As a long-distance trail runner, I’ve always been curious about open water swimming.
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like the ultra-running of the swimming world. Rather than back and forth laps in a pool–an activity I’ve always found a bit tedious and dull–open-water swimmers head to the great wide open. They jump in a lake and swim as far as their hearts desire, unencumbered by lane markings, crowded pools or chlorine-saturated water. Just as I opt for a remote mountain trail over the monotony of a track or treadmill, open-water swimmers truly explore the outdoors.
Why, then, have I yet to dip my toes into the sport? In a word–trepidation. While the local swimming pool seems easy, warm and safe, open-water swimming invites a whole new set of obstacles and challenges. How do I stay warm? How do I stay safe? Where are the best, beginner-friendly swimming lakes in the Puget Sound region?
With the arrival of spring and warmer weather just around the corner, I figured now would be a good time to investigate. For help, I turned to friend and swimming coach Kimberly Lorton. A former competitive swimmer at the University of Washington, Lorton now teaches clients how to tackle open-water swimming through her business, First Out-Triathlon.
Lorton discovered her love for open water while training on the UW’s team. In the summer, her coach sent the women on swims from the UW boathouse to the 520 bridge and back.
At first, Lorton hated the swims. Accustomed to the visibility and predictability of a pool, she didn’t like the murky water. Out there, she struggled to swim straight and fought wind, waves and currents.
But, bit by bit, Lorton began to enjoy the lake outings. While she never would be the best or fastest pool swimmer on the UW team, she discovered a unique aptitude for open-water distance swims. Lorton learned to judge the currents and maintain a visual point. Her squeamishness toward the dark lake water faded.
These days, Lorton tries to share her love for open-water swimming with clients and friends. In addition to racing at local summertime competitions–such as Fat Salmon in Lake Washington and Hagg Lake in Portland–she regularly ventures out to the local lakes with her husband, training partners and students.
Here, then, are Lorton’s tips for beginning in open-water swimming:
Learn in the Pool
Before wading into any local lake, someone must be confident swimming in a pool. During initial pool sessions, Lorton works with her clients on technical form and breathing. She enlists a number of drills to help them fix technique flaws and become faster, stronger and more confident swimmers.
Start Close to Shore
Once students feel confident enough to venture to open water, Lorton doesn’t send them across Lake Washington. Instead, she takes them to a swim area next to a lakeshore. It’s typical for clients to abandon all the technique improvements they made during six weeks of pool swimming the moment they step into cold, dark lake water. To make them comfortable, and to enable them to remember what they’ve been taught, Lorton sends them on laps along the swim-area rope at Madison Park.
In the second open-water session, Lorton and her clients will usually go beyond the roped swim area but remain near shore. She helps the students work on breathing in the cold water. Lorton also teaches them how to look up and back down quickly, enabling each to become oriented without losing proper form.
“There’s a lot we can do within 8 feet of the shoreline,” Lorton said.
Safety concerns were the first thing I wondered about when considering open-water swimming. After all, my closest experience with lake swimmers comes during early morning rows at Green Lake. I’ve come far too close to whacking some of those swimmers on the head with an oar, and I’ve always thought many don’t understand that rowers face backwards, and can’t easily spot a swimmer in a dark cap.
Indeed, Lorton makes a point of wearing bright colors. To remain safe, swimmers must be visible.
“Wear the brightest, craziest cap you can find,” Lorton said.
When swimming with friends along Seattle’s Lake Washington shoreline, Lorton and her companions further increase their visibility by wearing a belt with a rope. They tie the rope to a bright yellow dry bag that floats behind them, acting as a sighting buoy for all boaters.
Lorton and her friends also always listen underwater for the sound of a powerboat propeller. That way, they can change course or call out, if needed. If swimmers venture where rowers practice, they can often learn the typical traffic pattern and practice times, and thus avoid crossing paths with the shells.
Lorton often uses a paddleboard, which helps her stay above the water and keep a close eye on her swimmers. If any of need her help, she can reach them more quickly.
If someone isn’t swimming in a group session or with a coach, Lorton recommends always bringing a buddy along.
“Never, ever go out in open water by yourself,” Lorton said.
A fellow swimmer won’t be enough for a rescue once someone ventures far from shore. The Harbor Patrol mandates that a kayak or other boat accompany a swimmer in the middle of Lake Washington. Even strong swimmers can experience sudden cramps or unexpected problems at sea.
Adapting to lake swimming after the comfort of a heated pool can be the biggest challenge for newbies, Lorton said. She coaches clients how to get over the gasp reflex, when swimmers get immersed in cold water, open their mouths and suck in water.
“The number one reason people drop out of open-water swimming is the cold,” Lorton said.
For many open-water swimmers in Seattle’s cool northern climate, wetsuits are mandatory gear. The suits allow athletes to endure long sessions in the lake and make early season or early morning swims more palatable. As an added bonus, wetsuits add buoyancy, enabling a swimmer to float with less effort.
Lorton points out that novices should be sure to look for a triathlon or open-water wetsuit, and not a surfing wetsuit. The latter are much thicker and far more constrictive, making it difficult to move arms through a swimming stroke. Lorton recommends picking up a used wetsuit on Craigslist, as she has purchased several barely swam-in suits on the site for bargain prices.
If wetsuits sound cumbersome or unappealing, hearty Northwest swimmers can simply wear a swimsuit. Lorton prefers to ditch the wetsuit, and instead selects her open-water swimming venues based on water temperature. In May, Green Lake becomes the first local body of water to warm up. Next, Lake Sammamish grows mild, and finally Lake Washington as the summer months march on.
“I don’t like the water until it’s a couple degrees above 60,” Lorton said.
Come August, when all lakes around the region become warm enough for swimming without a wetsuit, swimmers can select their route based on water quality. A King County website posts up-to-date water conditions.
Make it Fun
Lorton and her friends relish the freedom of swimming in open water, and Lorton hopes others will discover the same joy.
“I love the Zen of it,” Lorton said.
As an added bonus, athletes can take open water swimming with them wherever they go. Lorton plans her world travel around swimming. She has found pools and lakes to swim in across the globe, including in Russia and Italy and all over Europe. Swimming, Lorton says, is a way to explore both the Puget Sound region and abroad.
Editor's note: Heidi Dietrich is editor of Edmonds Patch.