Thursday, July 2, 2015

Swim Social Blog: Outdoor swimming? Give it a try and you won't look back!

Blog by Chris Kane: Last month I took to the water at the Helix Lagoon in Falkirk for an open water “Come and Try” event organised by Scottish Swimming.

The Helix Lagoon is a fabulous open water swimming resource in the same park as the now world famous “Kelpies” statues. The “Come and Try” events are a regular part of Scottish Swimming’s event calendar and brings together coaches and outdoor swimmers with complete novices and people training for triathlons and other competitions.

With each session lasting an hour, it is a perfect opportunity to try the concept of outdoor swimming  in Scotland, or start to get a handle on the missing skills required to take part in a competitive event. With safety swimmers waiting in a boat should you get into trouble, it is also a great deal safer than simply jumping into your nearest loch or burn.

Wetsuits are compulsory, but if you've not got one you can hire one when you book onto the event and it will be there waiting for you at the venue.  You will look better in a wetsuit then you imagine – they squeeze every unflattering part of you into a better shape and you will look more toned than you have done for a while. I can't  say the same for the pink swimming cap and can only assume it is a safety feature to help the boat find you in an emergency. 

With the water at around 14 Celsius, I'm not going to lie – it does provide you with a brief shock when you slide in. But then the wetsuit starts to work and the temperature stops being an issue. With the exertion of swimming, even after an hour in the water you don't feel overly cold. If you've only ever done indoor swimming it is the water itself that you will notice is most different.  Pool water is crystal clear and calm. Visibility in the Helix Lagoon is measured in inches because of the silt you kick up when your feet hit the bottom. There are gentle waves and there is a wind in your face which also whistles through the trees providing an unusual comparison with the echoing cavern of your local indoor pool.

We were split into three groups for the session which were broadly speaking: complete novices, beginners and intermediates. I was in  the complete novices class. So while the beginners went off to begin developing skills for triathlons and the intermediates went on to further hone their already developing competitive skills, around a dozen of us swam to the edge where we began quizzing each other on why we were there. A few were runners or cyclists trying to work out whether they wanted to commit to training for a triathlon, a few were simply swimmers looking to try a different way of appreciating an activity they loved and there were others who were simply curious about  getting into the water in a country overflowing with the stuff.

We had a number of objectives our teacher wanted us to try in the hour he had us: sighting, turning and pack swimming. In a pool  you have markings on the floor and beams in the ceiling which help you stay roughly in a straight line. Outdoors you've got poor underwater visibility and moving clouds, which means you need something else  to orientate yourself. We spent time learning how to fix a point on the shoreline – a tree or an electricity pylon or a whatever – and swim towards it. We also learned to swim around a buoy in a corkscrew manoeuvre, which is the swimming equivalent of a handbrake turn that allows you to change direction without losing much speed. Finally, we learned to swim in a pack, either following the feet of the person in front in a rather civilised single file line, or in a less civilised  manner which resembles a shoal of fish in a net as we all tried to scramble across  the finish line first.

After the hour was up all of us in the novice class agreed that our initial concerns about outdoor swimming in Scotland had been, excuse the pun, blown out of the water. We actually looked better than we thought in a wetsuit, the water was not as cold as we had first feared and the experience was no better or worse than an indoor pool – apart from both getting you wet, I found it difficult to draw meaningful comparisons between swimming at the Helix and at the indoor swimming pool two miles down the road in Camelon.

I will need a few more sessions for the novelty to wear off before I can confidently say this, but to non competitive adult swimmers, indoor swimming is an activity rather than an experience. I go swimming at my local pool to try and get fit, with each session no different to the last. However, I watch my kids at the weekend fun sessions throwing themselves off an inflatable assault course and realise that to them swimming is an experience as much as an activity. Outdoor swimming offers something more. I can imagine myself taking to colleagues on a Monday morning about swimming in a highland loch in a way I would never do about swimming in a pool. When I'm on holiday the water is something that is fun rather than functional. Outdoor swimming may be just what you need to make swimming an activity and an experience. Give it a try and you won't look back. Unless you are not very good at sighting and you start swimming in circles.

You can read more Blogs in our Swim Social series - please click here 

To find out more about the Come and Try Open Water sessions we offer - please click here