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swim more efficiently in open water – fix these 4 parts of your stroke!

The very best open water swimmers tend to swim smoothly and glide through the water looking like they’re almost expending no effort at all. It can often seem a bit unfair, you’re putting in all you’ve got and then you see someone effortlessly glide past…you’ve probably asked yourself:

‘how come they’re swimming so quickly but they look like they’re hardly exerting themselves at all?’ 

The secret is they’ve developed an efficient stoke – a stroke that affords the swimmer minimal resistance and allows them to glide smoothly through the water. It’s true that developing such a smooth and effective swimming technique can take a bit of practice (plenty of miles in the pool and lots of drills) but it’s definitely achievable.

Here we’ve broken down the most efficient swimming technique into its 4 key parts:

  1. Develop a streamlined body-position
  2. Learn to breathe correctly
  3. Fix your leg-kick!
  4. Get your arms to do most of the work

By working on each of these 4 parts of your stroke you will start to develop a much more efficient swimming technique – allowing you to conserve energy and to swim faster and further in open water. Don’t worry about trying to master each of the 4 parts all at once, instead pick one to work on and then move onto the next.

1. Develop a streamlined body-position

The ideal body-position for swimming is a narrow arrow-like shape whereby the body is in a straight line all the way from the head to the toes and where the arms and legs remain in within this ideal streamlined body-shape.

This streamlined shape is ideal as it affords swimmers the least drag as they move through the water. However, when this streamlined shape is interrupted, for instance by the legs or arms splaying out to the sides, then drag will increase dramatically. An increase in drag will then cause the swimmer to slow or to increase effort to counteract this increase in resistance.

In order to maintain a streamlined body position it helps to imagine a central axis running through the body from the crown of the ahead all the way along the spine and then out by the feet. When you the swim, the body must rotate along this axis but NEVER deviate from this axis by moving laterally as this will then break this streamlined shape. Even the slightest tilt of the head to one side, or a cross-over of the arms, will mean that you’re moving laterally and that you’re no longer swimming in this ideal streamlined position.

Check out these top tips for streamlining: 

No lazy leg-kick!

Don’t allow the legs to drop below the hips. The legs should break the surface of the water and should stay close together at all times (imagine the big toes almost brushing past each other). It’s important that the legs stay in-line with you body, if your leg-kick is too wide – either the legs splaying out to the sides or too far up and down – then this will interrupt the body’s streamlining and increase drag (this is what we want to avoid!).

Further still, a weak leg-kick or having no kick at all can cause the legs to drop down under the water, again causing unwanted drag by interrupting your streamlining. Think of a racing car opening a parachute after crossing the finish line…not ideal for swimmers! Don’t let your kick, or your lack of of leg-kick, let you down.

Rotate your body (don’t cross-over) 

Developing a strong and balanced rotation is crucial when striving for that ideal streamlined body-position. A swimmer with good rotation utilises the large core muscles of their torso and the back to help deliver a powerful arm-pull.

This decreases the risk of the arms crossing-over the central line of the body and therefore diverting away from that crucial central axis which we talked about above. You must avoid any temptation to move laterally – i.e. the arms crossing-over in front of the head or the body moving from side to side. Instead, the body should actually pivot along its central axis therefore allowing you to ‘slip’ through the water in the most efficient manner.

If you fail to rotate and end up swimming flat through the water then drag is greatly increased and you will slow down or end up expending much more energy than you actually need to. Further still, swimming flat can lead to you ‘snaking’, moving side to side through the water, and this therefore makes swimming-straight (an essential open water skill – read more here) nearly impossible.

Control your head-position (no lifting!)

Swimming with an incorrect head position in the easiest way to ruin your streamlining efforts. The most common error we see is a lift of the head to breathe (rather than a rotation) or a sway of the head from side to side (usually after having taken a breath).

If you do lift the head off that central axis of the body, then the legs will drop and this will cause drag to dramatically increase. If the head moves laterally, a sway from side to side, then again this will lead to unwanted drag but further still this may cause your body to ‘snake’ in the water and will reduce your likelihood of swimming-straight.

Above all then, it’s crucial that you keep your head still – the only exception being when you rotate your head when breathing. The head is like a rudder, when it moves the rest of the body will move – so keep it still!

2. Learn to breathe correctly!

Effective breathing in open water environments can sometimes be a little bit more challenging than it is at your local pool.

There’s a few things you need to tackle, firstly wetsuits (for those who choose to wear them) can often lead to a feeling of tightness across the chest making breathing seem a little bit uncomfortable.

Secondly, the cold water itself will naturally cause your muscles and your lungs to initially contract making breathing, at first, a little bit more difficult. And finally we can’t forget the challenge of unpredictable weather conditions and those pesky swimmers either side of you who might just happen to be kicking water in your face.

But with all that said, there are plenty of strategies to ensure that breathing in open water is pretty straight-forward and hassle-free. Above all, it’s crucial to allow your body and your breathing to adapt to the open water environment before you start to swim (read our guide to acclimatisation here).

Check out these top tips for effective breathing:

Remember to Exhale! 

When it comes to effective breathing in open water, the breathing-out phase really is the most important. Many swimmers fall into the trap of breath-holding while they’re swimming, or when they do come to breathe out, they fail to breathe out fully. Failing to breathe out fully into the water will lead to a build of CO2 in the bloodstream, which in turn will lead to feelings of breathlessness and then at some point…to feelings of panic (eek not ideal!).

To avoid this scenario make sure that whenever your face is in the water you’re exhaling smoothly and fully (your face should be in the water blowing bubbles). And then in advance of your next inhale you should have completely emptied your lungs – this will allow for an effective exchange of gases and will help you to avoid any feelings of breathlessness.

As we discuss in our acclimatisation guide, before you start swimming it is helpful to spend some time repeating some simple exhalation exercises (breathing out for 5 secs, 10 secs, 20 secs). This will allow your body, your lungs and your mind to adjust to the open water environment and will help you to counteract the initial effect of the cold water on your body which naturally causes your muscles and lungs to tense and to contract slightly.

Learn to breathe bilaterally!  

Breathing bilaterally is a crucial skill for open water swimmers. Above all, breathing bilaterally allows you to develop a balanced stroke and will help you on your way to mastering swimming-straight. Bilateral breathing also helps the swimmer to rotate evenly and to gain a balanced muscle proportion – and to avoid a stiff neck (ouch!).

Further still, having the ability to breathe to both sides will help you out enormously in challenging weather conditions and in certain racing scenarios. For instance, if you find yourself in a situation where waves are hitting you from one side, then you will then have the option to adapt your breathing pattern so that you can breath to the opposite side (away from the waves). Likewise, in racing scenarios – such as mass starts – then you might find that you it is beneficial to breathe to one side rather than the other to avoid turbulence from swimmers in front and beside you.

Breath in the bow 

As your body speeds through the water it creates a natural bow wave, pushing the water either side of your head. This is the very same process as happens when boats and ships plough through the water and act to push water to either side of their bow.

This bow wave is a natural GIFT to us swimmers as it creates a natural trough into which we can breathe (without lifting the head!). The unfortunate thing is that most swimmers fail to take advantage of it and they insist on overly lifting their head.

In fact, if you lift your head out of water (rather than rotating it to the side) then this bow wave will not be created and you have a much larger chance of gulping in a load of water! When you turn your head to breath, ensure that your head position stays low and in line with the water and that you rotate your head along the body’s central axis.

If you want to make sure you are breathing into the bow get a friend or coach to film you swim and watch it back. We spend lots of with our open water improvers to make sure they master this breathing skill – it really can make a massive difference to your swimming!

3. Fix your leg-kick! 

Leg-kick is an area of the stoke with is often overlooked by open water swimmers. It is true that the leg-kick doesn’t offer much in terms of propulsion – even elite swimmers can only ever expect 15-20% forward propulsion from their leg-kick at best. BUT that said, there is no reason simply to ignore your leg-kick. In fact, an incorrect leg-kick can actually severely hamper your overall stroke – acting to increase drag and to significantly slow you down.

It’s actually quite common for open water swimmers to ignore their leg-kick because they think the added buoyancy of their wetsuit (if they choose to wear one that is) will keep their legs in the right position. Further still, it’s common for triathletes to neglect the importance of a good and effective leg-kick in an effort to ‘save’ their legs for the cycle and the run. We want to make it clear that a correct leg-kick is an essential skill for open water swimmers…ignore your leg-kick at your peril!!

Check out our top leg-kick tips:

Kick from the hips (not the knee!)

The perfect leg-kick should involve the whole leg and should originate at the hip. The swimmer should be kicking with a relatively straight (albeit a relaxed and floppy) leg in a motion that starts at the hip and ends at the feet. With a good kicking technique, the knee will naturally bend slightly as this relaxed leg moves downwards and then back upwards – but note that this knee bend is not intentional but rather just a natural response to the relaxed leg moving up and down from the hip. Remember also to point your toes while keeping the leg relaxed and floppy (this is harder than it sounds!). And also make sure the big toes are almost touching as you kick up and then down – this will make sure that the legs remain in a streamlined position and don’t splay outwards to the side.

Unfortunately many swimmers fail to achieve this ideal leg-kick and instead find that they’re kicking way too much from the knees rather than from their hips. And in this instance, it is triathletes who are the often the worst offenders, more accustomed to developing power from the knee, as is the case in cycling and running, they then tend to carry this habit over into their swimming technique (big mistake!).

Rhythm and rate

So we’re getting a little bit technical here…but stick with us! The timing of the kick is again an element of the stroke which is often overlooked, and even more so amongst open water swimmers, but it can make an important difference to your swimming. The basic premise to good timing is such that: when the hand enters the water to initiate the arm-pull at the front of the stroke, the opposite leg should kick. Fortunately most swimmers tend to kick with correct timing naturally and rarely need any correction – but still, it’s good to know exactly how your arm-pulls link in with your leg-kick! And if your timing is wrong then this can actually impede your body rotation by acting against it.

Having established how the leg-kick timing works, then there a variety of rhythms, or kick-cycles, that the swimmer can use. For instance, the swimmer could perform a 2-beat, a 4-beat or a 6-beat leg-kick. In the 2-beat leg-kick then each single leg-kick is then matched to the opposite arm-pull as it enters the water, moving upwards to a 4-beat and then a 6-beat kick means that there will be extra kicks in-between.

Don’t overly obsess about the timing of your kick – before anything-else focus on making sure that your leg-kick is CORRECT (kicking from the hip with a relaxed leg…).You will  most probably then discover a leg-kick rhythm that naturally works for you – it’ll just feel right. We would say that for those of you who are very keen to conserve energy – distance swimmers and triathletes we’re looking at you – then your best bet is a 2-beat leg-kick.

Avoid a scissor-kick!

This is one of the most common stroke errors that we see. A scissor-kick occurs when the swimmer overly-widens the legs – usually when taking a breath. A scissor-kick will significantly interrupt your stroke, and slow you down, given the enormous amount of drag that it generates. This stroke error is most commonly caused by a lack of balance and/or core strength in the water.

The best way to eliminate a scissor-kick is to practise the ‘side-kick’ drill. This drill will teach you how to control your leg kick and it’ll also help you to build up your core strength – therefore allowing you to eliminate the instability and imbalances that may have caused this stroke flaw in the first place. Further still, another top tip is to add an ankle band when you swim normal freestyle, this will prevent the legs flaring and help build your core stability.

4. Get your arms to do most of the work!

The freestyle arm propulsion equates to around 75% of total in-water propulsion, so it is well worth spending a bit of time on! And even the slightest stoke adjustments can make the difference between a strong arm-pull and a weak arm-pull – most important of all is the ‘catch.’ A an effective ‘catch’ and a correct pull technique will make you a faster and much more efficient swimmer – in fact it is these two elements, a competent catch and an effective arm-pull, which make the biggest difference between a normal swimmer and an elite swimmer. Overall, the strongest open water swimmers tend to have a relaxed long stroke with a short choppy rhythm not allowing for any pauses or too much gliding in the stroke.

Follow these pointers below to maximise your arm-pull propulsion: 

The catch and ‘feel of the water’ 

The catch is the most important part if the underwater propulsion, around 85% of the propulsion is created in this area. The ‘catch’ is the term we swimming teachers use to refer to the very first part of the front-crawl arm-pull just after the hand and arm have entered the water. Many people don’t realise just how important this initial part of swimming technique is – but, trust us, it really does make the difference between an ok swimmer and a very good swimmer.

The key to a great catch is a combination of correct arm alignment and ‘feel of the water.’ The arm should enter the water directly in front of the shoulder…it is at this point that the catch initiates – the hand should tip slightly downwards (pressing inwards towards the body) followed straight afterwards by a bend of the elbow. The forearm then reaches a vertical position in the water and act to press the water backwards towards the hip.

To improve your ‘catch’ or ‘your feel for the water’ (pretty much the same things) then you should practise drills such as sculling on your front. Developing a strong catch is a skill that we drum into our Tri Squad swimmers – it really can make a big difference to your swim times.

Entry, Stroke length and Pull-through 

The hand should enter directly in front of the shoulder with the middle finger sliding into the water first. A high elbow recovery will help set up the arm for an easy entry position. Avoid rotating the hand so the thumb enters the water first as this may cause shoulder injuries over the longterm.

A great way to decrease energy expenditure is to work on decreasing the distance travelled with each pull-through. A common mistake is to increase the glide at the front of the stroke but instead you should focus on developing a strong catch and an efficient pull-through. The arm should extend out from the shoulder as much as possible, imagine you are grabbing a large barrel with your arm and pushing it behind you, this is the general arm position and motion needed for a strong propulsion.

Stroke rate and rhythm 

Stoke rate is something that is individual to the swimmer and takes time to adjust. Your stroke rate should be dependent on the length of your swim, for example a 50m sprinter has a faster stroke rate than a 1500m swimmer.

Those who need to increase their stroke rate generally have dead spots in the stroke which they must work to eliminate. On the other hans, those who need to reduce their rate tend to have poor feel of the water and tend to rush through their arm-pull without an effective ‘catch’ or ‘feel for the water.’ To find out which category your fit into you can ask a coach to analyse your stroke or you can use a tempo trainer.

Remember every swimmer is different with their own strengths and weaknesses, to fully understand the areas you need to work on visit your local open water training centre and find a coach that is qualified to give you a full stroke analysis.

Happy swimming! Any questions then please leave a comment or send us a message.

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3 open water swimming skills you need to master!

This week we’ve picked our top 3 open water swimming skills – swimming-straight, sighting and drafting – which we think every open water swimmer should learn to perfect. These skills, when done correctly, will make you a much more effective open water swimmer, shave time off your swims and generally make your open water experiences that much more rewarding and enjoyable! Just remember, integrating these skills into your swimming technique takes a bit of patience and and practice – but it’s definitely worth putting in the time to get them right.

1. Swimming-straight

Being able to swim in a straight line is essential if you want to develop an effective open water swimming technique. With the absence of lane ropes and black lines to guide you, coupled with reduced visibility and variable weather conditions, this can often be harder said than done!

To swim in a straight line you should eliminate imbalances in your stroke and aim for a more symmetrical swimming technique. Following the 3 technique points below will help you to swim straighter, to eliminate zig-zagging and unplanned detours (we’ve all been there), and most importantly to prevent you from swimming much further than you actually need to!

Body position and bilateral breathing. To maintain symmetry in your stroke, to prevent a lean to one side or the other, then breathing bilaterally is always the best option. Swimmers who only ever breathe to one side will find that, however marginally, they will tend to drift off course towards that dominant side. Breathing bilaterally therefore helps to establish balance in your stroke and prevent a bias to one side or the other.

But bilateral breathing must be matched with a streamlined body position. Imagine a a pole cutting through the centre line of your body from your head to your feet – then keep your body orientated along this straight line while you rotate your head to the side, and then back again, as you breathe. Make sure the head stays really still when you’re not breathing trying not sway from side to side or to to lean to one side more than the other. The head is a like a rudder, if it moves then the rest of your body will move too – so keep it still!

Stroke entry and good alignment. Again, our aim here is to establish symmetry in your stroke and to avoid anything that’ll cause you to drift towards one side or the other. A common flaw amongst swimmers is a ‘cross-over’ of the arms – this is when, having entered the water, the arms reach across the centre line of the body rather than staying in line with body and entering just in front of the shoulders.

If the arms do cross-over, rather than allowing for a more a symmetrical swimming pattern, this may well cause you to drift to one side or the other while you’re swimming and it will reduce the likelihood that you can maintain a straight-line swimming trajectory.

Rotational symmetry and core strength. This point is closely related to the point above, people tend to develop a ‘cross-over’ because they’re not rotating their body effectively (and tend compensate for a lack of rotation by reaching over, and crossing-over, the centre line of the body).

Also, another common flaw – which will work against your swimming straight goals – is that some swimmers tend to rotate more to one side than to the other. Again, the aim here is to try and eliminate such imbalances in your stoke and to try to move towards a more symmetrical and balanced swimming technique. To eliminate rotational imbalances and to build core strength at the same time, aim for drills such as side-kick, this always does the trick for our open water improvers!

2. Sighting

Sighting allows open water swimmers to see where they’re going, to navigate a course effectively and to allow themselves to maintain a straight-line swimming trajectory. With the reduced visibility that comes with swimming in open water environments, it becomes clear, pretty quickly, that sighting really is one of the most important open water skills. Having said that, sighting can all too easily be done incorrectly and a bad sighting technique can end up interrupting the rhythm of your stroke, straining your neck and ultimately slow you down! Here we’ve written a 3-step approach to sighting correctly, and we’ve made a note of some of the most common sighting errors which are best avoided (unless you want a mouthful of water).

Step 1what are you looking at?

Before you set off on your swim you should take time to study your course and most importantly to identity the landmarks that you’ll be ‘sighting’ towards. A sighting landmark should be a large, immovable object which you ‘sight’ towards in order to stick to a certain course. Some people may choose to ‘sight’ towards the course buoys themselves however buoys are sometimes quite hard to spot and are easily obstructed by other swimmers. A better alternative is a larger (unmoving!) object behind the buoy – for instance this could be a large tree or a large building.

Step 2remember your crocodile eyes!

Now you know where you’ll be looking…it’s time to lift your eyes (not your whole face!) forward so that you can ‘sight’ the way ahead. It’s important that you ‘sight’ at the right point of your stroke cycle: the lifting of the head forward should happen as you extend your arm forward…and then before you start to pull the arm through the water you should pause slightly, and press lightly down on the water as your eyes lift forward. As you ‘sight’ forward your back should arch slightly and your chin should be pushed forward all the while trying to hard to prevent the legs from dropping. It can often help to kick slightly harder as you ‘sight’ forward, to prevent the legs from dropping, but then to return to your normal kicking rhythm as your head returns back to the water.

Step 3NO breathing to the front (unless you’re thirsty)

Some swimmers make the mistake of trying to lift their whole face (and mouth) out of the water rather than just their eyes. And further still, while their whole face is out of the water they try to fit in a breath when they’re meant to be ‘sighting’! This combination can often end in disaster…a breath to the front while swimming will almost always lead to a mouthful of water (far from ideal). And above all, lifting your whole face and mouth out of the water, rather than just your eyes, will waste so much energy which you could instead conserve for your swim itself. Rather than trying to breathe to the front as you ‘sight’, you should instead take a breathe immediately after you’ve ‘sighted’ by rotating your head to the side as normal.

Top tip: ‘sight’ just enough…but not too much!

We’ve already stressed how important sighting is, especially for making sure that you’re swimming in a straight line and in the right direction, BUT that said, it is important that you don’t overdo it. If you ‘sight’ too much then you’ll find that you run the risk of interrupting the rhythm of your swimming and actually slowing yourself down. You need to aim for the goldilocks ‘sighting’ formula, ‘sighting’ just enough so that you can stay on course, but not too much that you interrupt your technique and start putting the brakes on – this is a skill we perfect with our Tri Squad

3. Drafting

The final skill to make it into our top 3 is drafting! We think that this skill is pretty underrated, and in fact it only seems to get mentioned when talking about elite swimmers or competitive triathletes. But drafting really is a skill that ALL open water swimmers should learn to perfect. And it’s fairly straight-forward to get right, drafting just involves swimming in the wake of another swimmer, reducing the drag for the swimmer immediately behind, and therefore allowing you to conserve energy. In fact, the best bit is that drafting can reduce swimming effort by up to 15-25%! Give it a go, you’ll have more energy to swim further and faster…

Step 1Choose your spot

Once you’ve found yourself behind a swimmer (ideally of the same speed and ability as yourself) you need to work out where to place yourself. There’s generally two options…first option, you place yourself immediately behind the feet of the swimmer in front of you, and option two, you choose instead to position yourself behind the hip of the leading swimmer. The first option always seems to be better than the second, staying at the feet of the swimmer in front makes it easier if you feel you need to overtake or if you need to alter your direction of travel. If you do choose to position behind the hip of the leading swimmer – make sure the swimmer you’re following is not obstructing your dominant breathing side (although of course you should be aiming for bilateral breathing most of the time).

Step 2Get friendly…but NO toe-tapping!

It’s worth cozying up to the swimmer in front of you…the closer you get to that swimmer in front then the less drag you’ll experience and the more energy you’ll end up conserving. It’s also worth baring in mind that the larger the swimmer in front of you then again the more less drag you’ll be experiencing as the swimmer behind. BUT although it’s good to get up close and personal to the swimmer in front it’s NOT ok to start tapping their feet…this can be more than slightly annoying, some swimmers will find it infuriating, and in fact it’ll end up slowing both of you down – so don’t do it, stay friendly!

Step 3Swim your own race

Lastly remember that while drafting can help you save energy and swim further and faster…it’s still important that you’re swimming your own race (or fun swim!). There are a few things that can go wrong with drafting if you’re not careful. Firstly the swimmer in front may not have read our ‘sighting’ tips and so might be leading you in the completely wrong direction – so remember to do your own ‘sighting’ even while you’re drafting! Secondly the swimmer in front may actually have a slower overall swim time than you – don’t let them slow you down, swim at your own pace and overtake them if you need to.

Have fun putting these skills into practice, and if you have any questions then just leave a reply and we’ll get back to you.

And this isn’t the last you’ll hear from us about these 3 skills – in fact, we’ve got an awesome open water skills video series coming soon where we’ll walk you through all these skills in extra detail, stay tuned! 

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10 Essential Tips for Open Water Swimming Beginners

Some people naturally feel a little apprehensive ahead of their first ever swim in open water.

And rightly so. Swimming in an expansive body of water such as a lake, a river or the ocean can be a little daunting – especially for those who are more accustomed to their local 25m pool.

In fact, there’s quite a big difference between pool swimming and open water swimming: there are no lane ropes, no tiled walls or floors, and the water can be murky and hard to see through. And, of course, the water temperature is often colder at your local open water venue.

But once you’ve taken the plunge (pardon the pun), we’re confident you won’t look back!

We’ve written these helpful tips to make sure your first ever open water swim is a fulfilling and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Remember to keep calm, always acclimatise, breathe and blow, embrace aquatic life, prepare in the pool first … and know your venue!

1. Keep calm…and relax

It’s easier said than done … it’s your first time in open water and so it’s natural to feel slightly anxious or overwhelmed. But, that said, if you can try to stay as relaxed as possible, your whole open-water swimming experience will be so much easier!

Firstly, make use of the added buoyancy of your wetsuit (if you choose to wear one) – lie back in the water with your head up to the sky, your arms and legs apart … and just chill! Allow your muscles and your lungs to relax. Then see how effortlessly you can float in the water. Relaxed muscles will work much better and allow you to float more easily than tight, tense muscles.

Once you start swimming, try to ease into a regular rhythm – this will help your body and your mind relax naturally. Some people also find it helpful to focus on the repetitiveness of their breathing or to repeat calm words in their head to ease feelings of panic. But remember – don’t be too hard on yourself. If this is your first open-water swim, don’t push yourself. Stay within your limits and swim a shorter course if possible.

2. Always ‘acclimatise’ before you set off

Before you start swimming, it’s important that you enter the water correctly and in a safe manner – a process often referred to as cold-water acclimatisation. We’ve already written a beginners’ guide to acclimatisation that talks you through this process step by step – read it here.

Entering the water slowly and adjusting to the lower temperature will allow your body, muscles and mind to relax, and will enable you to breathe calmly and effectively from the very beginning of your swim. It’ll also help to prevent your muscles tightening or cramping.

The acclimatisation process should ideally be carried out at the start of every open water swim – this is the case for complete novices all the way through to elite triathletes. It can make the difference between a great swim and a less than enjoyable experience.

3. Breathe and blow

Good breathing is so important for all open water swimmers – but especially for first-timers. Unfortunately, many first-time open water swimmers fail to breathe out effectively – often holding their breath or not fully exhaling into the water. This leads to a build-up of carbon dioxide, tenser muscles and increased feelings of breathlessness and panic.

However, if you breathe effectively – exhaling fully and steadily into the water – you’ll allow your lungs, your body and your mind to relax. And, most importantly, you’ll avoid that awful feeling of breathlessness. Concentrate on turning your head to the side – getting a good breath of air – and then returning your face into the water, focussing on blowing bubbles out into the water at a steady rate (use the pressure of the water to help regulate and slow down the breathing-out phase). We take breathing so seriously with our open water virgins that we dedicate the first session solely to developing an effective breathing technique – it really is a crucial swimming skill!

Some swimmers turn onto their back if they feel like they’re not breathing effectively. Try to avoid this – it may actually increase feelings of disorientation and panic, and, furthermore, there may be a temptation to start breathing in too quickly. If you find yourself struggling, try to keep your face in the water, blow bubbles steadily, and use the pressure of the water itself to help regulate and slow down your breathing.

4. Prepare to share your experience with other aquatic life!

Before you start your first ever swim it’s best to face the facts – there will be fish, there will be vegetation and there will be insects sharing this natural experience with you! For many swimmers, this realisation can cause a little unease initially, and that’s totally understandable.

But you’ll soon realise that encounters with other types of aquatic life are few and far between. Fish will be more scared of you than you are of them, and they’ll be sure to make themselves scarce as you speed through the water. Quite apart from that, the presence of aquatic life, especially vegetation, highlights the fact that you’re swimming in clean, healthy, living water. We’re confident that you’ll soon learn to embrace, rather than fear, the aquatic life around you – at least you won’t need to put up with the awful smell of chlorinated pools anymore!

5. Get the right gear! (and make sure it fits)

Some first-time open water swimmers make things harder for themselves by not having the right gear, or worse still, by wearing it incorrectly.

When it comes to choosing a wetsuit (if you wear one, that is) make sure you go for one that’s been specifically designed for open water swimming. Suits designed for surfing or other water sports are often more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to swimming. There’s some amazing planning and engineering that goes into making a wetsuit for an open water swimmer – the material is super-thin around the shoulders to ensure mobility, and thicker around the legs to add extra buoyancy and to allow for a more streamlined shape in the water. We always send our swimmers in the direction of Zone3 – their suits are awesome!

But, most importantly, choose the right-sized wetsuit! If it’s too tight it may cause breathing difficulties and feelings of tightness across the chest. Make sure you pull your wetsuit right up over your chest – this can often relieve feelings of tightness. And if the suit is too loose, and letting in excess water, this will slow you down, and cool you down too (far from ideal)!

Finally, you’ll need a good pair of goggles. Make sure they fit properly, don’t leak and don’t fog up. And further still, it’s often wise to get some goggles with mirrored (or polarised) lenses – again, these are usually designed specifically for open water swimmers and are ideal for bright, sunny days as they allow you to see where you’re going even when faced with glare from the sunshine on the surface of the water.

6. Replicate the Open Water experience in the pool

Before your first ever open water swim, you can add certain drills and exercises into your pool-training sessions to help simulate aspects of the open water experience – this will ensure you’re extra prepared when you transition from the pool to open water.

When you try open water swimming for the first time, you’ll quickly realise that you don’t have the luxury of putting your feet down on the bottom of the pool or hanging onto the side if you get tired. Instead, once you’ve started swimming – and set off around a marked course – you’ll have to keep going until you reach the end. With this in mind, it’s pretty important to make sure you’re fit enough to make it all the way around your chosen course before you set off.

A great exercise – to emulate the open water experience (and to boost your fitness levels at the same time) – is to try swimming longer distances in the pool with no stopping and with no pushing off the wall or putting your feet down at each end.

Begin by swimming 150m continuously. Remember, that means no pausing or touching the pool walls at each end, and no putting your feet down. Try this for a couple of sessions and work up to being able to complete 300m. After that, you should be about ready to make the transition to the open water!

7. Watch where you’re going!

Here’s something else you’ll realise pretty quickly … it’s rather difficult to keep track of where you’re going in open water. There are no lane ropes to guide you, no helpful black lines on the bottom (like at the pool), and most of the time you’re unlikely to be able to see to the bottom of the reservoir, lake, or river you’re swimming in. But fear not – open water swimmers use a technique called ‘sighting’ – a way of looking or sighting the way ahead – to help them navigate in open water.

The first few times you hit the open water, don’t worry about being overly technical with your sighting (that will come with time). Instead, just focus on lifting your eyes forward and looking at where you’re going every 10–12 strokes or so. This will help you to stay on course, swim in a straight line, and not lose your bearings or become disorientated.

And do remember that it’s just your eyes you’re lifting out of the water – not your whole head. Don’t be tempted to breathe to front while you’re swimming or else you’ll be rewarded with a mouthful of water. Not nice. Sighting is a skill that we spend a lot of time on with our open water improvers – getting the technique just right is essential for becoming an effective open-water swimmer.

Again, sighting is a skill you can practise in the pool first – lift your eyes above the water line and sight forward at an object in the distance. The poolside clock tends to be a good marker to aim for.

 

8. Know your venue…and plan your swim

Before your first open water swim, do some research. If possible, try to find a venue that seems beginner-friendly – one with a smaller course (ideally around 300m–400m) and an onsite safety team. Once you’ve found the right venue, familiarise yourself with the set-up there – download a map of the swimming area if one’s available, and read any reviews left by other swimmers so you know exactly what to expect when you get there.

Before you set off, make sure you’re confident with the set-up and rules of your chosen venue – which way to swim around the marked courses, and how to attract help in case you get into difficulty. And, if possible, try to swim with a friend or even an instructor – this will help put your mind at ease and allow you to relax into this new and awesome open water environment.

Another helpful tip … before you start swimming, make sure you know which landmark you’ll be sighting towards. This might be a tall tree or building in the distance – always a stationary object. Again, knowing these things in advance will allow you to navigate your chosen course more easily and to stay relaxed.

9. Eat before and after your swim

It’s really important to make sure you fuel up before your swim and that you re-fuel adequately afterwards. Swimming in colder water burns way more calories than swimming in the pool – we’ve written more about these positive health benefits here – but that in turn means it’s really important that you eat properly before and after your swim.

As you may know, many open water venues run their sessions rather early in the mornings, and although you might be tempted just to grab a coffee and skip breakfast, this really isn’t recommended. Make sure you eat something. There’s nothing worse than rocking up for a swim and having an empty stomach. So in the mornings, try to get some food on board, even if it’s just something simple like a piece of toast.

Eating adequately after you’ve completed your swim is equally important. There’s a 20-minute window or thereabouts after you’ve finished exercising where you need to replace the energy that you’ve used up – if not, your body will start using the wrong reserves and this won’t help your recovery. Swimming in cold water requires a lot of energy – so don’t forget to re-fuel!

10. And finally…don’t kick too much!

First-time open water swimmers tend to kick a lot more than they actually need to. No, we’re not saying stop kicking altogether; what we are saying is try to kick in a relaxed and controlled manner – the kick should be a light flutter-kick right at the surface of the water rather than an overly vigorous, and energy-sapping movement.

Indeed, swimmers who kick too much (often nervous beginners) end up wasting precious energy and oxygen, which in turn can lead to that not-so-nice feeling of running out of air or a tightening of the chest. If you’re wearing a wetsuit, let it do most of the work – it’s been specifically designed to give your legs extra buoyancy and to make sure they stay at the correct angle in water, allowing your body to achieve that perfect streamlined position.

Good luck, guys! You’ll absolutely love your first open-water swim – there’ll be no looking back!

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Acclimatisation | The most important Open Water skill

What is acclimatisation?

Acclimatisation is the process Open Water swimmers use to allow their body to adjust to cold water. Unlike your swimming pool – you can’t really just dive in. It’s always best to allow your body to get used to the water gradually and to follow a number of steps to allow your body, your muscles and your mind adjust to the Open Water environment. And the acclimatisation process is one of the first things we work through with our Open Water Virgins – it really is one of the most important Open Water skills.

Why is it so important?

Acclimatisation is important because it helps you to mitigate the risk of ‘cold water shock‘ – the adverse reaction of the body to very cold water, often triggered by an unexpected fall or a rushed entry into cold water.

Cold water shock aside, if you start swimming without acclimatising then your swim simply won’t be as effective or as smooth as it could be – your muscles won’t be used to the water and you won’t be swimming at your best. And so you really should acclimatise whenever you swim in Open Water and especially before an Open Water race – this is something we run through with our Open Water experts and nearly every Open Water swimmer has an experience (usually not the best) of forgetting to acclimatise before a race.

How to acclimatise?

  1. Splash your face, hands and your body with the cold water
  2. Enter the water gradually (ideally via a ramp or a shallow gradient)
  3. Once in the water, let some water down the front of your wetsuit – yes, it might sound like we’re being a bit mean here BUT this is the best way to cool your body down quickly.
  4. Practise floating on your front and back, relax your muscles, your lungs and let your wetsuit do most of the work
  5. Practise breathing out into the water (using your mouth). Follow the breathing drill below to allow your lungs to expand and to counteract the constricting effects of your wetsuit:

Breathe out for 5 seconds with a calm inhale in between each exhale (repeat 10 times)

Breathe out for 10 seconds (repeat 10 times)

Breathe out for 20 seconds (repeat 10 times)

Top acclimatisation tips:

  • Practice regular cold water submersion – cold baths or showers is a great place to start!
  • Always allow enough time before a race or swim to acclimatise properly
  • Know your own body and recognise the symptoms of cold water shock
  • The more you acclimatise the easier it becomes!