Last year, I did two challenges as part of my Ignite Your Lion Heart Challenge. I did Go Ape and I swam a mile at Swim Serpentine. Both things that I really wanted to do for Leo, but terrified me at the thought. I wrote about Go Ape at the time, but never got round to writing an actual blog post about Swim Serpentine. I always think when you do something incredible like that, you should record your thoughts and feelings – evidence to yourself when you doubt your abilities in the future.
So as we approach the start of the fair-weather open water swimming season, I thought I should record what it was like for me last year, and give those who want it some of my still-very-much-a-novice advice about tackling swimming without sides to hold on to every 25 metres!
I had never swam in open water before. I loved swimming in a pool; but wouldn’t say I was particularly good. I have (or had?) a fear of going under unexpectedly. I don’t like the loss of control. I can only breaststroke.
The first thing I did was research open water swimming locations near me and found somewhere that did group induction sessions. It would be my biggest tip to anyone considering it. I went here. We were taught things such as safety, kit options, breathing and sighting (how to go in a straight line when front crawling, apparently it doesn’t just happen…), as well as the chance to just get cracking.
Going to a lake that is set up for open water swimming was absolutely a great help. They were so lovely and welcoming, helped me to hire the right kind of suit, didn’t laugh at me when I couldn’t get it on, and most importantly, had a safety team out on the water.
The group induction session was a bit of an eye opener! I hadn’t realised how mentally different it would be. The huge expanse really shifts your perception of distance and getting used to the wetsuit and breathing pattern was really important — I’ll say here, I also only just taught myself to breaststroke and breathe out under water last year.
That expanse meant that I struggled to not panic and actually swim 25 metres. It was a bit of a shock and terrified me that I wouldn’t actually be able to do it after all. Suddenly the shortest distance felt huge!
However, once I got going and with the support and encouragement of our coach, I started to calm down (internally) and get in a rhythm. After that session, I just went down on my own (with the moral support of my wife on the side lines!). I got the hang of bobbing up and down and breathing under water as acclimatisation when I first got in, and clearing my goggles so that they didn’t fog up.
Getting the Hang of It
The first 20-30 meters where initially the toughest bit, so I always gave myself that pep talk to focus on my breathing up until the first bouy and it would help me fall into a rhythm. After a good few sessions, it was quicker and easier to fall into the durrr-baaahm noise of each stroke and I’d just focus on that.
I soon built up my stamina and instead of stopping and regrouping at every bouy, I slowly built myself up to getting further round the 750m course in one go.
I wasn’t concerned about my time or my distance (no fancy waterproof watches over here) – I just got in, marvelled at the fact that I was in the middle of a big friggin lake on a beautiful evening/morning, and felt proud of what I had achieved. I could soon feel the mental power of just being in the middle of nothing and completely loosing myself in each stroke.
The thing I love most is the lack of swim-rage and having now swam in a lake, I think I’d struggle to go Lane swimming again. I actually haven’t bothered. I’d aim to go to the pool to unwind, but end up more stressed with being overtaken or needing to overtake and all the politics of a busy pool. It was counterproductive. In a lake – I never really got that. Yes, people over took me, but a lake has plenty of space for two! And once you’re overtaken, it’s unlikely you’ll see them again in 45 seconds like in a pool! It’s like the difference between a country lane and the motorway. Its the best thing about it!
Preparing for Swim Serpentine
I got in a groove at my lake. I knew the system, the people and the route (helpful, because swimming without glasses is sometimes a challenge!). So the thought of going to Swim Serpentine was actually really daunting. I knew how running races worked, but didn’t have a clue how this would be.
I read and re-read their instructions which were actually really helpful. Information about the changing rooms, the dunk pool, the start times. I also followed their social media and that was really helpful as they had lots of swimming tips and behind-the-scenes to just help answer those questions.
I always find the strictness in race instructions about the time limits really daunting but I had managed to swim the one mile distance once and knew I should be okay. The time limits and optional wetsuit allowance changes based on temperature but you can track that beforehand online which is really helpful.
Swimming the Serpentine
I cannot express how much I bloody loved it! We obviously arrived super early because that’s what happens when you don’t have a clue what to do – but it’s actually a moderately small ‘race village’. A large communal changing room (with a few cubicles) and a bag drop next door, right opposite the starting pen.
I opted for the women’s only wave (because it sounded nice!) which was bright and early and just the one mile. Seeing a few other waves start was good to get an idea of how it all happened. The starting pen had an entry into a dunk pool – essentially just a roped off bit of the lake to go in an acclimatise. Really helpful to just get a feel for it all. Everyone was super friendly and chatting away. All shapes, sizes and ages too! The entry is was just a slope to walk down and whilst it was busy at the start, it wasn’t crazy like a running race can be. Very much a swim your own swim vibe. The crowd thinned out really quickly and a mixture of front crawl and breaststroke. Everyone at their own pace with zero pressure. Someone was even swimming on their back!
The swim was incredible. I was lucky enough to swim whilst the The London Mastaba was still in the lake – not too shabby a backdrop. There were a few ducks around but the lake was pretty clear other than that. Supporters can get quite close to the lake edge most of the way round and on the bridges so plenty of support and waving opportunities. It took me about 45 mins but it flew by! I was so so chuffed to finish it and SO HAPPY! Actually buzzing!!
I said at the time that I wanted the two mile medal next… so that’s the plan for this year! I’ll have longer to train for it and hopefully be able to practice more on my technique and speed. I really miss the lake, and I cannot wait to get training again.
But what about kit?
I’m no expert here, but I will share a bit about the kit that I got and used, and what I have sorted for this season, just incase helpful.
Now, some people would say all you need a swimsuit or shorts. I am not one of those people. For Swim Serpentine, I think the temperature was 16. Last summers heat wave, I think the lake may have got up into early or mid 20s. I think most Lakes will stipulate a minimum temperature for not swimming in a wetsuit, but I guess it’s all personal choice. What I would say – it’s the coldest when you first get in. It doesn’t take long for you to warm up.
I always swam with a wetsuit. My lake hired them and I was very grateful at they let me hire the same one all season at a huge discount. Finding an affordable way to hire is a big help – it made sure I could afford more swims sessions. You can of course, just go a buy one – but you do need an actual swimming wetsuit. They are made differently and thinner, meaning it’s easier to maneavoure during your strokes. You can get some affordable ones on Wiggle (this lovely soft number will get its first outing this weekend) or find somewhere where you can try before you buy. If you are lucky to live near a shop or lake locally, they should help make sure you are in the best fitting one for you, as naturally, it’ll make all the difference when you are actually swimming. Tip for getting the bloody thing on though – do it like tights, get the legs perfect and then the top will slip on far easier.
I just wore a swimming costume underneath. But I had read threads about people going commando. Again, not one of those people! Most managed lakes will ask you to remove wetsuits outside of the changing rooms after all…
I have these and love them. You can get different types for outdoor swimming, and these were fab as they clip at the back – far less hair tangling going on. One year, I might treat myself to prescription googles, because I have genuinely been in the middle of a lake, without view of any landmarks!
A must at most venues, for safety and essential for Swim Serpentine. I’ve seen people collect them like medals. These are pretty self explanatory… although, I have been known to put it on sideways. Attractive things!
A handy addition to stop any chaffing, especially around your neck – I gather more important too if you’re front crawling. Here’s the official info.
Last year, I rocked a stylish Turtle Tots Bag for Life from Eli’s swimming lessons. Apt. It did the trick.
This year, I treated myself with my birthday money (yes, I’m 13) and bought this kit bag. I haven’t had enough use to know if it’s exactly what I want or need but it’s rammed full of compartments and dry pockets and all sorts so I feel pretty happy – especially at the price. The key I guess is to think – soaking wetsuit – and work out from there. You can get lots of handy dry bags, and all sorts – the world is your oyster with a kit bag!
Mostly, I rocked a bath towel. Because ultimately, all towels are made (somewhat) made equal.
But The Wife did get me a Dryrobe last year, which whilst huge, is great to just chuck on and get changed without holding a towel with your eyelids, getting your knickers twisted and your jeans socked on a dirty floor. It came in really handy in a busy communal changing room after Swim Serpentine, when you want to be all ‘we are all the same’ and breezy about getting changed, but actually you’d really rather not to nip-slip.
I also have a little micro fibre towel for a smaller option too.
Does it have to be in a lake?
If you google wild or outside/open water swimming – you’ll be given a huge range of options from lakes, rivers, the sea, lidos. So many options and each has its pros and cons for what you want and where you are at with it all. For me, a managed lake feels safe but I’d love to aim to get wilder next year! My Dad got me this book for my birthday, which is a great place to start with finding spots for wild swimming. I’ll be taking part in the Henley Swim Festival which is in the River Thames this summer as my first take outside a lake. I’d love to run into the sea and just swim… but, well, maybe not just yet!
How do I know what’s available in my area?
Other than the obvious Google search, I recently came across the Open Water Swimming Society which has lots of local groups too and plenty of info about local spots and activities happening. A lot of sea or wild swimming but a great source of info whatever your plan. There Facebook group is a hub for advice.
Think tri – I also found out about local places by looking up tri clubs as opposed to just thinking open water swimming. I’m never going to get on a bike or run; but the principals are all the same for the swimming needs!
You’ll also find TONS of advice online – from blogs, websites, and videos – on techniques and beyond.
I can’t express how wonderful I found it and how much I’ve missed it – I’ve recently moved and finding a new place to swim that I like will no doubt be like restarting all over again, but I’m far more excited that nervous this time round!
So, who is joining me of Serpentine next year?
Nothing in this is affiliated, sponsored, gifted (other than birthday presents!), a paid ad, or anything in between.