Top tips for open water swimming beginners
If you’re taking part in Swim Serpentine we recommend training at least twice a week for around eight weeks or more before the event, and there are two key areas to focus on, especially if you’re a beginner:
- Getting swim fit, which can be achieved in a swimming pool or lido if necessary
- Becoming acclimatised to open water swimming conditions
The second point is because swimming in open water is very different to swimming in a pool or lido. For example the water may not be clear, so you’ll need to check you’re swimming in the right direction; you’ll have other swimmers near you at Swim Serpentine, which you may not be used to; and of course the Great British weather is always a factor to consider!
So we’ve asked Swim Serpentine’s Event Director Colin Hill to put together this introduction to open water swimming.
Where to swim in open water
Open water swimming has always been about enjoying – and being immersed in – nature, rather than overcrowding beaches, upsetting locals or placing a strain on rescue services.
Open water swimming locations encompass everything from rivers, tarns and lakes to lochs and seas. Some waters are free and have open access and some are privately owned and may have regulated swim sessions. Ask around to find a group of open water swimmers near you – Facebook is ideal for finding your local swimming fraternity.
Local advice from swimmers is important. Find out where other swimmers go for a dip and try to speak with someone to ask about conditions in the area and anything else you need to be aware of. Swimmers are generally a friendly bunch to approach for information.
Swimming safety first
Don’t forget your common sense. You need to be aware of the safety issues where you choose to swim. Are there any warning signs around the water? You should also try to assess the water quality – if it’s smelly or it doesn’t look right, give it a miss.
Consider how recent weather might have affected the water – after lots of rain, for example, rivers can flood, flow faster and present dangers. If you’re planning a sea swim, check with locals to find out more about the tides. Don’t dive or jump into unknown depths. Of course, there is also a general ‘No petting’ rule in force, which has stuck with me from the old swimming pool warning posters!
Be fit and healthy for outdoor swimming
Before you swim outdoors, it is your responsibility to be sufficiently fit and healthy to participate in open water swimming. You should think about any pre-existing medical conditions that you may have and, if in any doubt, you should not swim.
If you choose to swim in the sea, you should understand the risks and take the necessary steps to keep yourself safe. This will help reduce the demand on lifeboat crews and other emergency services. Visit the the RNLI website for advice on sea swimming.
Find a local open water swimming coach
There are a large number of qualified open water swimming coaches around the country who can take out individuals or small groups for introduction sessions. A quick Google search should locate some close to you.
Choose the right time to swim
Weekends and warm days will be the busiest times to swim, so, if possible, try to avoid adding to the numbers. I do my lake swims on weekdays and well before 09:00 and I enjoy swimming in all weather conditions – and while you don’t want to swim in storms or high winds, a little bit of choppy water and drizzle is great practice.
Open water swim with a friend
Don’t swim alone, swim with others so you can keep an eye on each other. Having someone on the shore to assist you when you exit the water is always helpful. You should also let someone know where you are, what you’re doing and your expected return time.
Stand out in the water
Use a tow float – this increases your visibility to boat users and other swimmers and if you get cramp you can hold onto it. There are dry bag versions so you can take your car keys or clothes with you. Wear a bright-coloured hat so you are more visible when swimming. For tow floats and dry bags, please visit our partners Swim Secure.
Plan your entry and exit points
When you find a section of water to swim in, make sure you have a safe place to enter and exit the water. When you start swimming, check to make sure you can easily spot where you started from, this will make it easier when you want to leave the water. Look for landmarks that will be visible from the water.
Don’t forget to enjoy your swim! I always take a moment to look around me and really appreciate where I am. Start with a little head-up breaststroke to settle your breathing before starting your preferred stroke.