the sport as each other
And, with risk of sounding a bit like a hippie, feeling alive!
Arguably, not everything is for everyone, but I think you should at least have a go or three at most things to see if they suit you. You never know, open water swimming may just be your thing. As a good friend of mine always says, “I think I’ll be really good at that, because I haven’t tried it yet.”.
Today marks the 6 month anniversary of when I started swimming again. This is a bit of a long story, but an important one in my triathlon journey. Let me paint a picture for you. This story starts the week before I ventured to the swimming pool. I had headed down the running track on a Tuesday night as normal with some members of my running club, Burnham Joggers, for a pace session. It was June, and I had been getting back into cycling for a couple of months now, along with the usual running activities. One of the women turned around to me and said, “I don’t know why you’re not into triathlon. You run and cycle everywhere. Why not add the swimming?”. At the time, I laughed it off. Then, after it stewed in my brain for a little while, I would soon sign up for my first triathlon. Okay, I waited until Wednesday afternoon. That’s quite a while for me! It was part of the Bananaman event at Dorney Lake on Saturday 9th July, where I would tackle the Banana Fritter distance: a 400m swim, followed by a 21km bike ride and a 5km run. I was all excited as I told the lads at work. “I just need to get a bit of training in at the swimming pool and have a go in the lake and I will be all set to go!” I had a quick chat with Andy in the workshop, who was giving me a few pointers on how to tidy up my technique, as I hadn’t been for a few years, but I had some swimming certificates at home, so confidence was high. Andy had swum for Slough county in his youth, and was rather pacy, I gathered. I checked the opening hours for the local leisure centre pool and decided Friday 10th June at 6am would be the time to go.
Fast forward to Friday morning. Andy has been to the gym with one of the other lads and I have been to the swimming pool. We both parked our cars on the side of the road and were walking into work together (a good 10 minutes away). “How did you get on swimming?”, they inquired. I had on what was later described as The Sad Face, as I relayed my swimming antics of the morning. I had rocked up, full of confidence and excitement at getting back in the water, something I probably hadn’t done since I was a good few years younger. We had discussed front crawl was the only option for a triathlon really, so I got in, deployed my goggles and went for the first length in the slow lane, which luckily for me was quite empty! To say it was a car crash would be putting it lightly. Nothing was in sync, I couldn’t breathe properly, and I was splashing everywhere expecting the lifeguard to jump in any second now. Thankfully for my dignity, he didn’t the whole time I was in there, but it must have been a close call. I settled for about 40 determined minutes of splashing about with my head held out of the water (because I couldn’t master that breathing thing), arms flailing and legs kicking violently, mixed with a bit of terribly formed breast stroke before I decided enough was enough and I headed for a shower. “I thought you had swimming certificates?”, asked the lads. It later transpired that the only ones I could find at home awarded me for being able to “move 5m” (not necessarily swim), and get in and out of the water safely, although I still maintain I got further than that!
It was discussed in work at length, and decided that Andy would come with me on Monday to see if he could help the situation. He had also not been swimming for a few years. We turned up at the Magnet leisure centre on Monday morning to find out the club were using it for another hour (my bad) and headed off to Montem in Slough, which opened at 6:30 – Andy’s old training pool. They have a 25m pool there and a short shallow pool next to it (0.8m deep I think?) that you can swim 10m widths of. We opted for that part of the pool for 30 minutes. Andy asked me to swim the width of the pool to ‘see how bad it was’. I have to admire his restraint to not put me down and tell me that the 4 weeks I had to train for this triathlon I had signed up for was probably not enough. “That wasn’t really a stroke at all. That was kind of standing, waving your arms about. Once the body has gone past 45 degrees, I call that walking. I wasn’t sure about 400 metres – 10 metres was a struggle”, he told me much later on (after I had reached my goal). He advised me that because I was holding my head out of the water, it was pulling my feet down – in that shallow pool they were touching the bottom – which was causing drag. Also, you will use more energy with your head out of the water, as everything is working against you to be streamlined. I said the problem was mostly breathing properly with my face in the water, so we practiced on the side of the pool, holding on to the side, face down, breathing and turning my head. A couple of awful goes at swimming the width again and we had to leave to go to work.
I didn’t stop there, though. I usually go to my best friend’s family home on Monday evenings, and still planned to do so even if she wasn’t there herself. I emailed her mum and asked if she would like to go swimming at their local leisure centre in Chalfont. She agreed and I went with her that night, determined to have another go. We had a one hour window before the swimming club took over and I set about practicing swimming up and down the lanes slowly, fixated on getting the breathing right. Andy’s advise was not to worry too much about the technique until I could suss out the breathing. That hour was a mix of trying to front crawl and some attempts at just breathing underwater doing the breast stroke until I felt more comfortable. Confidence had taken a knock and I wasn’t feeling that great about the distance yet. I tried again a couple more times that week, trying to build up more and more confidence with it. I had to get it right, as I had been talking to Nigel at the running club (a lot of people were involved in helping and supporting me and I will be eternally grateful), who had signed up for a triathlon that was the week before mine and I knew he had been in the lake a couple of times. He advised me it would be best to book in with Bray Lake (local to me) and get onto a Novice Introduction to Open Water Swimming course. They walk you through all the basics and then you will be free to swim in the lake at your leisure after their guidance. I looked on their website and the only planned session for the near future was for Tuesday 14th June – 4 days after my attempted drowning. I saw only one choice – I signed up.
I went swimming again the next Monday evening in Chalfont – the day before the lake session was planned. I had to get it right. Suddenly something clicked and I was managing 4 lengths of a 25m pool breathing (almost) properly without stopping. I was so happy and couldn’t wait to tell Andy!
Tuesday night was time for the lake and I was very excited but a little nervous; as you could probably tell I was not a great swimmer. I was handed a wetsuit that I had hired and I was taught how to put it on properly before heading to get changed into it. WOW. My arms were tired after putting it on; I wasn’t sure I would have the energy to swim! There were 4 of us in the group and they walked us through absolutely everything: how to put your goggles on properly – you don’t want lake water leaking in those, trust me – putting your hat on, wetsuit rules…. everything. After what seemed like a very brief talk, they lead us into the water and soon enough, we were swimming what seemed a very long way to the first marker of the shortest loop of the lake (200m). I never thought I would be able to do it. Some old habits (4 days old!) emerged, head out of the water a bit, which was picked up by the fantastic instructors, who did their best to correct it. I must say though, they had introduced something called sighting, which allows you to check where you are going every 7-10 strokes by lifting your eyes up slightly before going for a breath to the side as normal. However, this meant that I had something new and complicated to figure out. That would take some work.
I made it to the first buoy and they had us treading water. The water was kind of green and a bit murky, but you could see your feet if you put your face in and looked down. We were shown how easy it was to float on our backs and what to do if we get into trouble (the standard float on your back and put an arm in the air), then they set us off to the next buoy. I struggled onwards but persevered and made it. Both those stretches were probably about 50m each, maybe less. Then it was time to catch your breath and when you were ready, swim back the 100m or so to the start. My chest was tight and I wasn’t sure I could breathe right. The female instructor stayed with me, kept an eye on me the whole way back to the pontoon, and she explained that it may be just getting used to the tight feeling of the wetsuit around my chest and the cold water.
I made it back and placed my feet on the bottom of the shallower part of the lake where you could stand up. We were offered to try to swim the 200m loop again, or we could leave it there if we wanted. I decided, not wanting to admit defeat, that I would follow some of the others round. I swam (if you could call it that) around the loop and eventually made it back, realising that it was going to be a lot harder than I realised to sort this “little 400m swim” out. I had noted it was harder to continuously swim without having the luxury of turning at a wall, as well. I would not get back in the lake for over a week.
The day the swimming really clicked was on Friday 17th June. I had been swimming for a whole week now! I sent my boyfriend a text, exclaiming “Swimming went so well this morning!!! Buzzing!” and informed him I had been doing sets of 100m with Andy, covering over a kilometre in one hour. I was struggling to complete 100m in under 2 minutes, but I had to admit that it was a big improvement on a week earlier. Andy had encouraged me that when I hit my 400m goal, I would receive a medal. I couldn’t wait! On 20th June I swam 150m in one go and covered 1250m or so. On Wednesday 22nd June, I went swimming in the evening and met a really friendly man who gave me some tips about triathlon swimming and even showed me this thing called drafting (where you swim close behind another swimmer to save energy and gain speed) and let me practice with him for a bit! I was so pleased and had been in the pool for about 90 minutes.
On 24th, I had cracked 200m. I felt like I was flying! The pace had been picking up – Andy had been incredible at pushing me and the distance – and I had been covering more and more each time. On Tuesday 28th June, I swam 300m in one go TWICE and completed 50m in 55 seconds! Meanwhile, I had been trying to order a wetsuit for the triathlon in less than 2 weeks time. I needed one to practice with in the open water and I had ordered one from Wiggle. (A small calculation worked out that if I did 8 sessions in a wetsuit hired out at £20 a go, I may as well have just bought one anyway.) I was desperate to get in the lake again and unfortunately, they managed to send me a size small, instead of large. (This was rectified very quickly, I must add – well done Wiggle!) I was raging, but headed off to Bray lake as the triathlon was fast approaching and spent £20 on wetsuit hire. (I wasn’t best pleased at this, as I had just forked out £165 on a wetsuit, but needs must.) I had another splash round the lake, struggling still around the 200m loop, feeling a little uninspired about the distance.
I kept going and going, pushing in the pool twice a week and then in the lake for another two rounds per week. Nothing was going to stop me. I had picked up a second-hand Garmin Forerunner 310XT from someone at the running club, which has the ability to track swimming, as well as triathlon, so I was using this in the open water and getting used to that too. On Tuesday 5th July – my boyfriend’s birthday – I went swimming in the pool early as normal, before we headed off to Brighton for the day to celebrate. That was the morning, 4 days before I was set to attempt a triathlon, that I managed 400m in 9 minutes and 30 seconds. I couldn’t believe it, I was at my goal! I was awarded a wonderful medal from Andy’s collection, which I treasure on my medal hanger. I had one more go in the lake that Thursday, where I was pushing round the 400m loop a couple of times (with breaks in between, naturally) and a swim on the Friday morning in the pool pushing out some more 400m stints. Saturday’s race was looming.
It was race day. One thing I hadn’t considered was that when I had been swimming in the pool, or the lake, I had been swimming pretty much alone. Now I was getting into the water with 80-100 other people, who would all be fighting for the same bit of water. We were given strange, thin coloured caps for the event, which made me feel a little bit uncomfortable, as I had only been using my trusty, thick silicone cap. I donned the thin pink cap and gathered with the others in the swim pen. We waited for the previous wave of swimmers to clear the area whilst we had a quick briefing. People in canoes or kayaks (I don’t claim to know the difference) lined the course to help anyone who got stuck. We all gathered in the water and after a minute, the klaxon sounded and it was time to start. Water was splashing everywhere, arms and legs flailing and clouting everyone, and for the first 100m, I panicked. I splashed about and until all the other swimmers had pretty much cleared away from me, and then I managed to settle into a swim and struggle round. My cap came off halfway round the course and I had to power on with my hair in my face but I made it and exited the water in 11 minutes. Slower than my efforts in the pool and my goal time of 10 minutes, but I was pleased to have survived and was ready to conquer the frankly easier parts of the triathlon.
6 months on, I am still not giving up. Since then, I have completed a team relay triathlon (at Dorney Lake again), where everyone completes all parts but in a relay fashion i.e. everyone swims in your team, then everyone cycles, then everyone runs. I have also completed a sprint distance triathlon at Thorpe Park. Needless to say, although I am still coming to terms with mass swim starts, the swims in those have gone a lot better. Even better than that, my times have been improving over lots of distances with the help and encouragement of Andy’s training twice a week. I have brought my 50m down to 48 seconds at last count, 100m at 1:41, 200m at 3:35, and 400m at 7:32. We are yet to try out a 750m flat-out, with the pool being too busy at the moment.
Don’t get me wrong, these sessions don’t come without obstacles! In mid-September, we turned up at the pool as normal, half-asleep, hoping the morning’s training session will wake us up. There had been a storm the night before, which had probably added to the sleepiness. Andy, very quick off the mark, glanced into the pool from the windows on the outside and said, “who’s stolen the water out of the pool?”. I asked him what he meant, as I gazed in myself and understood where he was coming from. The lane dividers had dropped down, and after a few moments, I realised that was because, as Andy had pointed out, the swimming pool was half full. We walked into the centre, expecting someone to say something, but they waved us through with our membership cards like nothing was wrong. No one said anything when we were in the changing rooms, although there were some confused looking swimmers; neither did the lifeguards as a few ‘brave’ ones edged towards the waters’ edge. After looking around and laughing, we thought we were up, so we may as well give it a go! The water barely reached the top of my thighs in the shallow end (at 5’5″, I’m not what you would describe ‘tall’), but after an exchanged what-the-hell look, Andy headed off swimming in front of me. I followed him to the other end of the pool, which was a bit odd, as you were almost touching the floor. Problems arose at the other end, where you wanted to touch the side and turn around, but it was now a few feet above you and was a long way away – we coped and swam back to the other end. When we got there, Andy must have realised that now he was swimming, the water was so shallow at that end, that he couldn’t get his legs under his body any more to turn around. This resulted in him crawling around the bottom of the pool to turn around before going back. At this unexpected turn, whilst still front-crawling towards him, face in the water, I laughed… with my face in the water. Luckily it was fairly impossible to drown in such little water, and I made the turn to meet a standing Andy in the not-so-deep end, commenting on my red face, where I had been laughing underwater. It was an interesting session to say the least.
Roll on the next few months of winter training. I am looking forward to next season and can’t wait to get back in the lake next year when it is a little less chilly! Finally, a ginormous never-ending thank you to Andy. Without your training, hard work and committment, I wouldn’t be where I am now.