Preparing for open water swimming

Faced with these two options as a choice of swim venue, which would you choose? I would choose open water, any day, I equate it to running on a treadmill versus running outdoors, but in swimming terms. Of course, there is a time and place for both, but how do you keep yourself safe outdoors?

I live in the Southern Hemisphere, so of course, I am just coming into open water swim season whereas Northern Europe is locked in the middle of winter. This doesn’t stop some of my crazy English friends from swimming outside but for those just starting out, I wouldn’t advise it!

Make sure the area you choose has water that has passed safety tests. The dangerous things to be mindful of is, for example, blue green algae which is very dangerous for swimmers.

Some essential items you need: 

  • Melanie EilatSwimming wet suit (unless you live in a hot country)
  • Goggles. They don’t have to be open water specific. I use TYR Nest Pro, frosted. This helps with the glare of the sun on the water, but I can still use them inside or in normal daylight.
  • Baby oil. This is to lubricate the wet suit making it easier to get on. Don’t use Vaseline, it will damage the neoprene
  • Neoprene hat / socks (optional, but might make the cold start / end of season waters a bit easier to cope with
  • A brightly coloured swim cap (safety – makes you easy to see)
  • Bottle water (or small can full fat coke). Sometimes people get motion sickness from swimming, coke is a good stomach settler.

Beware of rings and so on when swimming in cold water, I often take them off, in case I lose them.

Physical signs to look out for

When I was swimming yesterday I had to have a think about cold water signs I have experienced in the past. It’s important to be aware and keep yourself safe.

  • Cold face is the most common thing that takes people’s breath away. Just stay calm and swim for a while, it should ease off as you acclimatise.
  • If the water is too cold, you will notice a headache, like you get when you have a nice cream too fast. Next y ah notice your vision become affected, you start to see peripheral spots, feel dizzy. If you feel these symptoms, stop, float on your back for a while with your head out, till the symptoms subside. Don’t go any further out if you don’t feel confident.
  • Cold feet / hands. This is manageable, unless it gets to the point of being in pain with the cold. Then it’s time to shorten your swim
  • Breathing. It’s all to easy to hyperventilate with the shock of the water temp. Take it steady. Float on your back, let your wet suit fill with water, dip your head in a few times before you set off. Say calm, keep your breathing the same as it was in the pool.
  • Look at landmarks before you set off, so that you can orientate yourself, specially if swimming in the sea. Make sure they are big landmarks, as everything looks different when you are in the water looking back at the land.

In England the minimum safe temperature for swimming outside is 11 degrees. If it is that cold you will definitely know about it!

When you get out, remember a wet wetsuit is much easier to get out of than a dry one. Use every session as transition practice. Make it a race and time yourself!

The way I get out of my suit

  • Pull each arm out so the sleeves go inside out. I keep my hat and goggles in one hand so they are now also lodged inside a sleeve, for safe keeping
  • pull the suit down to the waist, beyond the hips and down to the knees, still turning it inside out.
  • Stand on the suit with one foot, and pull the other leg out.
  • Stand on the suit with the free leg, pull the other one out.

Paramount thing – enjoy! It is so much fun being outdoors and swimming in freedom.

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