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Open water swim session at The Helix lagoon

Written by Fiona

June 09 2015

On Saturday morning, did ?… a) Want to stay in bed where it was warm and cosy and listen to the wind and rain outside and only imagine just how cold it was, or b) Want to go for a swim in a cold lake in the wind and rain? The answer, of course, was “a” but I did “b”.

I thought I was very brave, but, then again, so were the other 20 or so swimmers.

I was booked in for one of this summer’s Scottish Swimming Come & Try open water sessions at a man-made lagoon at The Helix, near to the Kelpies (those huge horse head sculptures), and also close to Falkirk.

The session had seemed like such a good idea. I am not a keen or confident open water swimmer but I’d like to be keen and confident. I find loch swimming fairly daunting and I often hyperventilate and panic due to the cold.

I thought that a coached open water session in the lagoon (which I imagined to be far warmer than a huge loch) would help.


Scottish Swimming Come & Try open water sessions

Scottish Swimming have realised there are lots of people like me. The growth of the sport of open water (or wild) swimming has created a demand for coached sessions for beginners, intermediates and advanced swimmers.

The beginners’ sessions focus on the basics of safety and the range of techniques for swimming in a wetsuit and in open water. The intermediate sessions also offer tips and advice on swimming in open water races/triathlon events.


Swimming at The Helix lagoon

The lack of Scottish summer means that most open water is very cold at the moment. I had hoped the lagoon, being man-made and only about four feet deep, might be a little warmer. It wasn’t! But I was wearing a 3.5mm neoprene dhb triathlon wetsuit and once I was over the initial shock of the cold water it felt sort of bearable.

It’s possible to stand up in the lagoon, which makes it more comforting if you are worried about deep and cold water. Be warned, however, because the base of the lagoon is thick, sludgy mud. I wasn’t sure if I liked that until I realised it kept my feet warm!

The lagoon also feels safe and not too large. One of the reasons that loch swimming frightens me is because I find it hard to judge distances when there are no edges nearby and I end up feeling horribly disorientated. There are plenty of things, such as posts and pylons around the edge of the lagoon on which to sight so that you do not go too far off course when swimming.

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I also have a fear of deep water that might be the home of big scary creatures that bite. I know this is unlikely in Scotland but I am not even keen on seeing fish swimming around me. The man-made lagoon at the Helix looked to be free of live things (apart for us human swimmers)!

Coached sessions at The Helix

The beginners’ session took place before my intermediate group session. Within our larger group of about 20 we were split into four smaller groups (loosely based on out swimming speed and confidence). Each group had a qualified coach standing on the side. With strong winds it wasn’t always easy to hear what the coach was saying but we managed. In any other weather conditions the set up would be perfect.

During our hour-long session we were kept moving as much as possible (this was vital given how cold the water was). The focus of our intermediate session was learning some of the finer details of swimming in a straight line and in race-style situations.

We were shown how to sight and what to look for if when sighting. We were told when to lift your head form the water (every four to six strokes) to stay on course. With a strong wind pushing us off course we had plenty of practise in how to adjust your swimming for windy situations.

We were shown how to draft another swimmer/other swimmers. Our coach Andy reckoned you can save up to 38% energy by hanging on to the back of another swimmer and using their slipstream to be carried along. I felt how this worked while swimming behind a couple of other stronger swimmers.

We also learned some basics about swimming around a buoy in a race.


The final part of the session was a longer swim as part of the whole group. This helped to simulate what it would be like to take part in a race. Sadly, by this time, my hands and body were so cold I could hardly swim. I tried my best but nothing seemed to flow or work properly.

It seemed to me that the women were suffering far more than the men. I guess women do get colder than men in these situations and I expect the lagoon water will warm up as the summer progresses.

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Another swimmer Leonie Cairns, from Stow in the Borders, who is a newcomer to triathlon, attended the Helix session to improve her confidence in open water.

She said: “It was great to be able to practise swimming close to people and to feel the benefit of drafting but in a safe environment.

“Due to the wild weather on the day it was also good to experience what it’s like to swim in chop and to realise that I need to practice bilateral breathing if I don’t want to be inhaling water if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction at an event.”

While I have already swam a few open water races as part of a triathlon I also feel I need to build confidence and technique. I think my technique will improve as I become more confident in cold open water situations. The lagoon sessions  were a good stepping stone from swimming pool to larger open water areas.

I found the Scottish Swimming session to be useful and it felt safe. (And I didn’t see a single alarming fish or creature to make me scream!)

The next Scottish Swimming open water session is on July 11 at Knockburn Loch, Strachan. There are sessions for beginners, intermediate and advanced swimmers. See Scottish Swimming


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