Sick of battling the traffic or chlorine or endless stops and starts at the pool? Open water takes the joys of swimming and compounds them with natural beauty and a touch of adventure.
All that prevents most swimmers from working out in the ocean or local lake is fear, whether unfounded or not, and failure to make a few simple adjustments in their basic swimming.
The best way of addressing any fears you might have is to put yourself in the hands of an experienced, lifeguard-caliber open water veteran who can assuage your dread of such overblown fantasies as sharks and seaweed, while teaching you the true things of which you should be wary. These include exhaustion, hypothermia, powerboats and riptides -- which needn't be considered dangerous once you learn how they should be spotted and navigated.
Here are some pointers for getting started:
*Never, under any circumstances, swim alone. Open water will always be bigger and stronger than you, so you'd do well to respect it. Then you can settle into enjoying the sport.
*Wear a bright orange (or red) cap for high visibility. If the water is chilly, wear two.
*Be wary if the water if extremely cold. Hypothermia can sneak up on you as an insidious sensation of relaxation. You may not actually feel cold. If numbness, dizziness or a passive feeling descends, get out of the water immediately.
Cold sometimes causes hyperventilation. If that happens, don't panic. Consciously tell yourself to relax and get control of your breathing. If you're new to open water, plan on taking a few sessions just to acclimate yourself to the cold.
*Find areas with buoys, booms or lifelines marking areas safe for swimming.
*Try applying apply petroleum jelly to your armpits and thighs to prevent chafing. Men with whiskers might also slop some on their shoulders to prevent sandpapering of skin when turning the head to breathe.
*Don't swim out from shore. Beginners shouldn't attempt to make it "out to that buoy and back." Instead, swim parallel to the shore, so that if you feel uneasy at any time, the shore is near. To do that in the ocean, get beyond the surfline. It's like the first lane of traffic on the freeway -- merging in and out of that is tougher for beginning drivers than immediately jumping over into the nearest cruising lane.
*Get help in swimming a straight line from the ripples in the sand when the water is clear. They almost always run parallel to shore.
*Keep your arm stroke higher than it would be in a pool. This is because waves and choppiness can defeat attempts at establishing a smooth rhythm.
*Don't let an exaggerated fear of predators keep you from enjoying safe open water areas. Three times more people die from bee stings every year than are bitten by sharks. It's more important to be wary of rocks and debris -- your coach/partner should provide all the necessary environmental tips.
*Don't panic if you get caught in a current. You'll exhaust yourself more quickly by fighting it than by swimming at your normal pace across it. The currents that cause the most problems for ocean swimmers are the rips, the places where the water brought in by the surf tends to concentrate as it returns to the sea.
Many swimmers need to be rescued from them because they don't know that rips are usually only a few yards wide and don't extend very far away from shore. If you find yourself being carried out to sea, just swim parallel to the shore for a while, and you'll get clear of the rip. If you stand on the beach and watch, you can actually see rips forming. They're marked by a streak of murky, foamy water that extends out from the beach and fans into a brownish semicircle past the surfline.
One current worthy of more concern is the tidal current sometimes found in a large bay with a narrow inlet. The enormous amount of water moving in and out as the tides change can cause currents several knots faster than the speediest swimmers, and they can extend very far out to sea. Since you're working with an experienced coach, you shouldn't find yourself in this situation. If you are caught in an emergency, however, remember to angle across the current and conserve your energy.
Swim technique adjustments typically involve navigating problems (no more lane lines at the bottom) and dealing with choppiness. First, check your stroke by swimming a few laps in the pool with your eyes closed. If you keep hitting the lane ropes, your stroke might be crooked enough to make you veer off sharply once you're let loose in the wilds. Practice straight, bilaterally strong stroking.
Among the technique adjustments you might want to try in open water:
*The water-polo stroke. Spot any buoys, trees, or landmarks that will allow you to keep your bearings before venturing into open water. Then, every five or 10 strokes, lift your head by arching your back, emphasizing your kick so you won't lose speed, and check your position. If you don't see your landmarks, forget it that go-around. Don't paddle along frantically trying to glance at them every time; put your head back in and try again on the next lift. It's tiring, but it'll become easier with practice. Besides, it's more energy-conserving than swimming in the wrong direction and then reorienting yourself by breast-stroking or treading water.
*Bilateral breathing. You'll need to check course markings and assorted landmarks off to your right or left in open water swimming, and that requires bilateral breathing.
Try it in a pool first, and remember that breathing on your opposite side will feel, at first, as if you're a right-handed person trying to write left-handed. But it's a good way of improving the smoothness and evenness of your swimming. Breathe to the right, then to the left, and so on. You may have to breathe to your left a few hundred times before it stops feeling awkward.