Open-water swimming is often the most daunting part of a triathlon, especially for newcomers. With cold water, tight wetsuits and murky lakes to contend with, it's not surprising first-timers, not to mention more experienced athletes, can become panic-stricken in the water come race day.
However, by regularly putting into practice the advice in our open-water series (207-209), and using the excellent open-water swim coaching and facilities in the UK, there's no reason why even the most nervous of swimmers can't overcome their fears.
Almost all of the coached sessions are modestly priced and professionally run, so your wallet won't be hit hard on your quest to becoming a proficient open-water swimmer.
Safety first at Heron Lake
Heron Lake, in Wraysbury, Middlesex, is typical of the many venues offering open-water swimming and coaching facilities. It's open from late April to September and provides swimmers from all over the south east with showers and changing facilities, a café, children's play area and the option of nearby budget accommodation.
There are also 10 turbo trainers for anyone wishing to do a swim-bike brick session, along with plenty of space for practising swim exits and transitions. It's open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 6am until 9am.
220 dropped in on one such session to see what you can expect to find. Martyn Edwards, Managing Director of SBR, and his staff ensure everything at the Heron Lake sessions runs to plan.
"Safety is paramount," he says, "andwe've made it physically impossible for swimmers to enter the water without signing in first. They also have to sign a waiver disclaimer form.
"Those swimming at the lake for the first time are briefed on rules and regulations, and it's recommended they follow the shorter 400m lap rather than the longer 900m one. There are always at least two kayaks on the water and, at busy times, a speed boat, too."
Once signed in, all swimmers are free to take the plunge and follow their own session, but are always asked to 'buddy up', as no one is allowed to swim alone. Checks are made of the lake at the end of each session and swimmers aren't allowed in after 8.45am.
A member of staff can accompany swimmers into the water on their first visit or if they're particularly nervous, and it's advised that they join in with coached sessions, regularly taken by Rick Kiddle.
Kiddle, an experienced coach and former elite triathlete (and occasional 220 contributor), runs three different levels of sessions at Heron Lake. Level-one sessions are aimed at anyone who has never swum in open water before or for those (fast or slower) swimmers with a fear of open water. Level-two sessions are for swimmers who have raced in open water and are after further coaching.
It was one of these sessions that 220 followed...
The session lasts about 90mins, and begins with some basic theory on topics such as choosing a wetsuit, transition, breathing, sighting, drafting and turning. Swimmers are paired up according to ability, which is assessed from a competency form filled out beforehand, and do some loosening-up exercises prior to entering the water.
First of all it's back to basics. Once you're in the water, and before any swimming begins, Kiddle encourages everyone (while standing or treading water) to do some simple breathing practice (in through the nose, out through the mouth). This helps to calm even the most nervous of athletes.
Then it's time to put some of the theory into practice. Under Kiddle's watchful eye, the group swims around the 400m lap, working their way through essential open-water skills: breathing every two strokes, sighting, drafting and turning. Once confident, swimmers move on to a swim-sighting test (swimming between two buoys), pack swimming and then a 100-400m time trial depending on the swimmer's ability.
The session concludes with transition training where each swimmer exits the water and is watched by Kiddle as they wrestle their way out of their wetsuit. The total distance covered during the level-two session is about 1km, with swimmers free to stay in the water and lengthen the session if they wish to before practising transition.
Level-three sessions include mass start practice, race-simulation training, a 350m time trial including swim exit, and further transition training that includes mounting bikes.
All the swimmers at the session were working towards sprint and Olympic-distance races. Most of the subjects had problems in previous open-water swim sessions where they'd panicked.
But they're open to all; in fact, the beauty of sessions like these is that they cater for athletes going for their 10th Ironman finish to intrepid first-timers unsure whether getting in 15ºC water is really for them.
Despite being a swimming teacher, 35-year-old Sharon Maisey says the weakest part of her triathlon is her swimming. As such she ensures she visits Heron Lake once a week to get in what she views as essential open-water swimming practice. She's currently training for Ironman UK, which will be her first long-distance tri.
“I come down here every weekend, usually on Saturdays," she says, "because if you're going to race in open water, you need to train in open water. Swimming is my weakness in triathlon, so I have to spend a lot of time working on it. I find swimming in a wetsuit in open water and swimming in a pool completely different. You just don't know what it's like until you've done it.”
A typical session for Sharon is two laps (about 2km) at a steady pace, recording the time for each, with either a bike, run or both afterwards.
Nicola Wraight was one of the first-timers attending Kiddle's level-two session. The 27-year-old from Essex works full-time as an accountant and has recently taken up aquathlons with a view to doing her first triathlon next year.
“This is my first time swimming in open water and I'm keen to get a lot of practice in because it's obviously very different to swimming in a pool,” she says. “It's a lot more fun, though, because there are other things to think about such as sighting.
“I'm looking forward to getting some biking done so I can do an Olympic-distance triathlon next season. I'm a little apprehensive but I think, once I've been in the water a few times, I'll be fine.”
Training for endurance rather than speed was Julian Fairley from Bracknell, who was gearing up to race Ironman 70.3 UK a couple of weeks. He says he finds his sessions at Heron Lake invaluable. “Swimming in open water really helps my swimming. It gets me ready for races in a way pool swimming just can't. I think if you went into a race that involved an open-water swim having never done it before it could be quite daunting. The first time I jumped in here it was definitely a case of 'Whoa...!' but you get used to it.”
Julian works full-time as a team leader but still manages to fit in four swims a week, one of which is at the lake and is usually about 3km. Also putting in some longer-distance training was Sharkie Jaggard, an established age-grouper who races for Team SBR and this year is focusing on going long.
The 38-year-old's key races are the ITU European and World Long Distance, which both involve a 3km swim. He told us: “As I'm going longer this year, I want to practise open-water swimming a lot more, which I didn't always tend to do when I was racing Olympic distance.
"Personally, it's good to have one long, continuous swim session each week. I do about 4km each time. You don't tend to get bored doing it in a lake because there are more factors to think about.”
Sharkie's not wrong: there's plenty to think about in open water, and technical mistakes can cost you dear, causing you to tire more quickly and not get the most from your swim. Triathletes' three most common open-water errors are outlined below – along with tips on how to correct them...
Swimming with your head too high.
This causes your hips to drop, affecting body position in the water and prompting you to kick too aggressively in an attempt to elevate yourself. Many people do this because they're too tense or anxious about sighting or breathing. It'll affect energy levels and cause fatigue.
Techniques to help you relax in the water will help you avoid this common pitfall. Lowering your head by slowing the stroke down and practising shallower breathing is also beneficial. Remember: the water line should be just above your goggles and you should be looking forwards through the water at a downward angle of about 45°.
Shallow arm recovery
This can be caused by poor mobility and flexibility in the shoulder and possibly an ill-fitting, tight wetsuit.
To avoid this problem, practise high-elbow recovery drills in the pool and think about this while swimming in the lake. Your arm recovery needs to be higher, so practise changing your recovery arm position by bringing your arm over higher without such a bent elbow.
Kicking too much
Nervous swimmers often do this because they're panicking and think they need to kick a lot to swim fast. Plus, they might be used to kicking a lot in the pool.
To get your kick under control, learn to relax and trust in the fact that your wetsuit improves your buoyancy significantly, so there's no need to kick furiously. Use the buoyancy of the wetsuit to get into a horizontal position. Try just floating in your wetsuit and you'll be amazed at how buoyant you are.
The only time you need to increase your leg kick is during the last 20-30m of the swim before transition. Kicking harder here increases blood flow into your legs and will reduce dizziness as you stand up.
Take the plunge
Open-water swimming shouldn't be something you fear or loathe. With the right choice of venue, coaching and advice, it can easily become one of the most enjoyable parts of your multisport training.
Triathletes of all ages and abilities all say the same: if you want to race in open water, you need to train in open water. So, make sure you kit yourself out with a good-fitting wetsuit, hat and goggles; seek out a clean, safe venue and a qualified, experienced coach; and take the plunge at an open-water session soon. You won't regret it on race day when you're cool, calm and collected at the swim start
Emma-Kate Lidbury is a former national level swimmer and a GB age-group triathlete
Fortune favours the bold
One swimmer with few fears about getting into the water is 17-year-old James Sedgwick, who has taken on the world's best at Heron Lake – and won. He currently holds the one-lap record at the venue with a swift time of 10:15mins, a time he achieved when racing Tim Don.
"He's quicker than he looks on the TV," he joked. "But I still beat him – just. It was a good race." The college student, from Egham, Surrey, only took up triathlon 12 months ago after years spent swimming competitively.
"I only got into it really because my dad does it and it was a bit of a challenge to try to beat the old man. I was also working at SBR in Windsor as my Saturday job, so was surrounded by triathletes, and have done a lot of competitive swimming, so it just made sense to give it a go."
Sedgwick soon found it was a sport that came naturally to him and he'll be racing as a junior elite at The London Triathlon this August. He makes light work of the 1.5km swim in an Olympic-distance triathlon, typically getting out of the water in about 18mins.
"I come here every weekend and occasionally in the week, too. I don't swim as much as I should, doing about 10km in a typical week. I find open-water swimming much easier than swimming in a pool. It's a completely different world. In a lake you feel like you have far more freedom. I really enjoy it."