Wetsuit or no wetsuit?

Wetsuit? Pah! Should be called a sweatsuit! Putting one on should be an event in itself! Swear I burn more calories getting into my wetsuit than swimming 10km! How do you stop yours rubbing? I can’t move my arms! I’m stuck!

In a clammy changing tent just before the Great North Swim, there were about fifty women of every imaginable shape, size and shade squeezing sticky skin into tight, rubber suits. You hear the same conversations, and see the same wild moves: arms raised, legs lunging and squatting, pulling, bending, thrusting like some bizarre swim event dance ritual.

It looks hilarious, but nobody’s really laughing. Pre-event nerves, plus everyone knows how important it is to get your wetsuit on just-so otherwise the neck will rub so that you’ll finish the race looking like you’ve had a love bite from a conger eel.

Of course, you get those who have applied for special permission not to wear a wetsuit. With a look of smug amusement, these swimmers aren’t actually laughing at you (don’t hate them), they’re just thankful that they don’t have to imitate John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks in order to put on a rubber skin, and they’re in skins because they’re insanely experienced and confident.

So are wetsuits really necessary, or are they just another way of coining it from an activity that’s on the rise in popularity? Do you need a ‘swimming’ wetsuit, or can you make do with a cheaper surfer’s model? Do you need to spend big bucks, or will a cheaper one do?

The best way to answer this is to think about what a wetsuit has to offer. It’s primarily for warmth, delaying hypothermia thus increasing the time you might be able to spend in water safely. Secondly, it gives you extra buoyancy, allowing you to swim more efficiently. Thirdly, it makes you more streamlined, and it also protects your skin.

It may not feel it when you put your back out getting the thing on, but wetsuits are ultimately a safety consideration, which is why most events insist on them. It follows, then, that if you’re not experienced at swimming the distance your planning on swimming, or you’re unsure, you should invest in a wetsuit. Some events allow you to ask for special permission to go without, but you have to prove your experience. Even then, they can decide that the temperature’s too low. For example, an experienced winter-swimmer friend of mine has been told that she can only do the Arctic Circle swim without a wetsuit if the temperate is above 16 degrees C.

It also follows that when buying your wetsuit, insulation, buoyancy and streamlinedness (which I’m fairly certain isn’t a technical term, or even a term at all) are on your criteria list. Swimming wetsuits are pretty much geared up to tick all the boxes. You don’t have to spend a fortune, but well-known brands are the most reliable: Zoot (which I have), Orca, TYF, HUUB, Zone3, Blueseventy and Speedo are all go to swimming brands.

A poor fitting wetsuit will pretty much negate every plus point you have, and you may as well swim in chain mail. Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water against the skin which warms to body temperature. The thicker the neoprene, the better insulated you’ll be, but if your suit’s too loose, the water will slosh around inside and stay cold, thus making you cold. Too tight, and you won’t be able to move.

As a general rule, for this country where the summer water is between 11 and 21 degrees C, you’ll need 3-5mm thickness. Swimming wetsuits are made with variable thicknesses to help insulate your torso, free up your shoulders, and lift your legs to give you a good, flat, streamlined body position in the water. This is especially helpful if, like many triathletes, you have muscular legs or ankle stiffness. I’m one of life’s great floaters, and in my wetsuit I feel like a boat. You’d just need to attach an outboard motor and I reckon I could take passengers!

Streamlining is a good advantage too. Muscular, angular bodies get smoothed out, while stuffing a curvy bottom and boobs into a wetsuit reminds me of trying to get your sleeping bag back into its stuff sack; you’re good and smooth, but you know the second you unzip that zipper, it’ll all come tumbling back out. That rubber skin also protects you from snags or scrapes.

Surf wetsuits tend not to have any of that balancing, varied thickness, nor the contouring that gives you more speed. They’re more clunky and less smooth, but also more robust. I went coasteering recently, which was brilliant fun, but it would have wrecked my fragile swimming wetsuit – I was very grateful for the thicker neoprene.

Having established that you need a wetsuit, getting one fitted it the next step. It sounds obvious, but you need to make sure you can swim in it. I have seen so many confident swimmers put on a wetsuit for the first time and have a total panic attack. Even a well fitted swimming wetsuit will try to simultaneously strangle you and compress your chest. Wiggle has a great buying guide, online assistance, good range of suits and a good returns policy. Even better, find a shop with an infinity pool like Bristol Triathlon Shop where you can actually try swimming in it. I got mine there, and while it wasn’t cheap, I’ve swam a comfortable 10km in it, which was worth every penny. Plus the infinity pool is fun!

Getting it on need not be an actual battle. Put your feet in and pull the legs up to well above your ankle. If you have long nails, wear gloves as you pull it up over your knees and thighs and then bottom and hips. Don’t go any further until the crotch is well and truly in your groin rather than hanging down P-Diddy style. Do the same with one arm, and then the other, so the armpit is in your armpit. Whirl your arms, do some thrusts, make sure you can move freely before zipping yourself in. I totally advocate lube for getting your wetsuit on and stopping chaffing. It doesn’t exactly ‘glide’ FYI Bodyglide, but it does help. My favourites are pictured below.

Once you’re in the water, hold open the neck and welcome the cold water in. It warms quickly, and that’s what you want. If you prefer a nice warm pee, go for it, it’s your wetsuit! It’s a good idea to have a hitch, a wiggle, a tug on the arms and legs before you set off just to make sure you’re totally comfy.

So why would you swim without? Ironically, I take mine off for winter swimming, but then I’m in calm water for short bursts with friends. Swimming ‘skins’, as it’s known, is hardcore, but also liberating, and it’s easy to see why you’d not want to go back to contorting yourself to get into a wetsuit. That said, I love mine. For comfort, safety and warmth, it’s worth the struggle to get in on, and I will continue to wear it for long swims and events.

 

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Nice and Icy

With just over a week to go until the National Cold Water Swimming Championships, there’s time for one more chilly swim. Thanks to the recent cold snap, conditions at Clevedon’s Marine Lake have been perfect for training, with the water dropping as low as 2.5 degrees centigrade.

So what happens to your body at this temperature? And how best prepare yourself for swim in icy waters?

Standing lake-side, contemplating your icy dip, you are aware of how your body might respond. The cold shock response is first and most dramatic: gasping, hyperventilating as your skin cools; at the same time, your heart-rate shoots up as your arteries narrow. Then comes the numbness. As your body reserves the warm blood for your vital organs, your extremities become increasingly numb, heavy and useless. After half an hour or so, hypothermia becomes a risk – and remains so even after you get out, as your core temperature continues to drop.

Standing lake-side, you should be scared! If you don’t at least have butterflies, if not a full fight-or-flight feeling where you have to beat all instincts to get yourself in the water, you don’t fully understand the risks. You also need to bear in mind that this is a time for dipping, not distance swimming.

No matter how often I take an icy dip, I have the same sense of foreboding as I drive to the lake, which peaks as the cold air hits my skin when I undress. Changing into my costume among seasoned winter swimmers, the chatter is all along the lines of: why are we doing this? we must be mad! I don’t really want to. Testament to this is the high level of faffing that postpones the inevitable plunge!

And then, one-by-one, we enter the water. The easiest way for me, is to walk quickly down the metal steps into the lake, taking small in-breaths, and then purposefully blowing out, long and steady. This reduces the gasping hypo ventilation, gives me something to focus on other than the pain of the ice-cold, and lets me steady my breath and stroke as I swim away.

Most impressive is Maggie, who having inhaled two cigarettes while changing, dives headlong in from the side. But then she, like so many of my fellow swimmers, is one of the South West Seals’ old pros. This approach is not recommended for the uninitiated!

For safety reasons, I rarely swim alone. If not with fellow swimmers, I get someone to stand on the side and hold my Dryrobe. Plus, I need help to pull down my swimming costume straps when I get out, as my numb hands are quite useless. It’s also good to have someone to egg you on, and share coffee and cake afterwards.

What struck me as odd as the water temperature dropped, was that I didn’t get the ice-cream headache at four degrees that troubled me at ten degrees. Instead, my fingers take the punishment. The pain that comes with vasoconstriction is palpable. My hands hurt. The first time this happened, they froze like useless claws in a position that’s not conducive to swimming. So I learned to set them in place as paddles before I became unable to move them.

At sub-five degrees, I swim between 100 and 200 metres; no more. That’s up to seven minutes in the water, including faffing a bit and stopping to appreciate where I am, and admire Clevedon’s rather lovely pier; and on a crisp, clear day, look across to Wales.

This weekend, as I entered I got an applause from some onlookers. I admit that I loved this, and it was the audience I needed to break into a fast front-crawl that I plan on swimming next weekend instead of my usual neck-breaking heads-up breaststroke.

My CWSC event is a 30 metre swim as part of a relay team: it’ll be over before I know it. I feel ready, though; nervous, but excited. Perhaps next time, I’ll do a bit more. But for now, I feel an extraordinary sense of accomplishment and pure buzz from swimming in icy water!

What’s in my kit bag?

My kit has evolved as the season’s gone on. Here are what I consider to be essentials for winter swimming:

  • Swimming hat – I use a normal silicone cap, but you can get neoprene for more heat-loss prevention
  • Mask goggles – I love the Aquasphere Vista mask that covers the bit between your eyebrows and seems to prevent ice-cream headache pain
  • A Dryrobe – this was a Christmas present, and my favourite bit of kit. It’s so warm, plus keeps you covered as you try to get dressed with numb hands
  • A piece of foam rubber, matting, old towel on which to stand while you’re changing
  • Warm layers – I don’t bother with undies, but wear merino wool leggings under fleece-lined jogging bottoms, a thermal vest, long-sleeved top and my wonderful Dart 10k sherpa fleeced-lined hoodie
  • Hat and gloves
  • Flask of coffee
  • Hot water bottle
  • Some cake or chocolate – getting that digestive system going warms you up from the inside!

The big one! 10km swim

By heck, I did it! Face down, legs flutter kicking, arms pulling through murky water for 3 whole hours. So, what did it take to swim a marathon?

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The pros and cons of swimming a marathon

I have a lot of love for the Outdoor Swimming Society who organises the Dart 10k. It’s quite an event with something like 1200 swimmers over two days, organised to start and with a little festival at the end that offers a hug, a hot chocolate, a hot tub, Dart 10k Sherpa fleece hoodies to buy and snuggle in when you finish. So that joy you feel at finishing lifts to ecstasy by the time you’re warm, dry and fed.

I’m sure this is a cunning ploy to make you do it again. To eclipse the hours of your life you’ve given over to training, the raw patch on your neck where your wetsuit rubbed, the pounding headache you got from a too tight cap/too tight goggles/dehydration/exhaustion* (*circle all that apply).

But actually, those discomforts and challenges at least provide interest. Once eliminated, there’s not much to think about when you’re ploughing on. I’ve blogged before about swimming being mindful, and that is part of its joy for me; and I was listening to Radio 4 programme just this morning about how good it is to let your mind wander from time to time. But it’s hard to appreciate a mindful state of being for 3 hours.

The training is boring, there’s no two ways about it. I found having to complete a certain distance in a session cancelled out most of the joy I take from wild swimming . Finding the time and the grit to stick to a training schedule was probably the tougher than the swim itself.

The swim

We started at 9am on the Sunday; the leisurely wave. I should just point out that leisurely is a misnomer. Swimming 10km isn’t my idea of leisure, and when the medium wave started ploughing past us, it was clear that we were the slow and steady tortoises of the event. I might suggest this new name.

The current was good, helping us downstream (like running a marathon downhill with the wind behind you, as I told my brother), and the first feed station came quickly. I was surprised by the water’s saltiness, and that feed station with its jelly babies and Lucozade was a glorious beacon to which I clung for a bit longer than was decent.

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Feed stations: a beacon of loveliness

The next stretch got saltier still, and the previous day’s heavy run had washed in all kinds of leaves (some very prickly: holly?), debris and, judging by the smell and stomach upsets many of us had afterwards, cow poo.

The second feed station at 7.5km was soon there, and those of us clinging on expressed amazement that we were nearly done. Mistake. We’d been warned that the finish is always further than it seems, and it was. I wasn’t that tired; I felt great physically, like a machine, almost. But after another kilometre or so, I was mentally done. I wanted out.

At one point, I spotted a slipway ahead, and became convinced that my glances through misty goggles between breaths had spotted a crowd. But we still had the last big bend to go.

My fingers touched a gravelly river bed, and I thought I must be right at the back of the pack, and the tide was leaving me behind. It also occurred to me that I could get up and walk, so I steered myself to a deeper bit, and a quick glance round showed that I was still in the middle of the pack.

As corny as it sounds, I imagined my children watching for me to finish, and that gave me that final push. Actually, I imagined how cross my eldest son would be if I finished slowly! Eventually, at last, the finish was there.

Again?

Will I do it again? Perhaps. Not next year, but I will probably do it again at some point. I’ve compared endurance swimming with giving birth before, and I’m convinced that I’ve discovered a new similarity: with time, the negative side of the experience fades in your mind, and only the glory remains. Plus, the hug, the hot chocolate, the hot tub, the Sherpa fleece… They were like the baby; the lovely, warm, gift you get to take home.

 

Get your chill on

This weekend is the Big Chill Swim across Windermere. I want to get in to open water swimming all year round. It’s the exhilaration, the way your skin prickles and makes you really feel. I’ve plunged into cold water; I totally get the thrill. But I’m yet to brave it…

Standing on a rock in the Picos mountains in Spain, I looked down at the beautiful turquoise pool below. It seemed infinitely deep, and with the heat of the Spanish summer sun on my back, it was so inviting. But in the mountains the temperature of the water so close to source was fricking freezing.

Still, the plunge, the mind-numbing, body-shocking plunge, was exhilarating. The change in body temperature awakening the mind and focusing the senses. It’s the same principle as having a cold shower or plunge pool after a sauna; and it’s supposed to be good for your bodily functions and circulation too, which you can read about here.

But plunging or showering in cold water when you’re hot is very different to swimming across a pond on Hampstead Heath in February as described in this blog (with which I’ve completely fallen in love: beautiful photography, great writing).

So why swim in freezing cold water on a freezing cold day? Your limbs feel heavy and sluggish as your body decides your vital organs need warm, oxygenated blood more than your extremities. A friend of mine did an open water swim where you weren’t allowed to put your head under the water or you’d die. Extreme.

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Lewis Gordon Pugh: the world’s best open water swimmer

And don’t we just love an extreme? I’ve been reading blogs and articles by cold swimming affeciondos like this, and I can’t find any actual physical benefit to cold water swimming like those of the sauna then cold shower. Rather the benefit seems to be mental, feelings of euphoria, strength and confidence. So really the same reasons anyone does an extreme sport or activity.

Of course, we shouldn’t be dismissive of these kinds of mental and almost spiritual advantages. While to some cold swimming might seem like torture, if you read the words of those who do it, it’s easy to see why it becomes a kind of addiction.

Having been inspired to try cold water swimming, it’s tempting to grab my wetsuit and head to the nearest body of water (which wouldn’t be far as we’re currently on flood alert!). But I’m not going to. Not yet, anyway. It would be more sensible to start after a summer season of open water swimming, where you swim regularly getting used to the temperature as it slowly drops.

The Open Water Swimming Society has a fantastic article on getting in to cold water swimming, including a section by a doctor on what the cold water does to your body. It sounds a little daunting, but actually he’s not saying much more than you’ll need to pee more, you’ll gasp, shiver and be really, really hungry afterwards.

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Swimming, I mean enduring, the sea with friends in Bantham in March

I prefer swimming in fresh water to salty, but the marine lake in Clevedon has a group that swims all year round. I have just requested to join them. My cousin has membership with Henleaze Swimming Club in Bristol, which has events throughout the year.

But my ultimate goal is the Big Chill Swim. “There is a long tradition of open water swimming around the world and we feel that the uplifting experience of long distance swimming and winter swimming should be experienced by everyone.” These words just goad me into thinking my open water swimming experience won’t be complete until I’ve frozen off my very own tits swimming across Windermere.

Finally. The world swimming under ice record. Amazing. Insane.

 

New swimming year

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!

The start line at my very first open water event.

The start line at my very first open water event.