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How to do the Great Swim when you're not swim fit

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Written by Simon Griffiths, Founder and Publisher of Outdoor Swimmer magazine.

First thing’s first, if you’re considering taking on the John West Great North Swim or John West Great East Swim and are concerned about a lack of training… Don’t be! It’s unlikely many of us have had a chance to clock up the hours of swimming we might normally do in preparation for an open water event, however, we are all in the same boat and it’s about adjusting our own personal expectations and goals. This year is about participation, family fun, raising money, taking on new adventures and enjoying a change of scenery after months of staying in the house! For most of us, this year will be less about the time on the clock or the distance we can achieve.

As an experienced open water swimmer, prior to lockdown I would usually spend the winter working on technique and building fitness with regular pool swims. I found pool closures understandable (just about) but frustrating. When I got back into the pool after nearly four months without training, it was amazing to be back in heated water, but my stroke felt terrible and I was horribly slow. I estimate I was between 5 and 10 seconds slower per 100m than before lockdown, and I had no ability to sustain the type of effort I’d normally put into a race. The nightmare of booking time in a pool means I’ve only been able to swim twice a week, and while it’s starting to feel easier, I haven’t yet got any faster.

Swim fitness is a strange thing. You can stay fit in other ways. There are ways that you can try to replicate swimming movements using stretch cords, and other techniques. But when you get back in the water after a break, something definitely feels different. I’ve been here before. I know it will come back. However, I can’t imagine I will be up to my usual  full speed or ability by June.
 


Despite this, I’m looking forward to taking part in events soon. I love the buzz and excitement and talking to other swimmers about their experiences. This year will be different of course. We will still have to observe coronavirus safety measures. None of us will be as fit as we like. But can still have a great swim at Great Swim. Here are some suggestions how.

Do what you can
Do what you can to prepare and try not to worry about what you can’t do or haven’t done. Even a few training swims between now and June will help. Resist the urge to try to “make up” for missed training as you’ll risk injuring or exhausting yourself, and it won’t be fun. Instead, work on finding or re-finding a comfortable, sustainable swimming speed. Ignore the clock.

Acclimatise
The water temperature in Windermere is likely to be somewhere between 13 and 17 degrees in June. It’s important to acclimatise to the water in order to give your body the chance to adjust to the temperature. Rest assured, at the John West Great Swim events you will always have the opportunity to go for a short dip in the water to acclimatise along with your fellow swimmers before the start of your event. Don’t worry – it feels great, and is the perfect way to take a look at the beautiful surroundings! If you have the chance to try out your wetsuit in the open water ahead of event day, then great! If not, don’t worry, you could always try a cold bath or shower. 

Look after your health and general fitness
Eat well, sleep well and exercise regularly is almost always good advice. Pay extra attention in the weeks leading up to the swim. Your swim fitness might not be where you want it, but if you can take care of those other factors, you will be able to make the most of whatever swim fitness you have. Plus you should feel better.

Set the right expectations
Swim for the experience, not for a time. Personal bests don’t really exist in open water swimming anyway. Course distances are never 100% accurate, every swim is different, and conditions change each time you swim. The time on the clock doesn’t matter. Instead of trying to achieve a good time, relax and have a good time. Enjoy the scenery, chat to other swimmers, take a moment to thank the lifeguards and volunteers. Make it a mindful swim.

Start slow
Pacing is always important on any swim longer than about 50m. The longer the swim, the more important it is to get the pacing right. Given the lack of opportunities to train or race recently, and therefore get a feel of what the right pace feels like, start slower than you think you should. Make these first swims back about completion, not competition.

Plan your nutrition and hydration
The year’s 10km swim is self-supported. Great Swim are not able to provide feed stations because of covid restrictions. Think about how you will carry food and drink, and how you will eat it. Some tow floats have external pockets and bottle holders, which make life easier. You can also tape energy gels onto your tow float or stow them inside your costume or the sleeve of a wetsuit. You may also want to do this for the 5k swim. Prepare and test everything in advance. Most people won’t need to take anything for the 1-mile swim but it’s worth thinking about when and what you might eat beforehand.

Ask for help if you need it
One of the things I like about Great Swim is that they want you to finish and have a brilliant experience. They are supported by a fantastic team of RLSS-trained lifeguards and you are never more than a few metres from help or a confidence boost if you need it. If you need to pause for a moment to gather yourself or recover your breath, roll onto your back and wave for help. Once you’re ready, you can continue on your way. Great Swim do not disqualify swimmers for pausing and getting assistance. If you truly can’t continue, they will send a rescue boat to bring you back safely.

I can’t wait to do events again. I hope to see you there.

Photo: ©Katia Vastiau

 

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