Health and Fitness: Be prepared when ocean swimming for the first time

HIT THE HARBOUR: The Across the Harbour swim returns to the event calendar this year and will be held on Australia Day from 10am.
HIT THE HARBOUR: The Across the Harbour swim returns to the event calendar this year and will be held on Australia Day from 10am.

I have never been much of a swimmer.

I can plod along in the pool for half an hour and have done the smallest race of the Sparke Helmore Triathlon, usually around 350 metres, a few times.

But when a colleague came to me recently to see if I was interested in doing the Across the Harbour swim on Australia Day - 1.4 kilometres from Queen’s Wharf to Stockton and back - I was quick to say, “No”.

I will be the first in line for a local running event but I would not classify myself as a confident or competent swimmer over any long distance. It is the kind of thing I would want to prepare for well in advance.

But I was thrilled to hear it was back after an absence because I know plenty of people who would prefer the challenge of swimming long distance to running it.

One thing I noticed the few times I did swim in open water was there is a bit of an art to it. 

I was not prepared for the flailing of arms and legs around me. I got swam over the top of twice in my first event and ended up swallowing a lot of water.

But after that I sought tips from seasoned competitors which definitely helped.

Last week as I was thinking about what to write this week, I picked the brains of a few experts of the field.

Former Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain ironman Tom Atkinson, who spent a portion of his life in Newcastle while at university, had this advice:

  • Train in the ocean to get used to the conditions;
  • Get used to swimming with your head up because there is no black line to follow;
  • Practise bilateral breathing. It helps if there is chop coming from a particular direction plus allows you to keep an eye on other competitors;
  • Learn how to drag because it saves 10 to 20 per cent energy.

Former professional triathlete Boyd Conrick, who has teamed up with handy Hunter Valley triathlete Lisa Redmond to form TriCoach Newcastle, had these tips for newcomers to ocean swimming:

  • ​Consult with an experienced person or group who know the waterway before going swimming;
  • Never swim alone;
  • Use your senses to better measure your swim environment, especially looking, listening and feeling;
  • Talk to other swimmers that have swam or raced prior to you and ask them what the conditions are like;
  • Use a marker such as a lighthouse or tall building as a reference point so you can always refer to it at any stage of your swim session;
  • Practise buoy turns, to the left and to the right.

Most of all, enjoy being out there because there is something relaxing about the lapping of water at your ears as you swim.

Maybe if I can build up my swimming distance (without breaks) I can give it, or perhaps just one way from Stockton, a go in the future.

It is also apparently the only time you can legally swim in the harbour each year.

WATER ATTRACTION: Ocean swimming has more appeal to many than land-based activity. There are plenty of events throughout the year, including the Nobbys to Newcastle on January 27.

WATER ATTRACTION: Ocean swimming has more appeal to many than land-based activity. There are plenty of events throughout the year, including the Nobbys to Newcastle on January 27.

Upcoming fitness events

Across the Harbour swim, Newcastle harbour, January 26: A much-loved event back in action. A 1400-metre return swim from Queens Wharf to Stockton and back or there is the option of swimming just one way from Stockton.  

Nobbys to Newcastle Ocean Swim, Nobbys beach, January 27: A 2km ocean swim from Nobbys to Newcastle beach. 

Free lunchtime boxing class, Civic Park, January 23: Revitalising Newcastle are hosting a range of health and fitness activities this month and this week it is a boxing fitness class for all abilities. Class starts at 12.30pm and gloves are provided.

Sizzling Summer Session Suggestions

To let muscles recover you can alternate upper body sessions with lower body workouts. Upper body sessions could look like this:

Session one: 10 push-ups, 10 horizontal rows, 10 shoulder throws with light dumbbells, 10 lat pull, 10 running arms with light dumbbells, 10 biceps curls, 10 triceps extension. Repeat twice.

Session two: Perform each exercise set 2-3 times with rests before moving on to the next. 

Session three: 10 x push-up with 4 mountain climbers, 10 bent-over row with triceps kickback, 10 biceps curls with shoulder press. Repeat twice.

Renee Valentine is a writer, qualified personal trainer and mother. r.valentine@fairfaxmedia.com.au.