How do you prepare for open-water swimming?

Open-water swimming is good for your triathlon fitness, your state of mind and your soul. James Witts explains how to safely make the most of every different body of water now the current restrictions have been lifted in England

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Research from Sport England calculates that 4.1 million of us swam in lakes, lochs, rivers and seas between November 2017 and 2018. And you can see why. “There’s no substitute to seeing the sky and nature around you when you swim, whatever the season,” Lou reasons. “Swimming throughout the year in cold water has the added benefit of relieving aches and pains. But you also enjoy a rush of adrenaline that lifts your mood. I feel like I’ve really achieved something.”

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That lifting of mood is actually down to dopamine, which stimulates a feeling of euphoria and excitement. Studies show that you enjoy a greater surge of the happy hormone when exercising outdoors compared to indoors – even more so when swimming in cold water. In fact, research published in the British Medical Journal recommends open-water swimming as a treatment for major depressive disorders.

Swimming outdoors is saturated with physiological benefits too, including improving speed, stamina and strength. It also fires up your metabolism to burn more calories, with cooler swims bolstering your immune system as well by increasing white blood-cell count.

Read on as we prepare you for the world of open-water swimming, now lockdown restrictions have eased in England.

Where can you go open water swimming?

In short, open-water swimming is the best and cheapest medicine around. But, you may ask, how accessible is that medicine? In other words, what are the rules around open-water swimming in the UK? In Scotland, similar to ramblers’ right to roam, swimmers have a right to swim in open spaces. However, the law in England and Wales, says the Outdoor Swimming Society, is less clear.

The headline access facts are: it’s legal to swim in any navigable waters, which means waters that are open to boats; if you walk across private land to a public body of water, it’s trespassing; reservoirs are privately owned, but in England there’s a duty
of care on the owners to provide access for recreational use (though this doesn’t usually include swimmers); and land owners either side of the river officially own half the riverbed, but they don’t own the water, so it can be assumed that you have access to the water.

This is all well and good, but is water quality of a standard that you’d want to take the plunge? The Environment Agency (EA), which monitors all our rivers, streams and lakes at 7,000 locations, has a neat water-quality map on their website where you can tap in the name of a body of water and it’ll give a six-tier rating that peaks with 1 or A, which is very good. They test for chemistry, biology, phosphates and nitrates. If, for example, the biological or chemical rating is D, E or F, you shouldn’t swim.

The growth of open-water swimming has seen concerted pressure applied on the government to clean up our rivers, including tackling the legal discharge of untreated sewage into our waterways. As just 14% of British rivers are rated as ‘good’ under the EU water framework directive, it’s a call that’s receiving increasing support. Campaigners in Ilkley, for example, have applied for the River Wharfe to be granted bathing status, which would force Yorkshire Water and the EA to raise standards. Campaign group London Waterkeeper are seeking similar improvements on sections of the Thames.

How to acclimatise to the colder temperatures

Open water won’t always be welcoming temperature-wise. The average sea temperature in the British Isles ranges between 6-10°C in the winter to 15-20°C in the summer. As you’d expect, in general, it’s colder up north, but wherever you aim to swim acclimatisation to the water temperature is crucial, as it reduces shock, which can in turn lead to panic.

“Start by splashing your face,” advises Dean Jackson, founder of Huub wetsuits, “then step into the shallow water and dip your hands in too. This gives the body clues as to what’s coming. If it’s really cold, you should also wear
a neoprene cap and gloves.”

The extremities are a great driver of how hot or cold you feel. You can also try six 3min immersions (but not including the head), as this is another proven method to not only dull the shock in the short term but the long term too, with research suggesting that 50% of these dulled responses persist for up to 14 months. Or follow the advice of Ross Edgley, who swam around Great Britain in 2018. Edgley is a proponent of cold showers, starting with 30secs and increasing to 1min. From there, he advises progressing to a cold bath. Also focus on deep, calm breathing.

How to stay safe when open water swimming

While these techniques are particularly relevant during the cooler off-season and into late April and early May, there are further safety issues at play all year round. Sadly, open-water deaths annually capture summer headlines, meaning safety remains prescient even for the most experienced of open-water swimmers. Over to Jo Lewis of coaching outfit Tri50.

“To start with, I’d recommend visiting a NOWCA-approved lake that has safety measures in place – namely lifeguards in kayaks, plus a band system for entry and exit into the water.” NOWCA is the National Open-Water Coaching Association. “Advise the lake staff that you’re a newcomer, and be colourful and visible in your choice of swim hat and tow float. The latter can double as a support float in the event of becoming distressed.”

Lewis also suggests always buddying up and even heading out with a BTF level-3 triathlon coach to assist with safety skills and drills. You should avoid swimming if feeling unwell; remove rings as hands shrink in cooler temperatures; and, if you rely on contact lenses, take a spare pair to every open-water swim.
“It’s also good practice to change lenses after each session to avoid eye infections,” Lewis adds.“And ensure you buy a correct-fitting wetsuit to keep you warmer.” 

If you’re aiming for a triathlon make sure you adapt to the water conditions before race day

The more time you spend in open water, the more prepared you’ll be come race day, especially if you make it specific. “If your race-day swim is in a lake, don’t spend all your time in the sea, and vice versa,” says Dean Jackson from Huub. “Putting your head into the dark reservoir waters of the UK is very different to the crystal-clear waters of Mallorca.”

It’s a point picked up on by Chess Ridgard of National Open-Water Coaching Association. “Water type is frequently overlooked when training for the swim section of triathlon,” she says. “Waves, surface wind, water density and temperature are influencing factors that a swimming pool simply can’t mimic. Take the wind, for instance. It’ll whip up the water, which
is already turbulent if you’re in the sea. Then you have the chop from other competitors. They all contribute to knocking you and your stroke off course. In this instance, entering your hands slightly wider ahead of you will provide better balance. Focusing on the hand entry to the water being straight not twisted – keeping the palm wide and fingers relaxed – will assist with keeping a straight line.”

Back to Jackson: “Open water isn’t so much about distance, but about your ability to adapt to the swimming environment. You can train in a pool and get swim-fit and swim-ready, but that doesn’t mean your sighting and adaptation to the cold will be good. So practise all open-water elements as much as you can – ideally once a week.”

The minutiae of specific skills would stretch to its own feature, but as a useful snapshot, Jo Lewis recommends the following open-water drills, which can be easily undertaken in a pool. “Practise breathing unilaterally [one side only] to prepare for the cooler temperatures as oxygen uptake will be more frequent. And try swimming further than 1km without touching the end of the pool. It’s also beneficial to swim front-crawl in the close proximity of others to get used to the splash and bash that, if you’re ill-prepared, can knock your stroke and confidence.

“Being able to swim without goggles is a useful technique to practise too,” Lewis adds. “After all, it’s not uncommon for a fellow competitor to unintentionally knock off your optics. And finally,
if the club or leisure centre allows it, swim in your wetsuit. It takes around five swims to fully acclimatise to the feeling of neoprene, so this is a worthwhile exercise.” 

How to fuel your open water swimming sessions

Like the majority of triathlon sessions, open-water benefits are maximised when fully fuelled. “That’s why you should time your last meal at least 90 minutes before an open-water swim,” confirms Mark Price of Zone3 wetsuits. “You want to reserve your body’s blood supply for the muscles, not for digesting food, plus you’ll experience stomach discomfort if you enter the water too soon.”

Price recommends almond butter on toast and a banana as it’s easy to digest while delivering a mix of slow- and fast-digesting carbs. A small bowl of porridge with honey and a teaspoon of coconut oil follows a similar nutritional profile. If you’re embarking on a long swim, it’s beneficial to top up with a gel just before. This is particularly important for beginners whose bodies might be less adaptable at utilising fat for fuel and so rely more on sugars.

“As for post-swim,” says Price, “your body is crying out for protein to facilitate muscle recovery, so pack a protein shake with dairy-free milk  – a lower fat option as fat slows down protein metabolism. Drink this 20 minutes after swimming.When you get home, a protein source, like white fish or chicken with some rice or quinoa and veg, will do the trick.”

Open-water swimming is increasingly an all-year-round activity, delivering a huge number of physical and mental benefits. And performance, too, with regular outdoor swim sojourns of, ideally, at least once a week  essential to enjoying a PB-beating triathlon season. Just remember to swim safe, choose the right gear, fuel correctly and your technique will soon be transformed, ensuring you’ll morph into Amphitrite or Poseidon – of your household, at least…

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