Hard to believe in mid-November that the last open water swimming session of the year at the Salford Quays Watersports Centre was on a warm sunny late-September evening only a month and a half ago. I'd originally signed up in May, but in the end only managed to make it there for the last four Thursday night sessions - still it was good while it lasted, and the Quays themselves are a great post-industrial setting for a bit of swimming (see my pictures on Flickr).
The truth is that before then I hadn't managed any open water swimming since the Llyn Llyffant/Malham Tarn trip at the start of the summer. That had been a big fun adventure but had also reminded me that even though I love to swim, I'm not really a "natural" open water swimmer - and since my difficulties aren't with swimming per se, I'd started to speculate on what it is about being outdoors that I find more problematic than being in a pool.
So in the weeks after Llyn Llyffant I reflected on the different aspects of outdoor swimming that seemed to cause me anxiety, and it turned out there was quite a range - for example:
- feelings of disorientation and even nausea, especially when swimming front crawl;
- goggles fogging up and/or leaking (and not being able to adjust them once in the water);
- not being able to see where you're going in general, which means that I tend to favour breaststroke over crawl outdoors;
- feelings of pressure when there are a lot of people around me;
- reactions to the initial temperature and taste of the water (which made me feel more reluctant to have my face in the water outdoors).
Breaking down and isolate the issues meant I was able to start thinking practically about how to overcome them. I realised that simply taking a bit more time to prepare before entering the water would deal with several of these problems, for example applying anti-fog solution to my goggles and then checking that they're properly seated on my head (a common cause of leaks is if one of the eye seals overlaps your swimming cap) dealt with the fogging/leaking issues. I also began to incorporate sighting practice into my pool swimming ("sighting" is periodically looking up in order to ascertain your position, while still maintaining your stroke).
However some of the other aspects could ultimately only be worked on by actually swimming outdoors, and so the Salford Quays sessions were ideal: it's a fairly calm, controlled environment with safety support, and by September wasn't too busy. So for each session I was able to focus clearly on my goals, specifically to slow down and prepare carefully before entering the water, and then to focus not on distance or speed but instead on maintaining a steady stroke, staying calm and relaxed, and sighting regularly.
I can't say that the four sessions transformed me into a born-again outdoor swimmer, but I did feel I made some valuable progress. Each time I was able to do a couple of circuits of the 400m course mostly swimming front crawl, and I felt that my sighting practice really paid off; but the most significant thing I got out of it was a sense of increased confidence, and more experience with to overcoming my occasional moments of anxiety and panic. I also learned a couple of new things (for instance, how to get out of the water at the end when there's no ladder), and got some good advice from a friendly fellow swimmer who I hope I'll see again next year when the sessions start up again.
There are still some skills that I haven't really worked on at all, for example being able to tread water comfortably (in fact something like the Art of Swimming's Deep Water Confidence course would be ideal - pity it's only being held in London). But I've already signed up for next year's Great Manchester Swim (this time in July, let's hope for better weather) - and before that of course there's also the Outdoor Swimming Society's December Dip at Parliament Hill Lido. See you there maybe? or else back at Salford Quays sometime in 2012:
Till then, happy swimming!