Karen Pickering MBE, four time World Champion swimmer, shares some open-water tips
Karen Pickering MBE is one of Britain’s most successful professional swimmers ever.
Over the course her 20 year career she has been named World Champion four times, broken two world records and is the most successful Brit to compete at the Commonwealths in any sport. She has won National, European and International titles and has competed in four consecutive Olympic Games.
After retiring in 2005 she has set up swimming schools across the country and has just launched a bespoke one-to-one swim programme service.
We caught up with her at one of the open-water swimming seminars she runs with Human Race events to gain some training advice and swimming insight.
“I think the beauty of swimming is that it will help any other sport,” she says. “It’s a full body exercise, there’s little chance of injury and it’s non-impact so you can add it into you training regime without worrying about things like achilles or IT band problems. It’s great for fitness and really good for recovery after a particularly hard session.
“The other thing it really helps with is breath control. Swimming’s the only sport really where you can’t just breathe when you want to. You have to have discipline.Breathing out underwater helps to strengthen your lungs as it’s obviously harder than breathing out in air.”
When it comes to racing at your best she’s keen to highlight the importance of a good and efficient technique.
“I think efficiency is really important. Some people think that if you’re doing a long distance swim all you do in training is long distances. Actually doing repetitions of shorter distances is really important and technique is absolutely vital.
“You can swim for hours but with poor technique it’s not going to help.”
“Spending time concentrating on technique, on being as efficient as possible, trying to cut down the number of arm pulls you take and making every one count, can make a huge difference. Particularly in triathlon. You don’t want to be kicking like crazy. You want to make your arm pulls as efficient as possible and use your legs to balance rather than propel. The key is efficiency.”
Having run plenty of open-water masterclasses, she’s developed a few tips for beating pre-race nerves or fear of open water.
“The chances are you won’t be the only one doing their first open water swim. There are going to be an awful lot of people in the same situation.
“If you’re going to be swimming in the sea, a river or a lake then ideally you will have tried that before. The more you can get comfortable with your surroundings the less daunted you’ll feel on the day. It’s mostly common sense.
“Most people do the majority of their swimming in the pool so it can be quite a shock getting into cold water. It really does help to have practiced and to make sure you have the right equipment. If you need to wear a wetsuit, two swimming caps, earplugs… whatever will help guard off the shock of the cold.
“For most people, it’s not a great idea for your first open-water swim to be in the sea or in a river. Training-wise there are plenty of lidos around and outdoor pools where you can practice and be in a safe environment. You can start getting used to the cold water and then progress to swimming somewhere less controlled.
“Ideally, you wouldn’t go sea swimming or river swimming on your own but it’s important to experience your race conditions beforehand. If you’re doing a triathlon at Blenhein or Dorney Lake or wherever then go there, have a look, see what the course is going to be like. Try to understand as much as possible what it is you’re going to be doing.
“Knowing that you’re physically capable of it will help too. If the swim in your triathlon is 1km in open water and you can swim 1500m in the pool you can be confident that you can swim that distance.”
— Karen Pickering (@Karen_Pickering) May 15, 2014
When we asked her why she loved swimming, the happiness in her voice was clear:
“Whenever I look back at my baby pictures I’m always sitting in a bucket of water, in a boat, in the sea… I was just a water baby. I loved being in the water and still do.
I’m at my most content when I’m in water, even when I wasn’t very good it. I just love swimming and that’s carried on throughout my career and after it. I wasn’t one of those swimmers who got tired and never wanted to see a pool again. I can’t imagine my life without being able to get in the pool.
It’s the closest you get to flying, you know, that feeling of weightlessness. You put your face in the water, you can’t hear anyone else and can just be in your own world. It’s such a relaxing, amazing place to be.”
Karen is running another open-water swimming master class on 24 May at Dorney Lake, learn more here.
Her swimming schools run at 7 venues across the UK and bursaries towards lessons are available via her charity, the Karen Pickering Foundation. Lessons for adults, parent and baby, children and weight loss programmes are all available.
Swim One2One is a bespoke swim programme that Karen will write to match your needs and training goals.
She says of her new programme, “Sometimes, training for long swims, you think you’re just going to be swimming up and down a pool and it can be quite tedious and not very challenging. Hopefully I’ll be able to write a programme which will be varied, challenging and give you something to aim for. Something that makes it a bit different, means you’ll keep coming back and enjoy training towards a goal.”