This time last year, I was thinking about taking part in an open water swimming event. Ever since open water swimming was introduced to the Olympics in Beijing 2008, it has taken off in popularity, which means there’s a plethora of swims, aquathalons, triathalons and other events in the UK alone. So if you haven’t yet signed up, how do you choose?
What you choose depends on your experience, and what you want from an event. You may be a cyclist or runner who wants to extend themselves, you may have swam competitively in the pool and fancy a new challenge, you may be a recreational wild swimmer who wants to enjoy themselves.
My choice was based on my hypermobile joints making running a total disaster. I’d always loved swimming, and wanted to push myself, to try something new, and raise money for a charity. While my friends trained for half-marathons, I researched swimming events. My choice, quite by chance, turned out to be the most perfect introduction to open water swimming.
The Great North Swim, part of the Great Swim series, is Europe’s biggest open water series, and felt like more of a festival of swimming than a race. With a choice of distances, I went for the popular mile round the beautiful Lake Windermere. Not that I saw the view; I was one of the swimmers with their heads down, pushing hard. But many enjoyed a pleasant, meandering breaststroke. It was a very happy, chilled event. No crushing race start; it was well organised, well marshalled and fun. A very good place to start and grow in confidence.
For some a mile seems epic, and a lake like Windermere too murky and cold. Human Race hosts a variety of swimming events starting at 750m in the Olympic Venue Eton Dorney Lake, which is clean, clear and still, ideal for novices. They also offer a range of training events, which are designed to give expert advice to those starting out in the sport.
At the other end of the scale is distance swimming. Human Race also offers a 10km event. Having discovered that I’m an endurance swimmer rather than a sprinter, the one I intend to take on this year is the Dart 10k. It’s been running for seven years, and takes swimmers from Totnes to Dittisham in South Devon, which is pretty much my favourite part of the country. Again, it’s more of an experience than a race, which seems to be where my head’s at right now.
Of course there are much more serious races, and mixed disciplines from sprint-tris to Iron Man. There are also sea swims like the Bantham Swoosh, which, as the name suggests, gives you a bit of whiz at the end. There are some amazing swims overseas, wildlife swims, and swimming holidays too.
The best way to choose your event, is to have a think about what you want to gain from the event itself, and from the training you’ll have to do in the build up. Do you want speed, location, endurance, cold water, warmer water, part of a holiday, to use other disciplines, to sprint, to wear a wetsuit. Do you want intense training, or more casual?
Next, do your research. The magazine H2Open has comprehensive listings, as well as useful articles about all aspects of open water swimming. The Outdoor Swimming Society is another good place to go for UK listings, and places to train.
Finally, train and prepare yourself mentally as well as physically. I will write more about this later, but joining your local triathlon group is a very good place to start because you can speak to experienced swimmers, and learn where to train locally. My group has very good taste in curry too!