Open water swimming: A personal view

Posted in swimming on October 5, 2012

Beijing 2008 and Keri-Anne Payne put open water swimming on the map, and, like triathlon, the sport has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity. We at upmysport are pretty psyched about it too!

Do I just put a swimming costume on and jump in then?  Well yes, that’s definitely how to start (if you can already swim) and that’s what we love about it.

We asked Alice Gartland, our friend, journalist and escaped lawyer, to tell us how she got into open water swimming.

These three people have just been swimming – look how happy they are!

In summer 2010 I was well out of condition, recovering from a broken leg, had been told I couldn’t run again, and hobbling around looking for a leg friendly sport to get me fit. The answer was… Swimming!

I had a couple of one to one lessons which lifted my swim stroke out of the 1980s and introduced me to open water technique (my coach, Alex, was brilliant);  I bought a (second-hand) wetsuit; and followed this up with an open water swimming course with the Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) at the Serpentine in Hyde Park (home to the Serpentine Swimming Club who are lovely too).  

That summer, with the help of the OSS, I went from doing my first one mile swim in Lake Coniston with Epic Events , to completing the inaugral OSS Dart 10k, a beautiful 10km swim from Totnes to Dittisham down the River Dart in Devon.  It’s a really special event, run by OSS volunteers and the emphasis is on enjoying being out there in the water rather than racing. I was stunned that I could do it and needless to say I was hooked!

Finishing my first 1 mile swim race at Lake Coniston – loved it!

Last week I finished my third OSS Dart 10k. Hundreds of ‘leisurely’ to ‘elite’ paced swimmers took part. Colder and choppier than the previous years, it was a good reminder of the importance of effective year-round training (I’ve been a bit slack, unlike my mate Anna who has been doing a lot of training with Lido Mike at Brockwell Lido), the variety and challenge you can find in one stretch of water, and the impact of the cold on performance. I also now fully appreciate the importance of nappy rash cream and vaseline in the battle against chafing.

Mobot start at the Dart 10k 2012

For me the swim also signalled that it was time for me to move up a notch and look at longer distances, sea swimming and consider ditching my ‘wetsuit as standard’ approach.

This weekend, my mate Cat (recently returned from an attempt at the Gibraltar Straits) kindly gave me my first introduction to sea swimming at Brighton Swimming Club.  Sea swimming “sorts the men from the boys” explained Cat and I have to say, I think she is right.

Before you set out you need to understand the tide, weather conditions, water temperature etc and prepare accordingly.

It’s getting chillier so we took a moment to ease into the water and get used to it and make sure our breathing was regular before heading off. This is really important as uneven breathing in lots of cold water has the potential to send you into a bit of a panic.

Dart 10k finish 2010

The sea was pretty smooth on the way out but the return leg quickly became choppy and I was bouncing around in the waves which was pretty disorientating (but fun)!

Sighting felt even more important and I really had to focus on my breathing. I usually breathe every three strokes on my left and right, but in the sea I had to breathe every four, turning my head towards the shore in order to avoid inhaling the waves rolling towards me on the other side – sea water makes you retch.

Add to that the collection of seagulls flocking overhead – which as any child of the Jaws generation knows is a sure sign they are feeding on the carcus of the standard prey of all great white sharks- a female swimmer – and you appreciate that sea swimming can give you a lot to think about.

Cat’s screensaver is Jaws. She says it helps. I am not convinced. 

What I think might happen, but I wouldn’t be smiling or wearing trainers…

I loved it though and a big thank you to Cat who was an excellent guide – bobbing up out of the waves every now and again to give me hints and tips and steering me clear of the sea wall and my fellow swimmers. Good skills.

Even when exiting and finally out of the water you still need your wits about you. You don’t want to get caught up in the washing cycle of a crashing wave and hypothermia is a genuine risk.

Swimming regularly in cold temperatures helps the body adapt, wearing two swimming hats, ear plugs, swim socks, a rash vest, visualisation and wrapping up so warm that you are overheating before a swim can also help. Having warm clothes and a long, warm (not piping hot) shower once out of the water is also a good plan!

Post pier to pier adventure – thanks Cat!

Suffice to say, if you are thinking about trying open water – go for it!

It’s accessible, liberating, fun, and as hardcore or not as you want it to be. Add to that I have made some great friends and I look forward to many more adventures (water and pub based) with them soon. Wicked!