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Ask the Expert: Ed Williams on how to prepare for an open water swim

My first attempt at an open water swim was about 10 years ago. I vowed I would never get back in to those chilly waters, but I’m feeling the pull of adventure once again. What has changed and where do I start? How can I be best prepared and find the right event for me?

Planning and preparing 

The first thing to do is to plan your event, training and to understand fully what preparation you need to do.

Swimming in open water is very different to swimming in a pool. It can be cold, murky and disorientating. It can be hard to know where you are or what direction you are swimming in.

Having lots of other people around you can also be uncomfortable and sometimes lead to a panicky sensation. Do not let these things put you off.

Challenges are supposed to be hard and overcoming them is an incredibly euphoric feeling. That is why most people go back again and again, for that sense of achievement and adrenaline rush.

Just remember that when thinking of the obstacles and everything will gain perspective. 

Training and technique

Although you are going to be doing an open water swim, training indoors is essential.

You will be in your comfort zone and can focus on interval training to increase your stamina. It is also a perfect place to work on your technique.

Try and find a good coach to make sure you are swimming as efficiently as possible with rhythmic breathing and minimal effort.

Many local leisure centres offer technique sessions and most also have novice swimming clubs where you can train with like-minded people.

In the pool

Swimming in a pool is very different to swimming in open water but you can still practice a lot of skills that will translate into open water.

Try and master sighting (the ability to lift the eyes above the water every few strokes to see where you are going).

This is an essential skill for open water swimming and your goal should be to do it fluidly without breaking the rhythm of the stroke.

You can also practice skills like drafting (swimming behind someone else to get a boost) and of course continuous lap swimming to try and simulate the distance.

Transition to outdoors 

As the outdoor air and water temperature start to warm up (mid April is the norm), then you should start transitioning to outdoor training.

Even then, it does not have to be 100% outdoor so keep a bit of indoor swimming going to establish a good balance.

This will most likely involve investing in a wetsuit. You can hire or buy them online but, for the best results, find a local triathlon shop who can do a wetsuit fitting.

Getting the perfect fit will save you a lot of discomfort and pain down the line so it is worth doing it right.

Next you will need to find some outdoor locations to train in. Most towns have specialist open water lakes, where you can swim safely as part of a structured group.

The best place to start with locating them is your local swim or triathlon club, who will most likely have training sessions already in place.

As a novice, it is wise to have as much safety support and structure as possible. Never swim in open water on your own and always put safety first.

Image of swimmer jumping into water. Used for article about prearing for open water swimming in the pool.

The benefits 

Swimming outdoors has so many health benefits both physically and mentally.

The more you immerse yourself in the community of open water swimmers, the more you will experience these incredible effects.

The camaraderie of meeting other people doing similar events will also work wonders for your mental state.

Finding the right event 

If you are new to open water swimming then make sure to start small. Perhaps just a 400m swim and then work up from there.

Your local swimming and triathlon community will have a big list of events so find one that you like the sound of and then make sure to enter.

The sooner you enter, the sooner you are mentally committed and accountable to yourself. This will really help get you in the right head space for effective training. 

Preparing for your first event 

Preparation is the key to success. Do not neglect your training and the ability to perform the necessary skills such as sighting and swimming without relying on touching a wall.

Make sure to acclimatise to the cold early in the season and make sure your technique is as efficient as possible.

When the day of your event arrives, relax, know you have prepared and most importantly enjoy the experience.

It will be over before you know it and you can start planning your next one!

Our expert

Ed Williams, is the head of Elite Swimming Academy Ltd, in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. He is one of only a handful of people to have swum both the English and Irish Channels solo – and without a wetsuit!

  • This article first appeared in Swimming Times