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Health & Fitness A Complete Guide to Open Water Swimming

21:47  06 july  2021
21:47  06 july  2021 Source:   menshealth.co.uk

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If you’re tired of being constrained by lane ropes and pool walls, you might’ve considered dipping your toe into open water swimming. But transitioning from lido to lake isn’t without challenges, and the physically-demanding conditions that make open water swimming so exhilarating for longtime advocates – variable temperatures, cloudy water, choppy waves and disorienting depths – can make the sport daunting for newcomers.

a person swimming in the water: Open water swimming is exhilarating and physically demanding in equal measure. We share the skills, training and kit you need to transition from lido to lake. © mihtiander - Getty Images Open water swimming is exhilarating and physically demanding in equal measure. We share the skills, training and kit you need to transition from lido to lake.

“You have the elements such as wind, temperature, waves and potential currents and tides in the sea,” says Adam Walker, head coach and founder of Ocean Walker Academy. “You also don’t have a wall to hang on to. A pool is a consistent 29°C, which makes it always comfortable to swim in – and after 25 metres in a normal size pool you can rest. In open water, you may have to swim longer before being able to stand up.”

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While there’s no way to replicate open water swimming conditions – sometimes called wild swimming – in a pool setting, there are skills you can practice to make your first experience go smooth sailing. Keen to suit up and take the plunge? Here, we dive into the benefits of open water swimming, share the techniques and training approach you need to tackle your first ocean mile, and reveal the kit you need to make a splash.

Come on in, the water’s fine.

7 Benefits of Open Water Swimming

From cardio endurance to total-body strength, there are loads of reasons to start swimming on the reg. Quit lapping the lido and hit the open water to double down on the health benefits – here are seven reasons to take your next dip outdoors:

Open Water Swimming Supercharges Your Immune System

Immersing yourself in cold water three times a week increases your white blood count, which in turn bolsters your immune system, researchers from the Czech Republic discovered.

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Open Water Swimming Boosts Your Mood

Taking a dip outdoors boosts dopamine and serotonin levels and stimulates the release of feel-good endorphins. One BMJ Case Reports study reported an immediate improvement in mood following each swim and a sustained, gradual reduction in symptoms of depression.

Open Water Swimming Relieves Stress

Tough day at the office? Taking a dip could be the remedy. In a survey of 4,000 swimmers across the world, 74% said water-based activities released stress and tension, and 70% agreed that it helps them to feel mentally refreshed. Open water swimming triggers your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), promoting feelings of calm and even helping you get a better night’s kip.

Open Water Swimming Improves Your Athletic Performance

The extreme environmental conditions can supercharge your sports performance out of the water. Regular open-water swimmers swim at around 90% of maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) for sustained periods of time, a comprehensive review study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance noted.

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a man wearing a suit and tie: gettyimages-659064763 © Peter Muller - Getty Images gettyimages-659064763

Open Water Swimming Burns Fat, Fast

When stem cells are exposed to cold temperatures, the chill promotes the formation of brown fat, research published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports found. Unlike pesky white fat cells – usually found beneath the skin and stored around your gut – the brown stuff revs up your metabolism to keep you warm, burning more energy in the process.

Open Water Swimming Crushes Fatigue

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Open Water Swimming Provides Pain Relief

Cold water therapy has long been deployed by athletes to tackle post-workout muscle pain and niggling injuries. So potent are the pain-killing effects of swimming in icy temperatures, a short, sharp plunge can act as an alternative to strong painkillers and physiotherapy, according to a study published in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

7 Open Water Swimming Skills to Master

Let’s get real for a moment: open water swimming is nothing like pool swimming, so before you break free from your chlorinated rectangle, you’ll need to hone a specific set of skills and techniques. Here’s what you need to work on before submerging yourself for the first time.

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Build Your Endurance

There’s no respite when you get tired, so stamina is everything. You should be able to swim the open water distance around three times over without stopping in a pool setting – put simply, for every mile in open water swimming, train for three in the pool. “Once a week, try to swim without stopping for 200, 400, 800 metres, working up to longer swims,” says Paul Fowler, founder and head coach at 100% Swimming. Remember, there are no walls (or bottom surfaces) in open water swimming, so practice changing directions and treading water without support.

Nail Your Form

Swimming is a technical sport at the best of times. From breathing to body position, there’s skill involved in making it down the lane and back repeatedly, let alone choppy seas. On the open water, front crawl is most energy-efficient swim style. Your head is heavy, so to reduce drag and keep your body in a straight line, “your eyes [and head] should be looking down – this will help keep the legs up,” says former Olympic swimmer Keri-Anne Payne.

“I recommend always swimming under the waves,” says Walker. “Try and glide in your stroke as much as possible. This will save you doing less strokes and in turn save energy. You don’t want to fight the waves.” And when you take a breath, make sure your hips and shoulders turn – not your neck. “This makes it a lot easier to access air and will help you conserve energy and focus on swimming faster for longer,” Payne adds.

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Vary Your Stroke

Different weather conditions require different swim strokes. In choppier water, “if the current is with you, lengthen your stroke and make the most of your gains,” says Fowler. This is the time for longer, deeper pulls. However, “if you’re against the current or the wind, ensure that you keep a good tempo in your stroke without pausing or you will lose ground,” he says. In this situation, shorter, shallower strokes may help you stay closer to the surface. Practice alternating between the two so you’re ready for every eventuality.

a person swimming in a body of water: gettyimages-523649614 © Mike Raabe - Getty Images gettyimages-523649614

Learn Alternate Breathing

If you have a preferred breathing side – and most swimmers do – it’s time to change that. You can’t control the waves, wind, swell, or current, so learning to breathe comfortably on both sides is crucial for a safe, stress-free swim. In the pool, make a point of incorporating irregular breathing patterns into your training, including holding your breath for multiple strokes. In the open water, however, “it’s really important that you keep to a regular rhythm,” says Payne. “Breathe out through the nose and in through the mouth. The key is to stay relaxed and breathe only as much as you need, not what you think you need.”

Practise Patience

Since you’re all swimming in the same direction – and not in line – accidental clashes are commonplace, so you’ll need to keep your cool. “All you have to think about is that no one is trying to bump into you, they just happened to arrive at the same piece of water at the same time,” says Fowler. “Practice swimming alongside others in a pool and not being flustered if you are bumped into – 99 times out of 100 it isn’t deliberate.”

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Learn Sighting

In a swimming pool you have the comfort of lanes, clear water, and a big wall when you get to the end. Open water swimming doesn’t have these luxuries, so it’s important to know where you are going. “When sighting, all that should come out of the water are your eyes, a bit like a crocodile,” says Payne. “This will reduce the amount of drag you cause by only lifting the head a small amount. Looking up regularly will ensure that you swim in a straight line. So look up every 10 to 12 strokes to stop any zigzagging.”

Don’t just look up straight ahead, says Fowler, “but scan in front of you left and right – Action Man eagle eyes – and expect to be a little off-course. It’s why you’re checking, after all.” If you’re skiing way off-piste, “hit the pause button and tread water,” he says. “Take your time and get back on track, no need to swim extra meters – staying on line is key to an accurate swim.”

Know How to Calm Down

The UK is hardly known for its tropical temperatures, and in the bracing grip of icy water, your muscles tighten and your breathing becomes shallower. Even the thickest of wetsuits can’t totally insulate you against the chill, so in deep water, it’s easy to see how panic can set in. To stamp out angst, slow your breathing right down. Controlled, rhythmical, steady breaths are key – don’t gasp for air. Mentally prepare yourself by taking cold showers and baths regularly, or practising in a non-heated outdoor swimming pool or lido.

What to Wear for Open Water Swimming

Open water swimming conditions can be harsh and unforgiving, so it pays to kit yourself out with the right gear. While you can wear your trunks, a wetsuit offers “buoyancy and warmth”, says Fowler, which is especially important during winter months. In fact, most supervised open water swimming centres make wetsuits mandatory when the temperature drops below 16°C. In summer, Fowler says, it’s not necessarily a staple piece of kit – providing you take time to acclimatise to the water temperature before starting your swim.

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You’ll also benefit from a swimming hat – “aim to get one as thick as possible, as it can help keep your head warm,” says Walker – and a decent pair of goggles. “Ear plugs will keep water out and can help insulate your inner ear from the cold,” he suggests. “I also recommend footwear, such as flip flops, to get to and from the waters edge. A towel and a robe is also a great way of keeping warm, particularly after a cooler swim.”

The Best Open Water Swimming Kit

How to Start Open Water Swimming

Goggles: check. Wetsuit: check. Ability to embrace icy water: check. Sounds like you’re ready to go. “The best way to start is to go in a controlled environment, such as a lake,” says Walker. “Once you master the lake you can try other bodies of water – but always make sure it is safe and take a buddy to watch you.”

For your first time, book an organised open water swimming session. “Choose a venue with measured loops, lifeguards and somewhere you can take advice regarding acclimatisation,” says Fowler. “You should expect to take a while to acclimatise in open water, even during summer months, as the water will be cooler than the pool.”

Once you’re in, start with two 25-metre test swims close to the entry point, Fowler continues. “Swim humbly,” he says. “Lower your distances, lower your pace and lower your expectations in comparison to what you can achieve in the pool. For example, if you normally swim a mile in a pool, start off with much shorter distances – perhaps 100 or 200-metre loops.”

Up your distance incrementally, and check yourself after each one. “Focus on good form, a long stroke and to be in control of your breathing 100% of the time,” Fowler says. “If you’re not sure about one more loop, it’s simple – it’s already time to get out. Your first time in open water is all about finding your feet and enjoying the environment, surroundings and the experience.”

'Shielding Taught Me How Important Swimming Is, as a Person with Cerebral Palsy' .
Why the freedom of the water is so vital to one writer Here, writer Francesca Hughes, who lives with Triplegic Cerebral Palsy and, as such, has shielded through much of the pandemic, digs into how it felt to lose her ability to swim – and what being in the water means for many in the disabled community.A swoosh of water runs over my head, back and legs. My arms pull me further through the clear liquid expanse of the pool. My movement, for once, carries a sensation of effortlessness and ease – I'm weightless, buoyed by a translucent sea. The author I feel most free when I swim.

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