Catharine provides a guide to open water swimming for those looking to take the leap into natural waters.
When approaching this article, I wanted to get a broad perspective on taking that first step into open water swimming so I got in touch with three fellow swimmers to learn how they took the plunge.
Garnet is an injured runner who found returning to running problematic and so learnt to swim. Prior to attending Stephanie Ellis’s beginners’ course she could only swim backstroke. That was seven years ago. Swimming is now her main sport with a longest race to date of 5km.
Debbie started swimming at a very young age, trained with the GB synchronised swimming squad as a teenager and then swam competitively at university, racing shorter distances like 50m and 100m freestyle and backstroke. She is training with Otter Swimming Club as well as running with Serpentine. Last year she tried open water swimming for the first time in order to compete in triathlon and aquathlon races. After one season in the club and competing she has qualified for the aquathlon world championships.
Margaret is a stalwart of the two-and-a-half parks runs and has always enjoyed swimming in the sea or doing breaststroke in the rivers of Exmoor but didn’t swim front crawl until a Lanzarote trip in 2016. After discovering that front crawl was easier with goggles and listening to La Santa coach Ben, she ‘bubble, bubble breathes’ when swimming freestyle in the Silver Fit aquathlons and shuns wetsuits.
Let’s start by considering what qualifies as open water: “If I had to pick three words to describe what it means to me they would be adventure, wetsuit and cold,” says Debbie, “but in the literal sense it is swimming in a lake, river or the sea.”
Of course wetsuits aren’t mandatory and it isn’t always cold, but to start we need a place to swim. For those in London who are dependent on public transport here are the most popular choices.
Serpentine, Hyde Park:
You can either join the swimming club to swim before 9:30 in the morning or go to the Lido during the day. There is a shower by the edge of the lake, but for a proper soap and shampoo clean you’ll need to go to work or home.
West Reservoir, Hackney (nearest tube Manor House):
This is run by leisure centre operator Better and you need to book and do a course to prove you can swim safely there. Once this is complete, you have access to all their swim sessions (mid-week, evenings and weekend mornings). Good changing facilities with hot water showers. Several organisations such as RG Active run coached sessions here where you don’t need to take the course.
Shepperton Lake (about a mile from Shepperton station):
Open two evenings a week and both mornings at the weekend. Outdoor showers only. Bucolic environment compared to Serpentine, West Reservoir and London Docks.
Other recommended places are London Docks, Wraysbury, Denham Waterski Centre and Thorpe lake, and while this isn’t an exhaustive list of places, they are all within relatively easy reach.
Anyone who can swim a little can enjoy the open water. There are some differences you need to be prepared for and select where you swim accordingly. If you aren’t currently able to swim a few hundred metres without stopping, you might want to consider your test swim in the Serpentine which is shallow and you are only ever going to be a few strokes from putting your feet down. The open water lakes such as West Reservoir (Hackney) and Shepperton have marked loops of around 400m and 700m, with a buoy at each corner. Novices often take a break at each turn to break down the distance. As Margaret says wearing a wetsuit ‘is like wearing a giant rubber ring’, so you can just stop and float if you need a rest.
All except the hardiest will consider a wetsuit essential and there are various options to get yourself kitted out for your first swim. Debbie bought a wetsuit at the start of her first tri-season and would recommend others do the same if they are planning to take up the sport.
Many venues have wetsuits available for hire, which is a good option if you are giving open-water swimming a try, often on a try before you buy basis. Or you could hire a wetsuit for a season, which often comes with an option to buy at a low price at the end of the season. And if you are lucky, a Serpie your size will be getting rid of their old wetsuit, which is how I acquired my first.
Getting a wetsuit that fits is also tricky. Don’t be fooled into thinking you need space inside it. Garnet sent her measurements to a hire company for her first wetsuit and they sent her a suitably sized suit. She tried this on but returned it when she could put it on but not do up the zip. With hindsight, she’s learnt that you can get someone else to zip you up and the first one sent would have probably been a better fit.
If you are considering buying, Ocean Leisure next to Embankment station has a wide range of swimming wetsuits and as a real store has changing rooms. Each brand will fit differently, although typically each model within the brand will have the same fit characteristics so it’s worth working out which works for your body shape.
Like running shoes, wetsuit manufacturers will bring out new models each year incorporating new tweaks to optimise your swimming. In my opinion, these are marginal so last year’s version in the sale is going to be equally suitable. A swimming wetsuit is cut differently from a surfing or diving wetsuit, to allow more shoulder movement; but there is nothing to stop you wearing your surf wetsuit for open water swimming, but if you are hiring or buying specifically for swimming the specialised ones are recommended.
Aside from your wetsuit, costume and towel, all you’ll need are your goggles, a brightly coloured (for safety purposes) swim hat and some flip-flops to wear to the waterside. Typically, when you arrive at the venue you’ll need to sign a disclaimer before entering the water.
Taking the Plunge
Both Garnet and Debbie described feeling nervous when open water swimming for the first time. Garnet’s first swim was at Wraysbury under the guidance of Stephanie Ellis and despite the nerves she felt really safe as she quickly realised that a wetsuit is so buoyant that you can’t sink.
I asked Garnet what she could remember of that first swim: “Well, I didn’t actually do any proper swimming, it was so cold. I got my face in the water but found I couldn’t breathe at all. Surprisingly the things I expected to be scared of, like seeing things in the water and drowning, in practice weren’t at all frightening. At the second session I did some proper swimming.”
For Debbie, even as an experienced swimmer it was a scary experience. She was taking part in a coached session with the Serpentine triathlon squad led by Rosh, Lee and Lan at Shepperton so knew that she was in good hands and it definitely helped going with a group for the first time. Like all open water venues Shepperton Lake has careful safety procedures in place which make you feel secure.
Asked about her first swim, Debbie responded: “It felt strange! Firstly, the wetsuit provides a very different swim experience, it provides more buoyancy in the legs which is actually rather beneficial to people who are less experienced swimmers or for anyone who struggles with their kick. Personally, I found it harder to move my arms in the wetsuit and it took me a while to get used to how tight it felt but I got used to this with more training.
“Probably the biggest difference with open water is the lack of visibility, so you need to lift your head to ‘sight’ in order to check where you are going. Another big difference is not being able to push off the sides like you can in the pool, you just have to keep swimming.”
As Debbie says, without the clue lines at the bottom of the pool, you have to lift your head to sight, fix on a point (say the turning point buoy, or a convenient block of flats directly behind it) and swim toward it; raising your head and making ‘crocodile eyes’ every few strokes to check you are still swimming in the right direction. This is a skill which forms part of your open water swim training.
Other open water specific skills which you may want to practice are the race start (a rather frightening froth of water and kicking legs which may be too close to your face for comfort); uni-lateral breathing on either side, to be used in choppy water where you want to breathe consistently on the calmer side; and a change in stroke to cope with the potentially choppier water.
After trying out open water swimming you may want to race, so I asked about everyone’s first open water racing experience. For Margaret this was a Silverfit aquathlon – before she went to Lanzarote and learnt front-crawl – so she swam breaststroke with her head out of the water and was last through transition.
From my experience, there are usually competitors who do swim breast-stroke, perhaps through choice, perhaps to get better sighting, perhaps to build confidence.
Garnet’s first race was in a Marlow lake: “It was really bad, I couldn’t sight. I collided with a tree and came last. But, I enjoyed the experience and have persisted and improved.”
Debbie’s first race was the Capital Tri Splash and a Dash Sprint Aquathlon held at the West Reservoir Centre, a 750m swim in the lake followed by a 5km run: “The day was blistering hot so I ended up choosing to swim without a wetsuit, which I wasn’t expecting, but it was fun!
“I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting to but I was disappointed because my swim time was a lot slower than I was expecting. Some swimmers find they are faster in open water due to the effects of the wetsuit, but I slow down without the benefit of tumble turns and pushing off the wall every 25m which I can do in the pool.”
There are plenty of races to choose from: swim only races, aquathlons through to triathlon. The SilverFit aquathlons in the Serpentine (500m swim/5krun) and the Capital Tri swims (typically 750m/1500m/3000m) and aquathlons at West Reservoir are great places to try out your swim racing and you will often find fellow club members there.
If it’s an aquathlon, take care not to follow Debbie’s example: “My strongest OW swim last season was at the Silverfit Sunset Hyde Park Aquathlon in August. I pushed hard in a strong field and clocked 7:30 for the 500m swim, leaving the water as first female. However, I was so exhausted that it took me ages to get my wetsuit off and I got overtaken by quite a few people in transition. Lesson learned!”.
If you enjoy mass participation events there is Swim Serpentine, which is very well organised and also the Great Swim series (my own first race was the Great North Swim in Windermere) which attract a broad spectrum of competitors.
Finally, don’t forget to enjoy the experience. As Margaret says: “Enjoy the scenery and the swimming. It’s like the difference between running on a treadmill and running around a park, it’s a million times more pleasurable swimming in the open water.”
Many of the lakes come with bird life and some with fish. Garnet recommends Wraysbury for big fish which you can see year after year. It’s also peaceful, so you don’t have to worry about other people. Plus, there are bacon sandwiches.
Or you could take a lesson from Margaret, who when asked about her most enjoyable open water experience was answered New Year’s Day, in the sea at Minehead. “No wetsuit of course, just my costume.”
Useful Information and Links
Alex and the triathlon coaching team have some dates planned for swim training at Shepperton. Get on the right mailing lists and these will be publicised shortly:
Open water all Saturdays Shepperton 9am start for an hour.
Cost is £5 sign up via Entry Central.
Stephanie Ellis – contact for swimming lessons and swimming at Wraysbury: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Capital Tri (swims and aquathlons at West Reservoir)
Catharine Sowerby started running in the last century, to improve her orienteering. In 2005, after running her first half marathon she joined Serpentine. 10 years, 6 marathons, 1 Green Belt Relay, 2 Isle of Wight Fell race weekends, 2 Lanzarote trips and too many races to mention she can still be found running whenever she’s not injured or swimming.