So you’ve made the decision that you are going to do it. Your first open water swim. This is an exciting moment for any swimmer, and opens up a whole new world of swimming opportunity. I am asked a variety of questions regularly about open water swimming. How should I do it, what equipment do I need, where should I go? On that basis I’ve laid out some of the main things to consider before heading off for that first swim.

Location, Location, Location

As a swimming event director as well as an ambassador for the Royal Life Saving Society you can imagine that I am quite a stickler for safe responsible open water swim locations.

Open water swimming typically falls into three types: lakes, rivers and sea. Each has a different feel, as well as considerations for how you go about your swim.

Swimmer in Loch Ness

If this is your first open water swim, I would strongly recommend you go to a lake where open water swimming takes place, and is managed by a reputable group. Speak to the team managing the session and tell them that you are new to the sport. Ask about the safety arrangements during the swim, and if there are any hazards you should look out for. You should expect to see large brightly coloured marker buoys, a board stating water temperature, safety kayakers and a bank spotter (with binoculars) as a minimum.

There are some amazing lakes to swim in, and a quick internet search will tell you where they are. My favourite place is Queenford Lakes just outside Oxford.

Temperature

Open water swimming is cold, you just need to deal with that. If you are used to swimming in a 29 °C pool, a temperature range of 14 °C to 20 °C (certainly in the UK) will feel colder. The good news is that, it feels great and very invigorating, once you’re in!

For your first open water swim I would not recommend getting into water below 16 °C.

First swim – don’t dive, just walk in gradually, until you are at swimming depth. Give yourself a chance to acclimatise and then just breaststroke off. Spend a few minutes breaststroking close to the entry/exit point, just to check you are feeling comfortable. Once you are happy, get your head into the water and try some front crawl. Don’t try and swim too far or stay in too long for that first swim, 20 minutes max should leave you with a really positive experience.

Equipment

Open water swimming is not too kit-hungry but there are a few things that you should think about getting, aside from the obvious goggle and swim costumes.

River Arun swimmers

Wetsuit

Certainly for your first few open water swims (at least) I would recommend using a ‘swimming’ wetsuit. For two reasons: 

  1.  Buoyancy - it will safely float you in the water, and allow you to swim a little quicker.
  2.  Warmth – extra heat will allow you to swim for a longer period of time. 

Hats (be seen)

A responsible lake will want to make sure you are wearing a brightly coloured hat. This is so that the safety team can see you more easily. I would recommend getting a silicon hat which is a little thicker than a latex one and therefore a little warmer. 

Tow floats

A relatively new piece of kit, I am a big fan of tow floats and use them for most of my swims (particularly in the Thames). These safety devices strap around your waist and are towed behind as you swim. They serve a number of purposes: firstly, they are bright and can be seen clearly by all water users; secondly, they are inflated and can be used to have a rest; and thirdly, you can put your things inside and they will stay dry - keys, snack, clothes, phone.

Have a look

You’ll be amazed how difficult it is to keep a straight line when swimming in open water. It can be quite common to see open water swimmers, happily going round in circles. The answer is sighting (the act of lifting your head out of the water and having a look at where you are going). When sighting you should choose a ‘target’ and every six to eight strokes, lift your eyes out of the water to check your course. You will undoubtedly need to make some minor directional changes as you get used to the process.

Finishing your swim

Before you head off, have a think about what will make your life as easy as possible when you get out. A towel, flip flops, warm hat, changing robe, and dry clothes should be the basics waiting for you. A thermos with a hot drink inside will feel great and make you look like a pro.

Make it social and have fun

So many people I know I have met and become great friends with through open water swimming. It is a really social sport and moreover I would also say never swim alone. Swimming as a minimum of two should be your standard aim. 

River Arun Swim

As you become a more experienced swimmer, you will start to get a feel of what works for you, and tweaks you can make to improve your open water swimming experience.

Happy swimming.

Jeremy

Have a look through our swimming events to find the perfect first outdoor swimming event for you.

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Bio - Jeremy Laming

Jeremy Laming is the Event Director of Open Water Swimming Ltd, the company that runs Henley Swim events. Since switching from rowing in 2004, Jeremy has been a keen open water swimmer, regularly swimming in rivers, lakes or in the sea. Having started Henley Swim events in 2004, Jeremy has a clear focus on running exciting and more importantly safe events. The four Henley swim events now attract thousands of swimmers every year. From the experienced competitor to the first timers. On this basis Jeremy is uniquely qualified to advise on how to make your first swim a great experience.

The longest swim Jeremy has completed is a 50 mile Thames swim from Oxford to Henley.

Jeremy’s favourite swim is a 5km swim just outside Henley from Medmenham to the Flowerpot and back.