How to swim safely in open water

Some companies like Swimtrek offer organised outdoor swimming trips both in the UK and abroad

Some companies like Swimtrek offer organised outdoor swimming trips both in the UK and abroad

Open water or ‘wild swimming’ is becoming increasingly popular. And it is easy to see why.

The freedom of swimming in a lake, river or sea, admiring the beautiful scenery and the achievement of looking back and seeing exactly how far you have swum are hard to beat.

However, it is very different from ploughing up and down your local pool and if you are tempted to give it a go there are a few things you need to bear in mind:

THE WATER WILL BE COLD
If you are used to swimming indoors or even in a heated outdoor pool, the temperature of the water will come as something of a shock. Even in August, the water temperature in the UK is unlikely to get above 20 degrees and could even be as low as 15 degrees or less if you choose to swim somewhere cooler like the Lake District. By contrast most indoor pools are heated to around 30-32 degrees centigrade and outdoor pools are usually around 27 to 28 degrees centigrade.

The best way to deal with the cold is to try and get your face into the water as soon as possible and try to breathe normally. You may find that you start to hyperventilate but don’t panic. This is normal. Just lift your head out of the water and try breaststroke rather than crawl for a few strokes until your breathing gets back to normal and try again. It should only take a few attempts to acclimatise.

British Gas has organised a series of great swims across the country. Unfortunately the Great North Swim, pictured, is fully booked. But check out www.greatswim.org for details of others

British Gas has organised a series of great swims across the country. Unfortunately the Great North Swim, pictured, is fully booked. But check out www.greatswim.org for details of others

Your fingers and toes will probably feel numb at first. The feeling will come back once you warm up but if you really suffer then you can get special aqua shoes and neoprene gloves.

Aqua shoes are also invaluable for getting out of the water at the end of a swim. Slippery, mossy rocks and stones can be painful and close to impossible to navigate with cold feet, especially if you may be feeling dizzy from having your head in the cold water for a long time. Many open water swimmers recommend wearing more than one swim cap, the thicker the better, to combat the cold.

YOU WILL NEED A WETSUIT

Unless you are incredibly hardy you will probably need a wetsuit for open water swimming. Make sure you choose the right suit for the temperature of the water you will be swimming in, don’t pick a shortie suit if it is going to be cold as it won’t keep you warm enough.

You also need to make sure that your wetsuit is a good fit. It needs to be as snug as possible. You don’t want any leaks or trickles of water getting in to your suit while you are swimming, not only will this make you cold, it will spoil your concentration and could weigh you down making swimming more difficult.

TRY A MASK INSTEAD OF GOGGLES

If you are swimming in open water you need to be far more aware of what is going on around you than you do in a pool. You also need to be able to see clearly the point that you are heading for.

Swim masks will give you a better peripheral vision than standard goggles. It is a good idea to have a couple of masks or pairs of goggles with you for different light conditions.

Kate Rew's Wild Swim features dozens of outdoor swimming locations

Kate Rew's Wild Swim features dozens of outdoor swimming locations

THERE WILL BE NO LINES ON THE BOTTOM!
You may think you can swim in a pretty straight line in the pool but when there are no lines at the bottom to guide you along you will probably be surprised at how much you drift to the left or the right.

If the water you are swimming in has a strong current then you may also move off course very quickly without realising it. It is vital when swimming in open water that you keep looking up regularly to check where you are in relation to other swimmers (called ‘spotting’) and also where you are aiming to swim to. Breathing bilaterally (breathing to either side) can also help you keep a straight line rather than breathing to the same side each time.

DON’T SWIM ALONE
Open water swimming can be dangerous. If you want to try it for the first time join one of the organised tours or events organised up and down the country. All these swim organisations will have guides and safety boats to pull you out if you get into difficulties. It may be temping to dive into an empty lake for a solo swim but it is not worth the risk.

By Wendy Knowles

Useful Links:

Swimtrek

Great Swim

Outdoor Swimming Society

Video: Kate Rew swims fairy pools, Isle of Skye

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