Whether you’re racing in a warm country this winter or braving the British sea, pro triathlete and coach Harry Wiltshire says a spot of wild sea swimming will do you good
My earliest sea swims were at Lulworth Cove in Dorset. My father was a scallop fisherman and Mum would take me and my brothers down to the cove and we’d swim around the harbour till the boat came back in. I’ve always been by the sea; dad’s a professional diver as well as fisherman, one of my brothers drives a boat and the other is a marine. I think it must have helped make me a strong swimmer.
Perranporth in Cornwall is my favourite place to swim these days. It’s a long beach, it’s beautiful, there are loads of surf lifeguards down there who get to know the swimmers and keep an eye on you, and there are other swimmers to hang out with. It’s always good.
If I’ve got stuff on my mind I go and swim in the open water; I get in the waves and clear my head. It’s something I’m good at, which helps, but in the surf I’m always a little bit outside my comfort zone too. I don’t go for a massive session, I just do it for fun if training’s getting hard or things are on top of me.
You can swim pretty early and pretty late in the year. I got in the sea on March 1st once… I wouldn’t advocate that as a full-on training method, but in April it’s not that cold. The other side of the season it doesn’t get cold till quite late: October to November it’s not that cold (up to 15C on the south coast). It’s not till you get the first really big frosts that the temperature’s an issue.
When you’re swimming in cold water, late or early in the year, you’ve got to make sure you’re wearing the right wetsuit, and if it’s really cold, wear a neoprene hat. The big risk is if you’re changing from being really warm to being cold and your heart isn’t up to it, that can lead to heart attacks. If people panic and swallow lots of water than can cause problems too. So just make sure you’re in shape and get in gradually.
I once took myself out in Lanzarote on my own. We’d had a long day and I wanted some space. I swam out from the harbour for 20 minutes to get out to where the waves were, but when I got there I realised the waves were a lot bigger than I thought. I got dumped by a wave and thought, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ It turned out I’d been going into a stronger current than I realised. I couldn’t swim straight back in because I’d be dumped on the rocks, so I had to swim out a bit more before I could swim back. It gets dark quickly out there and soon it was pitch black. When I got back to the harbour the guy who’d been watching me was completely white and there were two police cars waiting for me. I pretended everything had been alright! I didn’t think about it enough if I hadn’t been one of the top triathlon swimmers in the country I might not have made it back.
Find your sea arms
Sea swimming helps you learn skills that are very useful in an open-water race. You see some fantastic pool swimmers who have a very slow cadence to their stroke because they get such a good pull on the water. In a group or when you’re in open water they can’t do that, and they get left behind. I’ve never had enough power to pull through the water like that, but I can get my cadence up and my rhythm doesn’t get disrupted in a group or open water.
The biggest skill you have to learn for open water, especially sea swimming, is finding a rhythm that doesn’t get disrupted. If you’re confident and relaxed in the open water then sighting, drafting and turning round buoys follow naturally. If I take someone out in the water then, sure, I’ll take them through those things; but it’s more about building up their confidence.
Once you’ve learned how to relax and hold your rhythm, in a race it’s all about positioning and knowing who’s around you. Know where the fast swimmers are so you can sit on their feet or hips for a bit. In a drafting race, the guys who always lead out the field know they’re pulling everyone round, but they don’t have any choice if they can’t run; they have to try and break off eight or nine athletes who can then pull them round the bike, and they’ve got a top eight finish. Otherwise they can sit back in the swim and come 50th.
I love my wetsuit and feel very comfortable in it but when it comes to breaking the field up, other people are less comfortable without one than I am, so it works in my favour! If you’re going to do a race with a non-wetsuit swim this winter in a warmer country, I’d just advise you to be careful of your warm-up. Often the water is just borderline warm enough – 21 degrees – and you see people jump in and warm up then get out again, and just before the start you see them shivering because it’s not quite as warm as they thought and they’ve ruined the first half of their race. Make sure the air temperature is high enough to keep you warm if you’re going to do this.
If you’re in a non-wetsuit swim, you’ve got less buoyancy so you have to use your legs more, so some people find it harder. On the other hand some people feel restricted by wetsuits and if you panic in open water the tight wetsuit can make that worse, so without a wetsuit you feel you can breathe more easily.
As well as the physical differences, the mental challenge when you’re swimming in the sea comes from the waves. There’s more to think about with the currents and waves. It means you have to concentrate and pay attention; but that also makes it more interesting.