Open water swim season – wetsuits and cold water

It’s that time of year when you dig out the wetsuit after its 8 month hibernation, squeeze into it and wonder if neoprene shrinks over winter, and get ready to wade into a cold lake. It’s open water swim season.

This article will cover fitting a wetsuit, getting comfortable in the open water and open water swim training – which is not just swimming round a lake looking at the scenery.

Wetsuit fitting

It’s really important to make sure before you get in the water that you have your wetsuit on properly, it’s not just a case of pulling it on and zipping it up. Take your time and don’t rush.

  • First concentrate on the lower half, get your legs in and then slowly work each leg up into your crotch, don’t pull from the top, work it up your leg from the bottom. Once you have it properly fitted I like to do a few squats and then work a little bit more of the suit up into my crotch.
  • Second, get it over your body and your arms in, now do the same thing and slowly work the suit up each arm from the wrist to the shoulder and into the armpit.
  • Third, find a friend and have them zip the suit up. They’ll be needed again in a second so don’t let them go away! Bend over and slowly work the material up from your belly button, up your chest, so that it is not puling down from your neck.
  • Fourth, this is where your mate comes in handy again – ask them to give you a wedgie! They need to grab some wetsuit material near the top of your bum/lower back and yank it up, then repeat this up your back, working the suit up your back and into your shoulders – again it shouldn’t feel like its pulling down from your neck.
  • After this I like to again do a couple of deep squats, some arm swings and arm crossovers just to check the suit isn’t feeling restrictive around the hips/shoulders/neck
  • Now you’re ready to get in the water
A little bit more inviting than the local lake in early May!

Getting acclimatised

When you first get in, especially in early season when the water is relatively cold still, don’t rush straight into swimming, even if you think swimming hard quickly will warm you up. The cold water will make you take short gasps for air, leading to hyperventilating and carbon dioxide building up and the panic feeling you might have experienced. Getting acclimatised before you start swimming will lead to a much calmer swim.

  • Walk in and let the water go down the back and front of the wetsuit – the worst bit! (This is when you could have a sneaky wee to warm up….).
  • Now put your head under – this might take your breath away, so do this a few times until the shock has worn off a bit. Only once you have got water in your suit and head under a few times should you start swimming.
  • Swim about 20m – with head in the water breathing to the side, then stop – get your breath back from the cold, bob under the water a few more times and if still struggling do another 20m swim and repeat – your heart rate will be raised by the cold and breathing might feel harder so don’t rush, let your heart rate and breathing settle as your body adapts to the water.
  • Hopefully by now your acclimatised to the cold a bit and ready to warm up more. Now do a few sprints – 20 strokes hard out, then 20 strokes nice and easy back. Repeat this 4 or 5 times. Then try and do a steady 2-3mins swimming.
  • Now you should be feeling a bit more comfortable in the water, your heart rate should have settled and your breathing should be more natural and not those short quick breaths as when you first got in the cold. Now you can start a session.

Open water training

Don’t waste your open water session! Often people spend time traveling to a lake, to then go and swim 2 loops, stopping a bit every now and then, and get out. While that’s good for getting used to swimming in a wetsuit it’s not nearly as beneficial as going to a pool and doing a properly structured session. You want to structure your open water session just as you would in the pool.

We’ve already gone through getting acclimatised and warmed up, now its time to do a session. I’m going to base this on a lake that has an 800m loop – so depending on your lake set up you can adapt this to fit. There are two sessions below – one suitable for that first cold swim of the year when you might not want to be in too long, and one suitable once you’ve built up to it/more advanced swimmers.

1600m session (2 loops, rest 60s between loops)

1 loop build between buoys – still warming up so build the effort on this loop, assuming buoys might be 200m apart build from easy swim to hard in the final 200m. kick hard in those final 200m as you might if you were coming to the end of a swim in a race and wanted to get the blood back in the legs. Practice sighting on this build lap aiming to sight every 6-8 strokes.

1 loop hard between each buoy, rest 20-30s at the buoy then hard to the next one. Do the final rep easy as a swim down. So it’s approx. 3×200 hard, 1×200 swim down.

3200m session (4 loops, rest 60s between loops)

1 loop build between buoys – still warming up so build the effort on this loop, assuming buoys might be 200m apart build from easy swim to hard in the final 200m. kick hard in those final 200m as you might if you were coming to the end of a swim in a race and wanted to get the blood back in the legs. Practice sighting on this build lap aiming to sight roughly every 6-8 strokes.

1 loop hard between each buoy, rest 20-30s at the buoy then hard to the next one. So it’s approx. 4×200 hard.

1 loop firm (1900m race pace/70.3 race pace) focusing on sighting and keeping stroke flowing while sighting, and thinking about your technique.

1 loop hard between each buoy, rest 20-30s at the buoy then hard to the next one. Do the final rep easy as a swim down. So it’s approx. 3×200 hard, 1×200 swim down.

There are many other ways to structure an open water swim but the above shows that you can structure a session much as in a pool, and not waste your time and lose out on a swim session while getting your open water practice in.

If you have any open water swimming questions, or want more ideas for open water swim sets or open water technique sets for the pool just get in touch. Happy swimming!


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