Blog: Swimming Up Stream

For those of you that know me and follow my triathlon antics, you will know that during the spring and summer months, I not only take my cycling and running outdoors but also my swimming.  Yes, I am one of these mad types that will use the local river in Cardiff (the River Taff) as part of my swim training and I’m not ashamed to admit that I absolutely love it.  I do think you have to be a little bonkers to partake in triathlon, especially longer distance, so the fact I swim in the local river surely isn’t going to be that much of a surprise, is it?

The benefits of outdoor swimming are far reaching, and apart from being free and easily accessible there are a number of health and psychological benefits.  Cold immersion soothes muscle aches, can boosts the immune system, while having a positive impact on mental health.  It’s not often that I reference NASA in my blog but NASA studies have shown that, over a 12-week period, repeated cold swimming leads to substantial bodily changes known as ‘cold adaptation’.   This leads to a reduction in blood pressure and cholesterol, and an increase in fertility and libido in both men and women.

Whenever I tell people about river swimming, I am normally met with the same responses of ‘isn’t it dirty’ or ‘won’t you catch something’?  Our local rivers and lakes are cleaner today than at any time in living memory.  I used to work for an environmental charity and researched river swimming extensively before I started.  Industrial and agricultural pollution did negatively impact our rivers in the 1960s but the 1974 Control of Pollution Act and subsequent European legislation has been successful in turning around the health and cleanliness of our waterways.  Environment bodies (Environment Agency in England & NRW in Wales) monitor the health of all our waterways with over 70 per cent of the rivers achieving very good or good on a water quality scale.

According to the Environment Agency “Most people’s first concern is usually sewage but with the European Water Framework Directive all effluent now undergoes at least two treatments before entering a river and, increasingly, a third to make it completely sterile and pure”.  Any bacterium that remains are quickly killed by the sun’s UV rays, or consumed in the micro-food chain of the river.  So in theory the further down river you are the cleaner the water will become.

The biggest challenge you face in a river is the current. Not only is there the resistance upstream, but its strength is constantly changing depending on weather.   People often assume it is the current weather that affects the river level and current, but it is hours later when the rainfall has come down stream when people get caught out.  Understanding your local river is vital to swimming safe.  If in doubt speak to your local outdoor swimming club and/or gather information before attempting to enter any stretch of river. 

 I will normally swim with other ‘mad’ folk from the running and triathlon clubs I am associated with on a ½ mile of river which has no sharp turns or obstacles.  You will be surprised how many cycling or running clubs have splinter divisions that dabble in triathlon.  99% of the time I will swim in a wetsuit which gives extra buoyancy, so if anyone gets into trouble they can roll onto their back, floating for a rest or make their way to the water’s edge.  

Once you leave the comfort of the pool, river swimming will give you an opportunity to practice sighting for forthcoming races, and gives you training that mimics race conditions more than the pool ever will.   If new to sighting, practice regular sight-breathing by looking up every 8-10 strokes, and gradually working up to 20.

Each stretch of river is different and will challenge you in very different ways. Positioning on the river is vital to getting the most out of your training session. If you took a cross-section of a river, you would see it is shallower near the banks before deepening in the middle.  Deeper water equals faster water so you would get a harder workout when swimming upstream than using the shallower areas.

The equipment needed for river swimming isn’t an extensive as you may think, I use the following:

·         Wetsuit

·         Swimming Cap (because the water can get cold)

·         Ear plugs (personal preference)

·         A waterproof holder for car key or a swimming buoy/bag

I will admit the hardest thing is getting in the water and allowing water into your wetsuit, followed by the cold water on your face.  Ensure you allow time to acclimatise yourself to the temperature before you start swimming.

In short, outdoor swim can be a fantastic element to your training, however it needs to be planned and athletes need to respect the water.  If in doubt look for a local group or club.  If anyone has any further questions please email me on or leave a comment.

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