Wherever you are in the world you might well be in the situation where your pool is shut but you have access to some safe open water swimming. If you are new to swimming in open water you will find it's a very different environment with a different set of challenges to swimming in the pool.
With that in mind, here's five practical things you can try to help ease that transition from the pool to swimming in the great outdoors. Give them a try next time you swim!
1. Experiment With A Straighter Arm Recovery
If you watch elite open water swimmers and triathletes at work, you'll see that nearly all use a straighter arm recovery to a greater or lesser extent. In a wetsuit this takes the load off the shoulder muscles and when swimming in disturbed water (created by a field of swimmers) a straighter arm gives you more clearance and stops the hand catching on chop.
The arm doesn't need to be bolt straight - opening it out a little at the elbow can make all the difference. Carolyn demonstrates here:
2. Experiment With A Higher Stroke Rate
Swimming with a faster cadence is especially useful in disturbed water as it helps you punch through waves and chop more efficiently. This needn't be harder work - it's a bit like spinning a smaller gear on the bike - each stroke is less effort but you take more of them.
Think about getting into your catch a little quicker at the front of the stroke to lift your rate. This is quite subtle (it's easy to lift things too high and start fighting the water) so we recommend using a Tempo Trainer Pro in stroke rate mode and experiment with lifting your stroke rate by 5-6 SPM in a controlled way.
The best open water swimmers is the world mix up their stroke rate when racing, lengthening out their stroke in flat conditions and shortening the stroke subtly when things get a bit rougher.
3. Breathe Bilaterally
Oh god really? Yes! Breathing to both sides can make a huge difference to the symmetry of your stroke - and stroke symmetry means swimming straighter!
You can work on your swim fitness and stroke technique to the cows come home but if you can't swim straight in open water you will throw all your gains and much more besides. We know from GPS tracking and drone footage that age group triathletes can easily swim 10% or even 20% too far by swimming off course. Even if you are a few seconds per 100m slower breathing bilaterally you can gain this back and much more from swimming straighter.
It's so important to be adaptable in open water. For instance have you noticed how most open water swims and triathlon courses are anti-clockwise courses? If you can't breathe to the left then you're going to have a lot of trouble judging your position against the line of the buoys.
4. Focus On Your Exhalation
Most of us experience some level of anxiety when swimming in open water, it's only natural. That obviously makes open water swimming less enjoyable in itself but anxiety also leads us to instinctively hold our breath underwater.
Holding your breath causes CO2 to build up in your system, that feels uncomfortable and can easily trigger a panic attack. The solution to this viscous circle? For the first 5 to 10 minutes of your swim simply focus on blowing out smoothly underwater between breaths. CO2 levels will drop and you'll soon have things back under control again: breath-bubble-bubble-breath!
Just like your best yoga-breathing technique, a smooth controlled exhalation will calm your sympathetic nervous system and bring the pleasure back into swimming outdoors.
5. Include A little Sighting Practise
Getting good at sighting is important - the key is to be able to look forwards comfortably without undue effort and without interrupting the flow of your stroke. The very best way to develop this technique is in the pool, sighting forwards regularly when you swim. Try sighting once per length at a random distance down the pool, picking out an object like a clock to read the time.
The key to good sighting technique is to not lift your head too high above the surface, just lift the eyes above the surface...
...and then immediately rotate to breathe to the side.
Read our dedicated post on this technique here: www.feelforthewater.com/2011/06/how-to-sight-correctly-in-open-water.html