Take it Outside

16th September 2015

The H2Open introduction to the where, what, when, how and why of open water swimming.

The ‘who’ is you. Discovering secret beaches, splashing around hidden waterfalls, paddling moonlit rivers… swimming outside has truly caught people’s imagination over the past couple of years. Books and programmes on wild swimming, celebrity Channel crossings and the emergence of mass participation swim events, such as the Hampton Court Swim, are showing us that swimming outside is fun, challenging and healthy.

Open water swimming is nothing new, of course. The ancient Japanese, Romans and medieval knights all enjoyed competitive races in rivers and lakes. In modern times, the vogue was reinvigorated by Lord Byron, who swam several miles from Europe to Asia at the Hellespont (no w known as the Dardanelles) in 1810. At the end of the 19th century, the swimming races of the first modern Olympics were held in open water.

According to the River and Lake Swimming Association (RALSA), outdoor swimming was “a very popular leisure activity in the 1920s and 1930s”, giving rise to many still-existent swimming clubs. No doubt, people have been swimming, relaxing, cooling down or showing off in open water ever since our species evolved, if not before.

Sadly, however, in the last generation or two, overzealous health and safety types have managed to convince many of us that open water is dirty and dangerous and that we should all go and swim in nice, safe, supervised, sterile indoor pools.

We’ve got nothing against swimming pools. They are fantastic places to learn to swim, train under consistent conditions and keep warm. Top open water swimmers such as David Davies and Keri-Anne Payne do almost all of their training in indoor pools. The only problem with pools is that their very fit-for-purpose existence leads us to blindly accept they are the only places to swim.

So much so that many are scared to ‘take it outside’, worried about health and safety, or water quality. Thankfully organisations such as RALSA and Outdoor Swimming Society are doing a superb job of changing people’s attitudes (see below).

Take it Outside2

Getting started

The first step is to decide why you want to swim outside. Do you want to relax in a scenic location, seek the buzz that comes from immersion in cold water, take on a long-distance challenge or compete in a mass-participation open water swimming event? Maybe you even want to do all four? There’s no one, ‘right’ way to enjoy open water. Whichever strand you pursue, you will find plenty of like-minded souls.

The number of race events is growing each year. In the UK the main racing season runs from about May to September, although, for the brave (or foolhardy), there are cold water events at other times. Wetsuits are compulsory at some events, optional at others and sometimes forbidden (especially for events run under the rules of the British Long Distance Swimming Association (BLDSA)), so you need to check what type of event you’re entering.

These may book up months in advance. The BLDSA says the popularity of its events is growing every year and their 5.25mi July crossing of Lake Coniston filled up by the end of March. Their advice: “enter early”.

Race distances for events range from 200m up to 88km, but international competition races tend to be centred around 5km, 10km and 25km. Newcomers to the sport will usually aim to complete their first open water mile, or 1.5km. Alternatively, for a long-distance solo challenge, the Channel remains ever popular for both individual and team attempts, despite French coastguards’ attempts to stop it. It is, of course, not the only long-distance swim challenge around. Wherever there are straits, long rivers or major lake systems, you’ll find swim-nuts attempting to cross them.

Whatever distance you decide on, it’s important to bear in mind four things, according to the BLDSA: ability to swim the required distance, ability to withstand the cold for the requisite time, appreciation of general conditions, ability to maintain a good pace throughout the swim. It’s vital to realise that, outside the confines of a pool, conditions will generally be colder, visibility poorer, and there will be no walls or floor to rest on. That said, finding somewhere to swim outside is becoming easier all the time. Have a look at the listings on our website for organised training venues – places with accurately measured distances, lifeguard cover, possibly changing and eating facilities – but be aware many of these are only open during the summer and at specified times. For wild, unsupervised and other locations, we recommend OSS and RALSA, both of which have maps and listings on their websites.

First strokes

Open water swimmers are a fantastically diverse bunch. Some are content to take an occasional dip at a local beauty spot on a hot day. Others seek progression by swimming faster, further, in more remote locations or in colder water.

If you are new to the sport, confidence may be an issue. You might not know how you’ll cope with the water temperature, or how you’ll react when your foot brushes against an unknown hidden object or sinks into the mud. Will it bother you not being able to see under the water or not having a wall to hang onto every 25m or so?

You don’t need to swim the Channel on your first open water outing. Perhaps start by swimming at a lido. Some – such as Hampton Pool in Middlesex or London Fields Lido – are heated all year round so there’s no need to worry about the cold. As your confidence grows, you can seek out wilder places.

Swimming faster and further will require improvements in fitness and technique, something you can work on either in a pool or outside. You might also want to consider joining a swimming or triathlon club. Many swimming clubs have sections for adults (masters) and juniors.

Swimming a couple of times per week with other swimmers in a club can be a great boost to your fitness and enjoyment of the sport. Even if you’ve no intention of competing or undertaking a swimming challenge, consider improving your swimming technique anyway, for the sheer pleasure of slipping more gracefully through the water.

Get kitted out

A great thing about swimming is that it can be done with relatively little kit compared to many other sports. You can, if you’re discreet, swim without any kit whatsoever, although we’d recommend wearing at least a swimming costume. A good pair of goggles will protect y our eyes and reduce the chances of eye infections. Goggles are also useful for pool-based training. Next on the list should be a swimming cap, as these definitely help k eep you warmer. Some people wear two.

You might then add flip flops for walking across gravelly beaches and, for afterwards, a large towel, a thick sweater and flask with a hot drink. Failing to warm up after a swim can really ruin your day.

For pool-based training, there are some additional tools that can help you improve your times and performance, including kick-boards, pull-buoys, paddles and fins.

Finally, do you want or need a wetsuit? There is a school of thought that says ‘wetsuits are for wimps’. We don’t subscribe to it. The development of swim-specific wetsuits coming out of triathlon has opened up open water to thousands of people who would never have tried it before. For the converted, swimming in a wetsuit is a joy. You stay warm, you float better and swim faster.

That’s not to say that those who find them an unwelcome encumbrance are wrong. Some open water swimmers believe wetsuits destroy the sensual pleasure of skin against cold water. Moreover, the additional buoyancy messes up your swimming and anyone who wears one is a cheat as well as a wimp. This is an extreme attitude, however, and the sport has plenty of room for those in both camps – many races will have separate entry categories and scoring for wetsuitted/nonwetsuitted competitors.

Unlike cyclists (or skiers or windsurfers, etc), swimmers are often reluctant to shell out on kit. And yes, compared to a pair of trunks, a wetsuit looks expensive. Still, you can pick up an entry-level swimming wetsuit for a little over £100, you can hire them for a season for around £50 and even a top-of-therange model will rarely exceed £600. Now ask your cycling friends what they spent on their last bike.

We don’t see this as a debate that needs to become heated. Why not use a wetsuit when you want to stay in the water a little longer or for a race that allows or requires them? The following weekend you might try a non-wetsuit race, or perhaps you fancy a quick refreshing skinny dip in the sea.

No one’s going to tell you what to do. And that’s the beauty of it, and why so many people are now catching on to our wonderful sport. Wetsuit, or not; lake, river or lido; channel swim or a paddling in a pond: in open water swimming you really can have it all.

For more information on starting out in open water, check out these websites…