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Open Water Swimming Tips for First Time Wild Swimmers

Swimmer prepares for the Great North Swim at Windermere
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Open Water Swimming Tips for First Time Wild Swimmers

Have you challenged yourself lately? Have you got out of your depth? You’re never to old for a challenge you know! I stretched myself by entering the half mile class of the Great North Swim. And before you shrug your shoulders and tell me that’s not very far, can I just point out that I am not a swimmer? But, like anything else, preparation and the right mental attitude saw me through. Oh and a little help from others. To pay that forward I’ve put together my own list of open water swimming tips for first time wild swimmers….   

Psyching myself up for first time lake swimming

“It’s all psychological and not physical,” says David our trainer, just before we tumble into England’s biggest lake on a practice session three weeks before the Great North Swim. The temperature of the water reads a chilling 10 degrees.

He’s wrong, I am thinking. That’s while I still can think. In a few seconds the cold moves up my spine and my brain freezes. There is just enough of it operating to tell me it would be very wise to leave the water.

Fight or flight

According to David, that’s all very normal. There is a little zone in everyone’s brain called the amygdala that alerts you to danger and makes you afraid of things like wading into Windermere on a cold day. And quite rightly. It’s the zone of self-protection for us humans. It triggers several responses. Most of them involve the production of adrenaline and one of them also involves running away. I really, really want to run away. But my legs are frozen to the spot and the pebbles hurt.

Swimming in Lake Windermere

The Lake District’s Windermere – looks lovely – fancy a swim?

Training for the Great North Swim

David advises several round of training before doing the Great North Swim in order to convince this part of the brain that I don’t have to leg it away from the danger. “The first time you do it, the anygdala will sense the cold in your legs and body and quite rightly panic. It will release adrenalin and scream at you to run, but you can talk to it. If you tell it you are ok, it will calm down in response to your words” says David. “The next time you swim it will remember that no harm came to you the first time, although you will still have to tell it you are ok. The third time, it will adjust even further, and by the time you get to the day of the swim, you and your brain will know that nothing bad will happen and the panic response won’t kick in.”

Wild Swimmers in the Lake District

Wild or open water swimming is gaining in popularity in the Lake District

It’s so NOT like a swimming pool

Lake swimming, as I am discovering, is very different to swimming pool swimming. And I am not a good swimming pool swimmer. I can’t even do the crawl and my version of the breast stroke seems to be an awful lot slower than everybody else’s. But at least my small strokes get me somewhere in the pool. In a lake it’s one of those dreams where you are running and running and never get anywhere.

I had never before considered wild swimming, despite living in The Lakes for the last decade. For me, swimming was for swimmers. But a drunken promise made me sign up for the race. And the commitment of the race made me sign up for the training. And here we are…

Flower petals on Windermere dawn near Wray Castle

Fancy flower petals in your hair? Well you know what to do.

Settling into swimming training

Anyway, once my brain has conquered my body and I am in a rhythm, I can see the joy of it. Sort of. Even if you are swimming in a fairly busy area (we are never more than 100 metres from dog walkers and a footpath during training) it feels remote. You are aware of the wind, and the sun, and the power of something much bigger than you. You get a view of the mountains you will never get from land. And you truly feel alone with nature.

Morning of Great North Swim at Windermere

Morning at Great North Swim, Windermere. Truly alone with nature and hundreds of swimmers.

Preparation for the Great North Swim

The training works. On the day of the Great North Swim the water is warm. Well, a bit warmer than our training sessions. The atmosphere is vibrant. And I am prepared. I rush into the water with everyone else, plunge in, and get my head down. I am confident I can go the distance. Because I have gone the distance three times before this in the lead up to the race.

I am slow. I focus on the mountains ahead of me and my breathing. I feel the lake and talk to it under my breath. I take energy from all the other swimmers. choke occasionally and swallow water and it takes me over half an hour to complete the half mile. But I do. And I never once feel like running away.

“You can call yourself an athlete now” says the compere over the tannoy.

I doubt that. But I can call myself a wild swimmer. I have a wet suit and a medal to prove it.

These tips for open water swimming got me this far

These tips for open water swimming got me this far

12 Open Water Swimming Tips for Beginners

If you are interested in open water swimming, I’d recommend you read up and get yourself informed about the benefits and the risks before plunging in. You’ll find some useful websites listed at the end of this post. Here’s some of the useful tips I picked up from my training and first few miles in the water.

  1. Go with someone else. There really is safety in numbers. And someone to chat to is nice too.
  2. Train with an experienced guide if you can. It makes all the difference to your knowledge and confidence. Your guide will assess your skills and swim with you, talking you down if you are getting into a tizzy. They will also put together an open water swimming training plan. Ours covered a month before the race. David also gave us lots of advice on what to eat before the race. His top for preparing to swim a race in a lake? A packet of Jelly babies as you are queuing at the start gate. “They release just the right amount of sugar in just the right amount of time and give you an energy boost you might need.”
  3. Focus on your breathing to conquer the shock of getting in.
  4. Don’t worry about speed, you can swim as slow as you like, but beware going out too far. The cold can suddenly creep up on you and drain your energy which may make it hard to return to the safety of the shore. We swam parallel to the lake’s edge.
  5. Try not to stay in cold water for too long, say more than 40 minutes during training. And on your first session maybe try 20 minutes and see how it feels.
  6. Invest in a wetsuit of 3mm or thicker. But not a really expensive one. I paid £50 for a basic Gul Summer Wetsuit Some places rent them so you can try it out. You can always buy one later if wild swimming suits you.
  7. Enter the water slowly. That way your heart and blood pressure gets used to the cold. A good technique to discipline yourself is to count from one to ten and take the plunge by the time you reach ten.
  8. Don’t bother with booties; they drag you down. But some kind of boating shoe can help you negotiate the stones when getting in and out. Dump them on the side somewhere and go back for them later.
  9. Buy a brightly coloured swimming hat for visibility, and a float that you can drag behind you.
  10. Don’t give up after your first go. It does get easier, honestly.
  11. Try your skills in a race like the Great North Swim. It may give you the push you need to jump in with both feet. It worked for me!
  12. Find maps of good swim spots near you on the Outdoor Swimming Society website or buy a good book like Kate Rews Wild Swimbook.
Morning of Great North Swim at Windermere

Swimmers ready to start their Great North Swim

Swimming tips from a local

My friend Beth recently got into the habit of wild swimming in the Lake District on her morning off work. She lays aside two hours to do it, often not venturing very far from a main road or car park. She seems to have taken to it quicker than I did and says a quick surf (of the internet not the lake) will throw up lots of suggestions for the best places to swim near you as well as tips on improving technique in the water.

Here are her top 10 tips for lake swimming:

1. Personally I’d say always, always use a tow float.
2. Make sure you’re with someone funny enough to distract you from your own imagination
3. Even in lakes beware the wind it can catch you out when you turn and realize you’ve been swimming away from it and waves smacking into your face is no fun.
4. Calm your breath first. It works.
5. Can’t front crawl?  No biggie. Better views anyway.
6. Start small.
7. Don’t wait till summer. Water on bare skin even in December is the best feeling ever. Just don’t hang around in it too long.
8. Everyone looks like they know what they’re doing in a wetsuit. Don’t be intimidated. Outdoor swimmers are mostly nice friendly folk.  It’s just normal swimming … but a little bit more ‘outside’.
9. Also don’t be intimidated by the title – wild or open water doesn’t mean ‘terrifying lake and horrible scary water.’ Remember when we just used to call it ‘swimming?’
10. Bring tea and cake
Knitted Tea Cosies and Lemon Drizzle Cake in the Cowan Bridge Tea Room

Get the tea and cake to go! And while you’re at it, the tea cosy might help warm your toes.

To learn more about open water swimming

The Open Water Swimming Society have lots of useful information and advice on their website, with maps of great swim spots, tips on technique, equipment and training. The Wild Swimming website also has lists of sites, events, a blog and publishes books on wild swimming, just like these.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.

3 Comments

  • It’s all in the temp, right? When I swam in Swedish lakes this summer, in July’s cosy approx. 18°, it felt fantastic and being all alone in the middle of the lake, the quiet, the pleasant 360° view, is one of the most beautiful memories I carried home this year. My swimming style may resemble yours, and I had neither a wetsuit nor a float, but Princess Amygdala never talked to me.

    Whereas the coldest I ever did was 13°, in the Baltic, again in nothing but swimming trunks, as a kid. More resilient, I guess. I quite enjoyed it. The hardest part was running back to the camp wet, in equally cold air and a sharp wind. Of course I had no towel, that was spontaneous…

    There is something to the idea of doing this more often. Do they make wetsuits with an enormous bulge? I guess it qualifies as blubber protecting me from the cold.

  • […] Or for mountain biking head north and try the island of Skye. Mountain Bike Rider magazine claims that Skye boasts the best singletrack trail in Britain – the Sligachan. In fact, there are many great sweet spots to bike depending on your skills, including the fearsome Black Cuillin trail that Danny MacAskill tackled in his documentary The Ridge. If you like to wild swim then maybe pop your wetsuits in a pannier and head to the enchanting Fairy Pools in the midst of the Cuillin range. If you’re new to it, check out our tips on getting started with wild swimming. […]

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