On the 10th of February 2014, Davina McCall will undertake the open water swim part of her BT Sport Relief Challenge – Davina Beyond Breaking Point. Described as ‘not the greatest of swimmers’ by her trainer Professor Greg Whyte, Davina is not only facing the fear of open water for the first time as a relative novice, but she’ll also be doing it in 5 degree water temperatures!
Gliding through fresh open water with the freedom to see the world from a unique perspective can be a wonderful experience. However, the thought of plunging into the murky depths can also be quite unnerving, so what can we – and Davina - do to make our open water experience as enjoyable as possible.
Worrying in the water is less than ideal and we’re most likely to relax and feel confident in the water if we are safe. This means you should swim somewhere that has lifeguard cover, first aid and safely boats should anything unexpected happen. Never swim alone and make sure that you have all the right kit. I’ve seen many novice swimmers struggle against the saturated weight and inflexibility of a surfing wetsuit, struggle to see without goggles or get too cold without neoprene swim caps, boots or gloves. Take the time to work out the kit you need, don’t take short cuts in the quality and test the kit to make sure it all works and fits as it should. See Zoggs goggle fitting video here
If this all already seems complicated and you’re not sure what kit you need. Then do what Davina has done and invest in a coach. I’ve used the word invest carefully as the amount you can learn in even a short 1 hour lesson can be reused over and over again. A good coach should help you to learn how to enter and exit safely, acclimatise to the temperature, relax in the water, mentally prepare breathe and sight. While it sounds obvious, sighting is a really key skill and I’ve watched in astonishment on several occasions when I’ve seen swimmers take up to 100 strokes without looking where they were going - you should look up every 6-8!
Once you have the kit, are safe and have eased yourself in with a coach it’s good to spend time in the water working out the mental strategy that suits you and helps you relax. Everyone is different here and you need to find out what works for you. Personally I like to either think obsessively about single aspects of my technique or, alternatively, stroke count. If I’m trying to do quite a bit of distance and find myself feeling nervous, I’ll often count 10 strokes on my left, then 10 on my right until I feel ok again. Sports psychologists will tell you that people either like to focus on something internal – like technique, or external – like the view or a song. Try both and see which you feel works best for you.
If you follow these steps, you should be safe and have the skills you need to master open water swimming. The rest is just practice so when it gets a little bit warmer get down to your local open water venue, relax, have fun and enjoy the freedom away from walls, line