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Swimmer on a pontoon just after an open water swim with an Arc Lore organic cotton beach towel

How To Start Open Water Swimming

15 April 2021 by Gemma Hellawell

Some were born for the open water, but for others, despite being confident swimmers, the call of the wild can feel a bit daunting. If you are feeling nervous about taking the plunge, take some inspiration here on how to fall in love with wild swimming.

For me, as a child, swimming meant chlorinated water, lanes and lines of pool tiles to keep me going in a straight line. And I loved it. Of course I’d had a dip in the sea, but growing up in a family that decided the ubiquitous nature of sand was an unnecessary nuisance, our trips to the beach became fewer and fewer the older I got.

And then one day a friend invited me to do a triathlon. It sounded like fun. I was a strong swimmer, so that bit would be easy and with a bit of training I was pretty sure I could manage the cycle and the run - so I said yes.

The swim was going to be in a lake and so after some advice, I reluctantly agreed to do an open water swimming course before the event. If I’m honest I wasn’t sure why I’d agreed to get up at 6am on a cold April morning to travel to a local lake. I knew I could swim, how hard could it be in open water? And then I got in the water. Where was the wall to push off from? What did I hold on to when I needed a breather? And what just touched my toes? Panic began to set in along with a lot of confusion. I loved water so why did I feel like this? Trying to put my fear to one side I completed the course that day and in time, the triathlon swim too, but I can honestly say I didn’t enjoy one minute of either.

Frustrated and confused I decided to make it my mission to understand how I could love swimming and yet feel so uncomfortable in open water. I roped in a swimming companion, packed a guidebook of beautiful coastal swimming spots and set off to fall in love with the open water. As I travelled I chewed over some words of wisdom given to me before I left: “See it as a different discipline to pool swimming; a treadmill is not the same as running on the roads and an exercise bike is not the same as riding through a forest on a mountain bike.” 

My plan worked. The more swims I did, in ever more beautiful locations, the more I loved it. I swam through my fears and eventually swam past them and now I’ll get in the water whenever and wherever I can.

With hindsight, and a bit more knowledge, the panic I felt in the water during the triathlon training was perfectly natural. I still, on occasion, make use of the techniques I learnt to overcome those fears. When the body gets into cold water your heart rate and blood pressure increase, giving you a surge of adrenaline and causing you to feel short of breath. If you are unfamiliar with being in open water this physical reaction can be confused with a sense of panic which will, in turn, also cause a feeling a shortness of breath. Before you know it, you have a perfect storm. Add in kit you may not have swum in before, a few waves and something slimy touching your feet and before long you can be on the way to a full blown panic attack in the water. 

The solution? Just breathe. Slow everything down and focus on your out breath, making sure you are getting rid of all the carbon dioxide before taking in a big breath of oxygen. Start slow, focussing on your breathing until you are settled and happy in the water and then start your swim.

Another game changer for me was ear plugs. Cold water in your ears can make you feel disorientated or even nauseous. Ear plugs prevent all of that, helping you to feel really comfortable in the water. Finding the right goggles will also make a world of difference. My last big panic in the water was in a very cold, fast flowing river in early spring. I’d been using my googles for pool swimming, but hadn’t realised how scratched and fogged up they had become. When I got in the river I could barely see a metre in front of me which made the whole experience feel overwhelming. Fast forward a couple of weeks, and with a new pair of goggles, it was a gorgeous stretch of river to enjoy – I just needed the right kit.

As we emerge from the hibernation of lockdown, wild swimming could be the tonic you have been craving. I hope you enjoy every minute of freedom as you take the plunge.

Swimming in open water can be dangerous. Only swim where permitted, swim with others, don’t swim too long, get out before you get cold and know the water that you are swimming in; tides, rip tides and currents can all take you by surprise.

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