Wetsuits & adjusting your stroke to open water

 

Without lane ropes and pool ends swimming outdoors is a very different experience: you may quickly find a whole range of strokes you didn’t know you had, from Australian backstroke to sidestroke and doggy paddle, as you mill around looking at the riverbanks and clouds.

The essential principles of swimming well apply equally to indoor or outdoor swimming, but a few changes to your technique may make you more efficient.  And help you adapt to some features of the outdoors that you don’t get in the pool – wavy water, and the need to see where you’re going. 

This section covers

  1. Adjusting stroke to the outdoors
  2. Sighting: learning to 'spot'
  3. Wetsuits: hiring and buying
  4. Wetsuit Q&A: 15 things you need to know

In addition, please see 'outdoor safety' for information on water purity and finding safe spots, and 'cold water acclimatisation' for information on acclimatising to cold water.

 

1.  Adjusting stroke to the outdoors

We are shortly to rewrite this section with help from our new OSS coach, Dan Bullock. So please revisit in May 2010. For now, some basics for a better stroke:

BREATHING

  1. Exhale underwater. The most common reason for running out of oxygen while swimming is not exhaling fully underwater - which leads to gasping for breath. Exhale gently and fully underwater.
  2. Practise breathing to both sides (bi-lateral breathing). Breathing every third stroke (to either side) is more efficient than breathing every second stroke, and means you can breath away from wind and waves if necessary
  3. Practise breathing above the chop, so you don't inhale mouthfuls of water. Your outstretched arm with palm flat in the water provides a pivoting point as you inhale: simply rotate your chin further from the surface of the water before you breath in.

ARMS

You are looking to cover as much water as possible with as little effort.

  1. Stretch your arm fully forward before placing it in the water to increase the length of your stroke.
  2. Glide. Faster strokes does not mean faster swimming: good long distance swimmers often have a slow steady rhythm and good glide between strokes. Try it in the pool: reducing the number of strokes you take to do a length may make your time faster rather than slower.
  3. Take it easy for the first 90 degrees of the arm stroke (from the point where your hand enters the water to being underneath you), then put some power into your stroke, pushing the arm back. Think of brushing your hand against your hip before taking it out of the water to finish the stroke. This is the powerful part of your stroke
  4. As you bring your arm forward use a high elbow stroke to ensure hands clear the water in rough conditions

LEGS

  1. Keep up a steady leg kick: legs only provide a small part of your propulsion but they keep you horizontal in the water so use them!

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2. Sighting - learning to spot

A vital part of the outdoor swimmers stroke is the 'spot': where you look up to see where you're going.

Spotting is simple in breaststroke, which is one of the reasons it is a popular stroke in recreational open water swimming.

To spot in frontcrawl, take a breath and then on the next stroke simply look up as your forward arm enters the water and begins pulling down. You needn't raise your whole head out of the water, and don't breath on this stroke (your throat will be too constricted) just look up enough so you can see, then lower your head and complete the stroke. Breathe on the next stroke.

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3. Wetsuits - hiring and buying

1. I have a race on this summer - should I buy or hire?

You can either hire or buy your wetsuit.  Give yourself a budget but don't be too stingy - the difference between a £100 suit and a £150 suit can be huge, depending on the make. 

But a £100 suit will be fine for an occasional (non-triathlon) swimmer who looks after it properly and rinses it out after each use.

2. Where can I hire a wetsuit?

Many of the larger mass participation open water swims or triathlons will have arrangements in place for participants to hire a wetsuit specifically for that event.  Some of the suppliers who often provide this service are listed below, otherwise follow links from the homepage for the specific event.  The hire period can usually be extended to allow for practice sessions as well as the event itself (highly recommended, see above). 

Hiring a wetsuit is also a good way to try one out before taking the plunge and actually purchasing one for yourself.  Most of the companies are happy for you to keep the wetsuit if you like it and take a higher deposit to cover the likelihood of that happening.  Simply put, if you like it, keep it.  If you don't, just send it back.

  • Great Swim hire (Aquasphere Ironman Pursuit, Universal Fit) £40 hire + £80 deposit + delivery
  • Tri UK hire (Foor - various)
  • £25 for the season + £50 deposit + delivery
  • PureTri (2XU - 2009 information)
  • Weekend hire £40 + deposit + delivery, season hire £70 + deposit + delivery - 2009 prices

3. Where can I buy a wetsuit?

You can buy either online or direct from a triathlon shop. Online retailers often appear cheaper but you may have to pay to return them if they don't fit. 

Feedback on specific models is available online on Wiggle.

Some leading wetsuit brands in the UK.

  • Orca (wide range of sizes and prices)
  • Blue Seventy (wide range of sizes and prices)
  • 2XU
  • Aquasphere
  • Foor (Tri UK are the main UK distributor for these, both hire and sales.  See the Tri-UK website.  The Foor UK website appears to currently be under construction) 
  • Snugg (made to measure plus small range of standard sizes)
  • Zone 3 (new brand from British professional triathlete, James Lock)
  • Speedo.

Some leading online suppliers that stock a range of brands:

Triathlon shops across the country:

  • Info on what is available in your region is available by clicking on the map on the Tri247 website.

Examples of triathlon shops, all of which should let you try on wetsuits in their shop are

  • TriCentral (Manchester - has an endless pool where you can try out various suits actually in the water)
  • The Tri Store (Eastbourne)
  • Tri UK (Yeovil - has an endless pool)
  • Triandrun (London - 2 stores) 

For bargains, try second hand via Ebay or your local triathlon club, and end of season, ex-hire deals easily online.

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4.  Wetsuits - 15 things you need to know

Open water swimming is sufficiently new, that OSS members know more about how wetsuits respond to the outdoor swimmers needs than suppliers (which tend to look at triathlon performance alone). So from fabric panels to booties and gloves, here is the ultimate kit guide from OSS swimmers Jo Hills, Adam Smith and Kate Rew.

1. Why do I need a wetsuit?

It keeps you warm. You might like this because it allows you to stay in the water longer, undertake longer, more adventurous swims and swim out of season.

Wetsuits also make you more buoyant in the water, so improve safety (without much effort from yourself, you will float) and reduce 'drag' in the water so you swim faster.

You are advised to practise in open water several times before a race or big event to get used to your suit, as the wetsuit alters the position of your body in the water. An ill-fitting suit can put you off as it makes you fight the water rather than swim.

2. Do I need a specific wetsuit for open water swimming?

A wetsuit specifically designed for swimming (usually sold as a triathlon wetsuit) provides significant advantages over a general wetsuit (eg a surfing wetsuit).  Swimming wetsuits are more flexible, particularly in the shoulders, have a slick external layer (reducing drag) and manufacturers design the buoyancy of the suit with swimming in mind ie your legs aren't so high in the water you're kicking in thin air.

Swimming suits generally have sections of thinner neoprene (usually 2-3mm) in particular areas around joints such as shoulders and knees whereas the rest of the suit may well be made mostly of neoprene up to 5mm thick (the maximum allowed under International Triathlon race rules).  Thicker wetsuits provide increased buoyancy although they can be awkward to swim in (if thicker than 5mm) but will keep you warmer.  Surf wetsuits are frequently hard to do freestyle in on the shoulders, and have legs so buoyant your feet are above the water so you can't kick in breaststroke.

3. Do I need a high specification wetsuit?

If you are not a high level triathlete in regular competition you don't need a high specification wetsuit that will shave seconds off your swim time. In fact, some of the high spec suits take so long to get on, and are so febrile and easily torn, that they're less suitable for general wild swimming use. If you're going to be getting in and out of your suit often, sitting on rocks and clambering around riverbanks and lakeshores, you want a reasonably robust neoprene.

4. How should my wetsuit feel?

Snug, tight even - but not suffocating. You want a good fit, so no water is coming in and out of the suit, and most suits are made of such flexible material finding that fit is easy. It should feel tight on land (but not so tight that you can't breathe), should not gape at the ankles and wrists or be baggy at the small of the back.  It is obviously essential that you have enough room in the shoulders to swim and that it is long enough in the back but not too long in the crotch.

The manufacturers all have sizing charts that work from your height and your weight to determine the appropriate size.  Material is flexible enough now that it's pretty easy to buy online. If you are well within the height range but at the high end of the weight range then you will probably be fine with the suggested size as the extra material not needed in the height can stretch elsewhere. If you are at the high end of both, then it is probably worth going up a size.  Remember they are supposed to feel tight and will loosen up as they get warm and as you get used to them.

Be aware that some companies and shops that sell with competition triathlons in mind believe in suits that are very tight, which improve the swimmers speed in the water. As an OSS swimmer this might not suit you - many of us are in our wetsuits for quite a while, walking upstream or along the coast in our suits for a good half an hour or so before getting in and swimming back the other way, so you don't want to feel claustrophobic or uncomfortable during this time.

5. I'm a very odd size or shape, and can't find one that is comfortable. Any ideas?

You could always splash out on one that is made to measure.... They are available! Try Snugg, a Devon brand: they take 27 body measurements so it literally is a second skin. They retail for around £300, as opposed to the £150 for entry level suits.

6. Below what water temperature should I wear a wetsuit?

That is entirely up to you. Some people never wear them, and others wear them in the height of summer. Their most common use is to extend swimming time, and improve safety - they're particularly useful for longer swims, and swims where you don't know how long you'll be out, as they increase your safety margin.

However if you're taking part in a mass swim, it is likely that it will follow official triathlon regulations. These say that the minimum water temperature at which wetsuits are optional is 14 degrees C; below this they are mandatory. At temperatures below 11 degrees C the same regulations recommend that open water swimming does not take place.  If wind chill is significant, swim distances may also be reduced.

However, many OSS members are out in their suits (plus boots, gloves and vash vests) in water temperatures of below five during winter.

What temperature is comfortable for you depends on how acclimatised you are to the water - build up your exposure gradually.

7. Summer vs Winter? 

Manufacturers don't sell summer and winter suits, in the same way they do for surfing, but you can buy a thicker suit for the colder water temperatures and a thinner one for the warmer. However stating what the right thickness is tricky as every person and every manufacturer is different.

As the suit thickness increases the warmer you will be, but you will also increase your buoyancy in the water and this can affect your swim stroke as your centre of gravity shifts one way or the other, your legs sit too high in the water or you find yourself fighting to get a good pull with your crawl.

While a thick suit does mean you will be warmer longer, this is not necessarily a good thing as if your suit is too thick, swimming for any significant time can become very uncomfortable, likewise swimming in a suit that is not thick enough to insulate you from the more extreme temperatures can also become uncomfortable and potentially dangerous if hyperthermia sets in. Thicker suits tend to put more strain on the knees in breaststroke.

Not everyone has the budget to buy a new suit for each different season. Many swimmers take a 'layered' approach and use their 'summer' suit with another layer (or two) underneath. Layers include rashvests, swim skins, shorties and wetsuit tops, worn under or over the suit, all of which will improve heat retention. (see next question on accessories). All of these methods will alter buoyancy and movement in the water, and might restrict swimming, however it is advisable to at least test this method before buying a new suit just for the colder (and often less frequently swam-in) temperatures.

If you want your suit to go all year around, you might want to avoid suits that have open neoprene panels that look more like thick fabric under the arms and at the side of the body - these are great for providing universal fit during the summer, but more water sieves through this type of neoprene than it does smooth neoprene, so you will notice temperature drops more.

8. Boots, gloves, socks and balaclavas: what do I need?

In cold water, while it is important to keep you core body temperature warm, the extremites will suffer too, and it's often freezing hands and feet that will take you out of the water.

For that reason, a lot of people wear boots, socks and gloves.

There are a variety of gloves available in diving shops and stores in a multitude of thicknesses. Anything more than about 3mm can make your hands quite rigid which may affect your stroke. Below this there's a balancing act between warmth and being able to "feel" the water - thicker gloves can make you bob along feeling like a teddy bear in the water. Look for a wrist band that stops water entering and exiting the gloves, and for smooth neoprene, otherwise you'll be swimming with two huge and heavy water balloons on your hands.

It should also be noted that some swimmers who choose not to wear a suit at all, can still be seen with gloves (and swim caps - see next section) because their extremities suffer more than others.

Neoprene socks or boots are a worthwhile investment regardless of the season as they're useful for walking to and from swims, walking on riverbeds and clambering over rocks. Also, unlike your hands they tend to stay submerged relatively longer and are also more static than your hands, plus outdoor swimming. Even on a balmy summer day you can suffer from 'cold feet' when your hands are fine. While the neoprene is not strong enough for significant amounts of walking across stoney tracks or hard fields, they are much easier to swim in than an old pair of trainers.

Look for boots with a hard plastic sole, and an ankle strap so water doesn't sieve in and out - these often come from windsurfing shops. You will have to experiment with buoyancy: your ideal boots keep you warm, have tough enough soles for clambering over walks, but not mean your feet bob on the surface.

9. What about swimskins?

Thicker than a swim suit, thinner than a wetsuit, swim skins are the open water swimmers summer friend. If you've done a few seasons of wild swimming you may well have got to the stage where you miss the 'feel' of water in a wetsuit - but still need something for longer swims.

Enter the swim skin, sold by companies like AquaSphere - these come in a range of styles (shorties, or armless but long legs), are cheaper (around £100), and mean part of you can feel the water you move through while your core stays warmer.

10. What else do I need for open water swimming?

Even if you eschew all swimming gear and take the plunge in your pants, you still need a brightly coloured silicone hat (available from the OSS shop) so that you can be seen in the water.

Silicon hats keep your head substantially warmer than thin latex ones, and a bright colour makes you visible to other swimmers, and boat traffic. You might be able to see boats and people easily, but with wet hair they almost certainly can't see you.

Avoid any colour seen in nature - black, blue, greens (except flouro), white, silver (both look like suns reflection) - and go for something like the OSS red cap. If you are swimming in open seas or on rivers with boat traffic and get into trouble the bright swim cap can even save your life.

11. Do I need lube?

Most people don't, unless they're doing something like a 10k or the channel.

However you can use a lubricant under your wetsuit such as 'Body Glide' for areas prone to chafing (neck, wrists, shoulders, under the arms, ankles - it will also make it easier to take it off).  This should not be petroleum-based (eg Vaseline or baby oil) as these may rot your suit, you should also make sure that it isn't water soluble so it doesn't just wash away while you're swimming. KY Jelly (plus own brand equivalents) and the Body Shop's various Body Butters and get several mentions on a number of forums. Whatever lubricant you choose to use, always remember to rinse it off at home to preserve the longevity of your suit.

12. What can I do with my keys, wallet and phone?

Some wetsuits have little key pockets at the back by the zip, which is very handy for swimming if your car key isn't electronic.

Otherwise, there are many water tight containers that you can buy for your valuables, and wear them stuffed into your arm or leg or around your waist, if you don't fancy just hiding the car keys in some bushes.

Aquapac provide a variety of belts and pouches designed explicitly to keep your valuables dry. Test anything you intend to submerge underwater in a sink full of water at home with something that isn't going to matter should the pouch fail or you don't seal it properly.

13. How do I put on a wetsuit?

Watch one (or more) of the many videos available online which show you how to put on a wetsuit (eg here). Websites also have written guidance.  And yes, if you follow these simple hints it really works.  Thin neoprene is more delicate than you might think and is easily torn by finger nails or jewellery (best to remove rings and watches) so take care when pulling on the fabric.  Make sure you pinch the fabric from the inside when putting it on rather than just pulling it upwards from the ankle.

14. Which brand should I go for?

Go for fit over brand.  Get whichever fits you best and try both cheaper and more expensive ones on so that you can see (and feel) the difference between them.  Each brand has wetsuits in a range of prices suitable for beginners right up to professionals. 

15. How do I look after my suit?

Rinse it out after each use (particularly sea or chlorinated water. A salty wetsuit will not dry out, and both corrode the fabric).

Don't snag it on rings or nails putting it on - and patch it up with a glue like Black Witch if you do.

Don't expose to heat or leave in the sunshine unnecessarily.

Wash off any suncreams, oils and creams that rot the neoprene.

Further info: the OSS Discussion Board

Have fun!

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