Open Water Swimming: getting started

Please note: no products mentioned in this article have sponsored/paid us to do so, they’re genuine recommendations based on what we own

Deciding to make the move from an indoor pool to outdoor water, whether it be an ocean or pond, can be daunting for even the most experienced swimmers. I found the transition a bit like the transition from running on a treadmill to running in a park for the first time; It felt odd, and like my body wasn’t quite sure what it should be doing. However, with a bit of perseverance and preparation the transition to open water swimming can be one of the best decisions you ever make, for both body and mind.

Here’s our quick guide to get you started.


1. Find a venue
Head to the Outdoor Swimming Society wild swimming map. Make sure you visit your chosen venue’s website to check whether they have special rules or requirements for swimming there.

 

2. Get the right kit
Everyone’s kit bag will vary – some people turn up in just a swimming costume and goggles and they’re good to go. I like my creature comforts though, so here’s what’s in my bag:

Wetsuit
The LSC team own Zone3 wetsuits bought from wiggle.com and have found them to be very good, but you don’t have to swim in a wetsuit at most venues. However, depending on what time of year you’re starting you might want to invest in one.

Goggles
Everyone has different preferences for goggles, but I like Aquasphere’s wide model. I was having lots of trouble sighting in my standard Speedo pair but when I made the switch to these I saw a massive improvement. After all, what’s the point in swimming outside, if you can’t see your surroundings?!

Swimming hats x 3
Once you start swimming outdoors you seem to just accumulate hats. I now have a black Speedo hat which I tend to use in heated lidos or in the summer, as it’s not very thick but I hate swimming without one, I also have a nice thick one from the Bantham Swoosh - OSS sell similar hats on their website . Finally I have a fabric one, which I got from a spa in Budapest… I tend to use that when I’m not actually doing much swimming, just hanging out in a pond or teaching in a pool. It keeps hair out of the way but isn’t restricting.

Swim Socks
I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to my feet. Although I absolutely love swimming outdoors, I don’t love it when I can’t see what my feet are touching. For the Bantham Swoosh I knew there was a chance of Weaver fish making an appearance, so to avoid any stings, I bought some BlueSeventy swim socks. They’re surprisingly easy to swim in, and I find them particularly useful for the beach as they help prevent sandy toes!

Gloves
I bought these when I started upping my distances to over 2km, as I found that my hands were going numb and getting stuck flayed apart (not so good for scooping water!). However they’re pretty cumbersome, and definitely slowed me down. I’d recommend allowing for acclimatising in your training rather than rushing it (like I did) and having to wear gloves.

Rash/warmth vest
Again, I got a warmth providing rash vest because I was suffering in the cold water, and didn’t have time to acclimatise before the event I’d signed up for. It kept me nice and snuggly and helped prevent neck rash from my wetsuit, but it’s certainly not an essential bit of kit.

Bags, bags, bags
You can never have too many plastic bags. Don’t leave without one for your wetsuit and another one for the rest of your kit!

Alpkit Airlok Bag
My absolute favourite free thing from the Bantham Swoosh was an Airlok bag (available on OSS shop). I use it to store my goggles and hats etc in after a swim, but whilst I’m swimming I pop all my valuables in there. They’re completely waterproof and can even be attached to your wetsuit so you can take medications/valuables out with you on a swim.

Other non-essential items that I don’t have, but you can get, are anti-chafe creams, anti-lens fogging serums, sports watches, pacing clocks (a little thing you put in your hat that clicks every time you should be doing a stroke) and swimming mp3 players. Also don't forget warm clothing for afterwards as there might not be showers!

 

3. Practice ‘sighting’
Without lanes to keep you straight, you’ll likely find yourself veering off-course. In order to avoid this, practice looking up at a convenient moment in your stroke. There are different techniques depending on preference for this, I tend to do it when I would normally take a breath. So when my arm comes out of the water, I life my head up and ahead rather than to the side.

 

4. Mentally prepare
From a mental standpoint, getting in a lake is a very different kettle of fish to getting in a pool. Often the lifeguards are (or seem) further away, and there’s unlikely to be a shallow end. However, remind yourself that you’re a good swimmer, and actually it’s pretty hard to drown in a wetsuit as they add so much buoyancy. If you start to panic and need to get out of the water fast, lie on your back and wave your arm in the air –  a lifeguard will soon come get you.

If you’re panicking, but feel like you can calm yourself down, try softly treading water and counting ten things you can see and hear. Concentrating on being in the moment usually helps calm me down in such a situation.

 

5. Get swimming!

Go along to your chosen venue and have fun. Chat to other swimmers (even in London, swimmers are a very chatty bunch) and if you’re not too keen on the first place you’ve tried, try another – outdoor swimming venues all vary hugely in what they provide.

 

6. Join a club

Shameless plug: if you’re nervous about the whole process and would like a guiding hand, join The London Swimming club – we’re building an inclusive community of open water swimmers. No aggressive competitors here, just a team of people who love swimming and want to share that with anyone who will listen.