Compete and conquer!

Getting tickets for open water swimming events is turning into Glastonbury Festival-style browser-refreshing mayhem. But what makes the growing list of events so popular?

To begin with, the idea of entering an event terrified me. I felt like the spotlight would be on my swimming ability, and I would be shown up as a terrible masquerader in an over-rpiced wetsuit. Before my first 'race' (which wasn't a race at all) I was an anxious mess. But the Great North Swim, a mile around Lake Windermere, was so much fun, I needn't have worried.

There were people swimming for charity, heads up breaststrokers, people who'd only just learned to swim. There were festival-style stalls, free malt-loaf, music, laughing. Best of all, I got a finisher's goody bag complete with event t-shirt and a medal. Wearing that medal, I felt like a winner. I acknowledged my time, but it didn't matter. It was the experience, the accomplishment that mattered, and that was the emphasis of the event.

Going the distance

The Glastonbury Festival of the outdoor swimming world, the Bantham Swoosh sold out within an hour and the Dart 10k entries are likely to follow suit when they go on sale on December 4th at 7am. These are increasingly popular distance events, even with non-competitive swimmers because they offer you the chance to push your own boundaries, whether that's to be the first to finish, or simply to finish.

After The Great North Swim, I felt encouraged and confident enough to enter the Dart 10k. The main difference with the 10k, other than it being six times as far to swim, is the time limit dictated by the outgoing tide. That's pressure right there; not only do you have to complete the thing, you have to do so within a time constraint.

But you have it hand it to organisers The Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS). Like all its events, the Dart 10k is exceptionally well-conceived and well-run. While serious swimmers with an eye on their PBs (personal bests, in case you're wondering) can check in to the elite wave and go for it, there's plenty of space for leisurely swimmers. The OSS also cultivates a sort of festival-style atmosphere, and that's what made it for me. Turns out that a hug and mug of hot chocolate at the finish line is worth more than a medal or a PB. Honestly, I'll never forget that hug.

Choose your event

As open water swimming grows in popularity, so do the choices for swim events. They do cost money, and rightly so; you're paying for insurance, safety back-up, feed stations and finish-line treats like coal-fired hot tubs and enamel mugs of drinking chocolate. But you're also supporting organisations like the OSS to help make outdoor swimming more accessible and open to everyone.

Which event you choose depends on what type of swimmer you are and what you want from an event. Here are a few questions to consider when weighing up your choices:

  • Is this your first event? If so, you may want a big festival-style event with a choice of waves, speeds and distances.

  • What's your aim? Do you want to conquer a distance, or just experience an open water event? Or are you aiming for speedy finish?

  • Will you wear a wetsuit or do you want to swim skins? If you want to swim without a wetsuit, you may have to prove your experience.

  • Do you want to get your head down and get on with it or swim breaststroke? If you're a heads-up swimmer, go for something picturesque like Lake Windermere.

  • Do you want to travel? You can go beyond the UK or you can stay close to home.

Train, train, train

Whatever your event, training is essential. Winter swimming is wonderful, but it's also worth starting a training session in the pool to tweak your stroke. Try interval training where you change your speed as this builds stamina much more effectively than just plodding away for a time or distance. Once spring comes, open water training is essential as you'll need a whole different set of skills like sighting, buoy turns and mass starts. If you're going to wear a wetsuit, you'll need to get used to swimming in it. Don't underestimate how different it is to swimming in a pool.

Finding events

A simple search on the internet will probably bring up events near you or in a specific location if you have one in mind. Outdoor Swimmer is a brilliant magazine that not only has a pretty comprehensive list of events each month, it also reports on events, which can help you choose. Ultimately, though, if you're not sure whether or not an event is for you, contact the organiser and ask. Here are a couple of my top choices:

A swim event glossary

Here are few terms to unpick when you're looking at events:

Skins Swimming without a wetsuit (not naked!)

Aquathlon This is a swim followed by a run.

Swim-run This is an event that involves multiple swims and runs

Age-group Some events are divided into sex and age groups, while others will open or have an open category and a senior category

Wave Most events have various waves which means that different groups start at different times. These may just be to manage numbers, or you may need to time yourself swimming a mile (in the pool is fine) in order to work out which wave you're in. If you're unsure, it's probably bit to play it safe and enter a too-slow wave than a too-fast one.

Mass start This means that you all start together. It's well worth practising this before your event as it can cause panic.