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  • Writer's pictureEmily Red

The Open Water Swimming Saga

So, it turns out, swimming outside in open water is a whole different ball game to pool swimming. I mean, I knew that, but actually experiencing it is something else.

Picture this: It's 2020, I've started swimming indoors, I'm loving it, I've sign up for Ironman. The pools are shut because of lockdown, but that doesn't matter because I'm naive and excited. Whatever issues are thrown at me, I know I'll find a way around them. After a few months lockdown is starting to be lifted and open water swimming is allowed before gyms re-open. So, I enthusiastically book a session at Pennington Flash (the location of the Ironman swim) and I can't wait to kick off this part of my training again. I've got a surfing wetsuit which I used for World's Toughest Mudder, (which I know isn't ideal, but it gets me in the water until I can buy a proper triathlon wetsuit). I buy a tow float so that I'm easily spottable and I nervously but excitedly make my way to the flash for my first proper outdoor swimming session. They have a 400 m loop, which I'm happy with, because before the lockdown I'd managed to swim 1000 m. I'd already emailed the organisers to ask if we had to do the full loop, and they said no, we could swim out to the first buoy and back if we wanted too, and that was my plan.

I get into the water and the cold water shock is uncomfortable. I wait for it to pass and my breathing to slow down. I start to swim but the cold water just shocks me again, and again, and again. Why the hell aren't I warming up? My body is fine but every time I put my head underwater to swim I get the quick breathing and the feeling of panic that I've lost the ability to swim. I float about for a bit. I feel lost, I don't know what to do. I'm out in the water now away from the side, but not even near the buoy yet. I feel like I can't make it there. The canoeist spots me hesitating in the water and comes over to see if i'm ok. I rest on his canoe for a bit. We chat and I tell him my plans for Ironman, but he gets the impression I should do it in two years time rather that one. And I feel like that too. All of my joy has just been drained from me. I can't even get to a buoy in Pennington Flash, how the hell will I make it 3.8 km? I'm offered a lift back to the waters edge, but I politely decline. I'll make my own way out of this situation, and I swim back to the land.

I exit the water majorly deflated. clearly the first person back out of the water. My confidence is completely knocked. I was scared in the water, and I didn't like it. I knew I had to face this head on if I was to overcome my fears and succeed in my mission to race Ironman, so when I got home I bought a triathlon wetsuit and I booked a session for the following week. But rather than swim by myself again, I booked a coaching session so that I could get some tips and not be alone in the water. I was so embarrassed by my failure the week before, I wore a different swim cap in case anyone recognised me. Thinking back on this now, it's ridiculous I did this. I was so worried, but why? Why care about what random strangers think of me? I think this uncharacteristic behaviour was because I care so much about achieving my ironman goal, the thought so early on that people would think I'm not good enough to complete it, made me want to hide away.

The next session the following week wasn't much better. The coach was not focussed on me at all, and whilst i got some good tips and an excuse to swim up and down in the water close to the land, I didn't come away from the session any better prepared physically or mentally. I decided that I needed to increase my swimming skills in the safety of the pool before I attempted outdoor swimming again, so that's what I did. Despite the constant lockdowns and closing of pools, I managed to get some good distance in during the rest of 2020, and when the pools reopened again in 2021, I was so worried I'd be back at square one with my swimming, but I was pleasantly surprised and managed to get a distance PB within a couple of weeks.

With the triathlons looming closer and closer this year, I decided to book another outdoor swimming session, but this time at Three Sisters in Wigan. The swimming loop is a lot longer at 750 m, but you can touch the floor pretty much the whole way around. This time I took my friend (the one who gave me the courage to start swimming last year), with me, and we plunged into the cold water together. I had pretty much the same issues as before with the cold water shock just not going away, and every time I tried to do breast stroke, the wetsuit restricted my breathing which sent my brain all panicky, but I'm good at not actually panicking and talking my self into carrying on. I did a few strokes, stopped for a rest, floated a bit, tried to sight, and did more strokes. I did this the whole way round, and I made it. One loop is 750 m, but my watch said I did about 1000 m.

As I clearly have a long way to go until I'm race ready, I've booked a session for the next three weeks, so that I can get more practise in. I'm also gonna try using my neoprene cap to see if it helps with the cold. I need to head this face on and I'm not one to shy away from a challenge. I honestly don't know how I'm gonna complete this race at this stage, and I have major respect for everyone that has.

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1 commento

06 mag 2021

A few points for encouragement.

First, cold water shock is real and it’s mostly physical, not mental. You’re not being a wuss, it’s how your body reacts to immersion in cold water. I once saw a talk by Ross Edgley. As an experiment he jumped into cold water with a reporter to see the effect on the 2 of them. The important thing is that it affected both of them the same. Their heart rate and breathing both shot up. Ross coped with it better because he expected it and the reporter didn’t, but physically it effected both the same. Hopefully it will be warmer for the ironman, but still, take advantage of a warm up in the water; it’s…

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