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© Henry Budgett
Getting started: open water swimming
Posted by: Editor
Posted on: Tuesday 1st May 2007

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It's hard not to understand how some people get apprehensive about the prospect of open water swimming. There's the fear of the unknown, the loss of containment, the loss of direction and, in some cases, the loss of control. Add to this set of fears the fact that you're going to climb into a rubber suit that, at best, could be described as "off-the-peg fetish wear" and the whole experience begins to take on a dimension that is way outside anything that you've previously encountered.

Dealing with these issues is the subject of the first of a series of articles about open water swimming -- this time we'll be taking you just far enough that you get wet, but no further!

Getting rubbered up

Getting into, and out of, a wetsuit can be a bit of a nightmare at times. Over the years we have probably seen all the silly things that people can do: suits on inside out, suits on back to front, suits on inside out and back to front, people stuck half-way in and people stuck half-way out. We've even seen people tear the suits, split the seams and break the zips -- and those things actually take a lot of doing, wetsuits are tough things! So, how do you get a suit on (and off) without having a complete 'mare?

First rule of open water swimming is to trim the fingernails. Before you get the suit out. Virtually all the damage to wetsuits is caused by fingernails and there's no point even trying to claim on the warranty because pretty much every wetsuit selling shop in the land knows exactly how you made those nicks in the rubber. They'll sell you a tube of rubber cement and the suit will be fine -- but far better to make like a surgeon and trim those nails in the first place. If vanity or fashion preclude then put some thin gloves, liner gloves are good, on before you start hauling on that neoprene.

Second rule is to get the suit the right way round and the right side out. Wetsuits made for swimming are almost inevitably going to have the smooth rubber surface on the outside and the lycra lining on the inside. And, almost as inevitably, they are going to have the zip at the back. Note here that there are two sorts of zip, those that zip up and those that zip down. Well, OK, the QR breakaway zip does zip up and then falls open all on its own when you give it that extra tug but the principle is the same.

The clever part comes next and requires that you have one of those very thin give-away shopping bags from the likes of Tesco or Waitrose or Sainsbury. We're using the latter in the photos simply because it shows up well - they'll all do the same trick.

Step 1: put your foot into the bag and then place the bagged foot into the leg of the suit and push. Note, you need to figure out which leg you can balance on to do this... If you can't balance and push you can start the process sitting down. The thin plastic of the bag acts as a lubricating layer between your skin and the lycra lining of the suit and your leg will slide home very easily. Once the foot is through you can pull the bag free and repeat the process for the other leg.

Wetsuit and a bag First leg in

Step 2: pull the suit up the legs, over the knees and, working the suit up from the bottom of the leg get the whole trouser section of the suit up to the hips. We don't want any air pockets in the suit so it is very important to get the gusset firmly up into your crutch - don't start to work the suit onto the torso until it is all well snuggled home at the lower end.

Foot slides through Get it all up to the waist first

Step 3: now use the bag trick to get first one arm into the suit and, with the suit fully on to the shoulder on that side, the other arm. You now need to work the suit up the torso so that all the wrinkles are out and the collar is up around the neck and not down by the sternal notch.

Arm goes in one side And then the other

Step 4: once the whole suit is on and in the right place you can zip it up. It is possible to do up a conventional zip on your own, a reverse zip is almost impossible unless you are either a practitioner of extreme yoga or are just naturally double jointed. Better, however, to get a friend to help you and that way you can be sure that the zip flap is carefully tucked in, you haven't snagged your race kit and that the zip retainer is properly secured.

Reach and pull Remember the safety tag

Those reading carefully may well say that we have missed out the bit about lubricating your self all over with the product of your choice - anything from lard to Vaseline has been suggested. However, the truth is that you simply may not need it -- you just don't know yet because you haven't swum in the suit yet! And, because it's a new suit that you may have the option to take back and exchange, this time around we'll go au naturel...'ll discover soon enough if you need lubrication around the neck to stop chafing or a bit round the ankles to aid removal.

Ready to rock

The suit may be on but you're not ready yet - not by a long way! The next stage of the process is to get the suit properly settled on your body and that can be done by some simple warm up stretches and arm rotations - just like you would warm up for a swim session. You do warm up for swim sessions - don't you...

As well as settling the suit into place the exercises will also get you warmed up a bit and if the start is one of those drawn-out affairs getting warmed up is no bad thing. If it's a deep water start and you have to tread water for several minutes you will begin to chill so being prepared for that is a good idea. Equally, if you know the water is on the cold side and you won't get a chance to warm up then preparing first is definitely a good idea and, as well as warming up on land it's a good idea to prepare the face and neck by getting them used to the cold water by splashing some on. The reflex action to cold on the face can cause involuntary breathing and even hyperventilation in extreme cases.

Getting into the water and getting the inside of the suit wet, remember - it is a wetsuit and not a dry suit, is best done slowly and carefully. Diving or jumping into unknown water is not something that could be described as a good idea -- you have no idea how deep the water is and what might be in there under the surface: rocks, shopping trolleys, broken glass are all possible so take care. Once safely in the water the best tactic is to get the face in and get used to the temperature - at this time of year it's not unusual to experience the "ice cream headache" effect of getting your head cold. You can wear two regular swim caps or one of the neoprene ones to reduce this, try to keep the cap low on the forehead and protect as much of this areas as you can. The body loses a significant amount of heat through the head so insulating it against the cold makes sense. Hands and feet will get chilled but you are not allowed either gloves or booties during the swim so you'll just have to practice transitions with cold hands!

Transition practice

Getting the suit off is generally much easier that putting it on - that layer of water inside acts in the same way as the plastic bag and helps it slide off easily. Once you've undone the zip, remember you often have a security tab back there as well as the main collar tab, you should try to get the arms out of the suit as quickly as possible. Running back to T1 in the suit will normally drain it and at races like Windsor where there is a 200+ metre run from the exit to transition you'll be trying to pull off a dried out suit which is much harder. The trick with pulling the suit off is to make sure that the rubber does not bunch up around either the ankles or the wrists. If the rubber rolls up on itself it's often actually quicker to partly pull the arm or sleeve back on, free the suit up and try again. Just pulling against the roll actually makes it harder and harder to get off - it acts like a wedge.

One of the reasons that the pro athletes often cut the suit legs off higher up the calf is that this makes for a bigger hole and, therefore, less chance that the suit will bunch around the ankle. It also keeps the suit well clear of any chip bands that might also get tangled up - do remember to put the chip on under the suit and not over it...

A really neat trick is to hold your swim cap and goggles in your hand and then pull the wetsuit sleeve over them as you take the suit off. Let go of the cap and goggles inside the sleeve and they will stay there ready to be recovered later.

Once you have the suit off completely do remember that it needs to be stowed and not just left lying there on the ground. That is technically an infringement of the rules, elite athletes generally get a box to put their swim gear in. It's also good practice to tidy it up as it means you don't run the risk of the suit being moved around and, possibly, picked up by another athlete by mistake - suits do look very similar. If there is a name panel inside do make use of it and write your name on it.

Getting swimming

Next time we will cover some of the essential open water swim techniques and drills that will help you shave time off the swim section and leave you better prepared for transition and the bike leg.

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