Open-water swimming is very different to pool swimming. For starters, there are no walls to grab on to and no floor to stand up on, and you are almost certain to be swimming in temperatures significantly lower than a swimming pool.
This means that there is a big psychological element to it, that doesn’t exist in the pool. Some of the best pool swimmers in the world, including Olympic champions, have tried and failed in the open water. I started in 2006 after being inspired by a fiction movie about a boatyard worker called Frank who swims the English Channel.
It took me on a journey to complete the toughest seven channel swims in the world, known as ‘The Oceans Seven’, a series of swims scattered across the globe. I have been saved by a pod of dolphins from a shark swimming across the Cook Strait, and stung by a Portuguese Man o’ War swimming across the Molokai Straits in Hawaii.
I have learnt so many lessons on the way: I remember completing my first 5hr non-stop swim in the pool and a week later having my first dip in open water to test my capabilities. It was winter in the UK and the water temperature was 9°C and I wasn’t wearing a proper wetsuit. I lasted 45mins before developing severe hypothermia, and for a short period of time I couldn’t even remember where I lived!
It was a huge lesson and it taught me to respect open water, and not underestimate it. Following this experience I knew I had to have regular small dips in cold water and build up the acclimatisation. The cold water can stiffen up your muscles, restricting your free flow movement.
However, these regular dips will get your body used to it. They will also make you more confident being in deep water without a pool floor or side for comfort. The best open-water swimmers are those who are completely comfortable in this environment. Relaxed mind, relaxed body!
Moving from pool to the surf? First of all make sure you have the right equipment. Find a comfortable wetsuit, it is important to have flexibility in the shoulders. Also, as 80% of heat is lost through your head, it is important to keep your head warm, so wear at least one swim hat (neoprene is the warmest). Ear plugs will also help with heat as they keep your inner ear warm, as well as stopping water going in.
You’ll need good visibility goggles. I used Zoggs Predator Flex Titanium as they are comfortable, don’t leak and have great clarity. Wearing an inflatable tow float for visibility is also a good idea. Not only can you store your belongings in the dry bag compartment, but if you need a rest, you can hold on to them and float.
Have some small dips to get your body used to the temperature difference of a pool. Each time you can add five more minutes until you get comfortable. It’s also a good idea swimming with a buddy in a controlled area close to shore, so if you get out of your depth you know you can stand up.
Once you feel comfortable in this environment, you will want to work on covering more distance and getting faster. The technique is crucial – you’re aiming to be efficient and maximise power with as little effort as possible.
The swim stroke I created – called the ‘Ocean Walker Technique’ – generates power using the core, not the chest, and takes pressure off the shoulders. I had two operations and was told not to swim again after the English Channel swim, and with this stroke I have broken records and now do 1,200 strokes fewer per hour! (Visit oceanwalkeruk.com). I realised the importance of being efficient.
In addition, write down some distance targets and gradually increase: it’s really important to have goals to work towards, and book some swim events to give you that added incentive.
You should be clear on your times to swim and your distance per week. You want each session to serve a purpose, whether that be to increase speed, work on technique etc. It is also important to add some gym strength training.
I used 25% of my time in the gym working on muscular endurance, doing chest, arm and back work using lighter weights and reps of 15-20 four sets of each. I also worked a lot on my core with sit-ups and plank work as my stroke all comes from the core.
Again, have clearly defined goals, whether that is to move from sprint distance triathlon to Olympic or even Ironman. Or it might be to do a PB. If you want to build your endurance, training wise I found pushing yourself at ¾ pace and having limited rest say 10secs rest between each 100/200 metres is the most effective way of increasing your muscular endurance. I also found factoring in at least one longer session per week for technique is also very important.
Key training drill
A typical session would be: 20 x 100m, 10 x 200m and/or ladder sets such as 50m, 100m, 200m, 300m, 400m, 500m, 500m, 400m, 300m, 200m, 100m, 50m were the most effective. I would then do six hours on Sat and Sun.
95% of what I did was front crawl with a backstroke for cool downs. For triathlons I recommend ideally doing 2.5km – 3km per session in the pool 2-3 times a week (depending on work/family commitments) and 1-2 sessions in open water for 30mins. For Ironmen you can increase this by another 1km in the pool and do an hour’s session in open water.
For more information on the ‘Ocean Walker’ stroke and inquire about swim camps and 1-1 coaching with Adam, click here.