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Planning Retirement Online

Out of the box - Open water swimming

April 2011

This is our regular OUT OF THE BOX feature where we give suggestions on different things to try.

If you have tried something unusual or different, tell us all about it - and send in a photograph as well if you can – so that we can share your experiences with others.


Open water swimming

open water swimmingThere is a new activity that is sweeping across the UK and it doesn’t just have to be for the young and fit.

If you have ever watched any triathlon events on television, you will see that they include a mass swim across a river or more often a section of sea. This open water swimming is not just confined to athletes; more and more people across the UK are jumping into lakes, ponds, rivers and the ocean to experience the freedom and the unique sensation of swimming in beautiful natural surroundings.

Swimming in open water is entirely different from swimming in a constructed swimming pool and also brings its own unique rewards. Many enthusiasts say they feel really close to nature, spot birds and plants they never see on land, see light diffusing in magical patterns and experience a wonderful sensation of freedom and peace. On top of all that, swimming is great exercise for all ages and the UK abounds with areas that work well for open water swimming.

However, there are quite a few things to think of before you step into that nearby river! The first thing of course is basic safety – never, ever go open water swimming alone. There are no lifeguards present and the banks may be difficult to hold onto, let alone clamber up if you get into difficulties. There are a range of hazards that hopefully you will never encounter, but nevertheless it really is important that you must always have a friend around when you are open water swimming.

Choosing where to swim is a lot easier today thanks to the growing popularity of the activity. For a start there are numerous clubs setting up all over the place that can give advice on nearby locations for outdoor swimming. National associations are also being set up, for instance The Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) is an excellent place to start with all sorts of information and tips including a really excellent map showing locations and giving lots of details about a wide range of locations for outdoor swimming:
Common sense is key in choosing where to swim; obviously fast flowing rivers, deep old gravel pits with restricted exits and busy harbours with heavy boat traffic are totally unsuitable and again by checking with a local club or the Outdoor Swimming Society’s map, you can assure yourself about the safety of your chosen location.

The surprising thing is just how many really suitable locations there are across the UK.

Once you have a location, another factor is weather and temperature. You are a million miles away from the local swimming pool with its carefully controlled water temperature and heated changing rooms. This is outdoor swimming and that means outdoor drying and outdoor water temperatures.

There are no designated water temperature parameters that are recommended as safe for swimmers, and obviously young fit athletes can handle cold conditions much better than people of our age. This is one area where, however young and fit we feel, we must pay heed to our age and be sensible. Later summer is a good time when the open waters have had time to heat up; immediately after heavy rain can cool natural water. We also all have different sensitivity to temperature and what might seem warm to one person can feel might chilly to someone else! Again it is common sense and if you feel you are getting too cold, stop.

Certainly in December there are always pictures of rugged people including octogenarians leaping into freezing seawater for their annual Christmas swim, but few of them would be doing this for the first time without considerable preparation.

Also, you are never too old to buy your first wetsuit! Today these are made in all sorts of thicknesses and shapes, you can even have individual suits made to fit your own body shape; and because they are so popular the prices are getting more and more affordable. Wetsuits do work and can also provide a level of extra buoyancy which can be useful in open water swimming.

Talking of clothing, though, one good tip is to wear a brightly coloured swim hat. Even if you hate having a head covering, if you are venturing into public water which others might be using, then ensuring you are very visible is important. The quietest stretch of calm river can suddenly be interrupted by a group of canoes careering around the bend and a wet head low down in the water is very easy to miss.

You don’t have to be a brilliant swimmer to take to the open waters. Swimming across a lovely smooth lake in the height of summer requires little more than a doggy paddle or gentle breast stroke. In colder conditions you may change to a quicker stroke than normal to keep warm. If you normally swim in your local pool, you need to be aware that you may be swimming lengths considerably longer than those you are used to. Distances across even a small lake or pond can be deceptive. You also need to be able to look around on a regular basis rather than just concentrate on going ahead, and also adjust you breathing as necessary, perhaps inhaling above a chop if there is a bit of wind ripping the water.

All this sounds a bit daunting but don’t let it put you off. Really it is the easiest thing to find a suitable nearby location, pop on your swimsuit and head for the great outdoors. You might even get hooked, in which case there is an increasing number of clubs you can join plus organised events including masters’ events and charity swims for open water enthusiasts.

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