Most people I speak to about my sport follow with something a long the lines of “I would love to do a triathlon, it’s just the swim I wouldn’t be able to do!” – this is a really common theme, especially in regards to getting outside and into some open water swimming.
The first time my Dad ever took me to the lake to try it (I should also add that he had even taken the liberty of buying me a lovely 2XU wetsuit), I got there, took one look at the lake and it’s little tiny fish, poked my big toe in to feel the temperature, and quickly decided it wasn’t for me. My triathlon career was over before it ever really began.
Okay so it wasn’t over – but it certainly felt like it that day. The second time I went I actually did swim!
Open water swimming is quite different to lengths in a pool, which is why people seem to worry about it so much. Realistically if you can swim in a pool there is absolutely no practical reason why you can’t in a lake, river or the sea – like most things in triathlon, it’s mind over matter!
First of all you need a wetsuit. Make sure it’s really, really snug but with minimal restriction around your shoulders. Vaseline (especially when racing) is also a VERY good idea. I like to Vaseline the back of my neck where the zip/Velcro is, around my wrists, ankles and under your armpits to stop chaffing and also to help you get it off.
My best tip would be to just get in the water. The biggest off put is the temperature, so just get in and get your head around that part. I hate to say this but it’s also a good idea to have a large pint of water before you go, and have a wee once you are in the water! Yeah that’s a really gross thing to say but you will really appreciate it if you live in the UK and are in 11-degree water!!
The cold can sometimes take your breath away and combined with the shock of being in a very open space with fish swimming around you it can really cause you to panic – which everyone knows is not good when swimming. Really focus on calming your breath. Don’t worry about bilateral breathing – just go with whatever feels most natural and is going to preserve energy!
Don’t worry about speed when you first start, fighting against the current can be a lot more tiring, and you wont have the edge every 25 meters to help you out so it’s important to preserve your energy.
Sighting is a very good thing to master – you may feel like you are swimming in a straight line, but chances are you are heading towards some weeds! I would begin by looking up at your direction every 3 breaths to get a feel for what it feels like to swim in a straight line; it feels very different to in a pool, especially if there is a strong current.
Once you start to feel a bit more confident I would try to swim close to people to replicate a race situation. Get used to that washing machine effect – it isn’t nice but that’s a part of triathlon.
The good news is that a wetsuit actually really helps you – it makes you much more buoyant, so in that sense you should think of open water swimming as a much easier option! Plus, it’s 100 times more interesting to swim in a lake then it is to go up and down a pool!
If you have any more tips, please leave them in the comments 🙂