How to swim in open water

How to swim in open water

Whether you're progressing from a pool-based triathlon or just keen to try open water swimming for the first time, follow these key tips from multiple world record holder Dr Julie Bradshaw MBE.

I began open water swimming when I was 12 years old and had to take that first 'scary' step transferring from the pool to the outside unknown. I asked my parents about entering a cross Windermere swim and I can still remember it all so clearly 40 years later. So here's what would I advise those just getting into the amazing waters outdoors:

Before you venture into open water, you need to first think about safety. I was a bit nervous when I first went in open water but I was confident in the safety support I had and this helped reduce my ‘butterflies’. I was accompanied by a rowing boat which had the Flag Alpha flying (denotes a swimmer in the water).

So what other safety aspects are there?

  • Always tell others where you are going swimming and do take someone along to watch you; if you have a swimmer friend, then you can swim together.
  • Before swimming check the weather conditions. Even a lake can get rough.
  • Make sure you can be seen in the water (more about this later).
  • RESPECT the water and never go too far the first time. You may be able to swim a certain distance in a pool, but in open water that distance will be less especially with no ‘turns’ (no poolside) and of course, cold water. This can sap your energy if you are not used to it.

Swim tow floatAlways wear a brightly coloured swim hat and use a safer swim float (pictured left). The ones I use are also drybags as well so you can carry a small amount of kit in there.

Goggles are very important and get ones that you feel comfortable with. It is not as easy to change your goggles in open water as it is in a swimming pool, when you can just stand up at one end of the pool! Wear ones which give you good overall vision and stay ‘unfogged’. I like the Aqua Sphere ones which mean I have all round vision and they don’t steam up.

As far as swimming costumes are concerned, various places and events have different rules regarding swimsuits. I began long distance swimming in the 70s when only a swimming costume, hat and goggles were allowed. This is how I have always swum. Nowadays, wetsuits are permitted in certain events so you would need to check with any event organiser. If you are just getting started then decide if you are going to use a wetsuit or not. If you do, get one that fits comfortably as they can rub if not properly fitted - here are more hints and tips for buying a wetsuit.

Open water swimming is different to the pool so you need to try out certain skills before venturing out.

There is an 'art' in getting in to colder water. I tend to walk in slowly unless it is a deep entry, in which case I have to immerse myself much quicker. This is where acclimatisation comes in and means your breath doesn't get taken away as much as it would have done had you not been practicing outside swimming. A good little tip is to splash some water on the back of your neck at the top. Before you start swimming, make sure you have stabalised your breath.

Another important skill in open water swimming is 'sighting' as there are no lines on the bottom of a lake to follow! You need to be able to look up whilst swimming - and without interrupting your stroke. It's good to have a stable, non-moving point in the distance to focus on and which you can use to aim for. If possible check this out at the start.

You will need to acclimatise, even if in a wetsuit. Start off with short swims and build it up. It gets easier the more you do. Never over-do it. Some swimmers swim outdoors all year round, and little dips in the winter - which are invigorating and good for physical wellbeing - get your body used to handling the cold. In turn you will increase your confidence.

Swimmer feeding during successful Windermere swim with Julie's boat
Water bottleI often get asked, ‘what should I eat?' There is nutrition leading up to a swim and nutrition whilst swimming. There are many 'heads' on this one, and I am of the opinion that every swimmer is different and needs to find what works for them. 

The events you enter also determines what feeding pattern and technique you need to use. For example a swimmer doing the Channel will be swimming beside a big boat and will need to learn what to use to get food/fluid since the ruling is no one is allowed to touch the swimmer and the swimmer cannot touch anyone or the boat – therefore, they have to tread water.

There are various methods - I have always used a small drinking bottle which has a lid that I can easily pull up and suck from, or one with a flip top that I can open easily in the water and 'tip' into my mouth.

Unlike when I started out with open water swimming, there are now many coaches out there and many swim camps, clinics and events that are available to help you. My advice is to check these out and see what feels right for you.

Be realistic and set yourself appropriate targets. Many of the open water swim camps I offer cater for a variety of swimmers as I like to inspire, motivate and enable and ultimately to expand upon a swimmer's potential.

There is nothing better than being a coach (except being a swimmer myself too!) when I see swimmers progressing successfully and reaching their goals. It still brings me great pleasure even after having been involved and coaching over 37 years.

So choose a coach you can resonate with and one who not only has the right credentials, but can 'walk the talk'. It is also useful to join a swimming club in your area and there are many lakes out there which have been approved for Open Water Swimming.

Good luck and take action now - if you need any more help/advice then do contact me. I would be only too pleased to help.

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