I don’t claim to be an expert at open water swimming, but I’m doing more and more of it and trying to follow this advice myself. So if you are planning to get some swimming done in the great outdoors, here are some tips:
You’ve probably seen people getting into the channel covered in goose fat – and that’s really important if you are swimming without a wetsuit. I still need to work out what is best to use as insulation and I’m sure I’ll write more here when I do.
However, what most people forget is that even with a wetsuit it’s important to lube up. You don’t need to do it for warmth in the same way, but unless you have a really old, worn suit you’ll need to do it to avoid chaffing. Make sure that you put some Vaseline (or equivalent) around your neck so that as you breathe you don’t rub your neck on the wetsuit. You may want to consider other areas too that will rub – under your arms, your groin etc.
Swimming in a pool is easy – the lanes are clearly marked and you’ve also usually got lines in the bottom of most pools. So navigation is pretty easy. That’s not the case in open water, so looking where you are going becomes really important.
If you’re in an event you can usually follow the herd (unless you’re winning) and although you shouldn’t rely on that if you follow the masses you’re not going to go far wrong.
But even to follow you need to be able to see the people in front. If you swim crawl in theory you will rarely look forwards (down and to the side when you breathe – sure; forwards – less so). So sighting is the process of doing just that.
Basically, every 4 strokes or so glance up to check your position relative to where you’re headed. The idea is that you take an elongated breath and so don’t break your rhythm. You may need to do it with a couple of consecutive strokes so that you can see enough.
One good lesson that I was taught is to swim in open water towards a clear target (eg a buoy) and then swim about 10 strokes with your eyes closed. Then stop and see where you are in relation to where you should be – for me I was way over to the left. This means that when I’m swimming I always aim just a little bit to the right if I’m unsure of where I’m going as that usually straightens me up.
Even when you can see the turning buoys ok, there is still a trick to turning. I don’t mean the roll technique with your stroke (which I’ve never mastered), but two more basic things.
The first is to actually wait until you’re at the buoy before you turn. What many people do when they are first swimming in open water is see the buoy, swim a couple more strokes and then start to turn. What they forget is that you don’t swim as quickly as you run or even walk. If you look up and see the buoy 5 metres away swim a few more strokes and it will still be 3 metres away. Turn only when you’re actually at the buoy.
The second is that in open water swimming there are very few rules about physical contact – what that means is that people are allowed to knock, bash, hold or swim over you. Most people are fine and wouldn’t do this [on purpose], but at a turning buoy is where it is most likely to happen. So just be careful. Or use it as your chance to get your own back!
Having said all that, it is great fun, so enjoy it.
I hope that helps. See you out there.