swimming in a lake
Soon enough the lake swim comes to all novice and aspiring triathletes. I’d avoided it for months. I left it as late as I possibly could: just one week before my first triathlon. If I could have left it until the day before I would have, truth be told.

I was terrified. I was terrified for many reasons, one being my struggles with swimming – in a pool. I did not have the confidence to head out of the relative safety (and warmth) of a pool to attempt to swim in a lake. Every pool swim, or delayed swim confounded my panicky preconceptions of how damn awful it would be. And of what a rubbish swimmer I am.

A bitterly cold Saturday morning saw us headed to the lake – me, silent, in my world of infinite disaster scenarios. My husband mildly amused with the drama. There was an advanced class and a special beginners’ training class, both run by training company RG Active. After a short form to complete (in the case of drowning /panic attack/ shark attack, who knew what horrors were waiting?) we were ready. There was a queue of learners and first-timers, just like me. Except I was the only one actually crying, although the others did look pretty uncomfortable. “Are you OK love?” Mr RG asked? “You look a bit apprehensive”. “I’m scared” I managed to squeak, just as the tears started to flow and I choked back a sob. Husband catches my eye across the room and mouths, “Are you crying?” Suppressing a smirk, although I think he was trying to show support.

I was crying, yes. I was honestly screaming inside. I cannot exaggerate how terrifying it felt for me. And why would he really understand? He is a brilliant swimmer. And is not scared of the cold. I wear a jumper in summer and often a vest, too. He wears shorts in winter. He’s never suffered with the cold-to-your-bones kind of cold that I live with.

The fear of the cold was really what was upsetting me. And the fear of the unknown. What was it going to feel like? I’ve never jumped into a lake in a wetsuit before. Would it be like…

  • Jumping into the ice cold North Sea, or paddling, like at the beach?
  • Jumping into a cold, unheated, swimming pool, like on holiday?
  • Or like having a cold bath or shower?

None of these ‘cold + water’ combinations has ever been appealing or enjoyable for me, so how could I look forward to a cold dirty lake? And, oh wow, people really do like to impart their wisdom and experience of how awful their first time was… How they hyperventilated for 10 minutes; or how they were so light-headed they fainted; they were almost sick; or how they didn’t recover for three days.

But what is it really like to get into a lake in a wetsuit? Let me tell you. Let me tell you the truth – and hopefully give you some reassurance. In true Baz Luhrmann style… wear sunscreen.

Well, you should, seriously. But DO NOT PANIC is the advice. Because this is how it feels…

The main feeling is apprehension, that’s for sure. Edging towards the water I was shivering with a combination of anticipated cold, combined with nerves.

cold water swimmingYou’ll feel your feet in the water and they feel cold. I’d say warmer than the North Sea when paddling. Not too horrible really. As you walk in (mainly worrying about falling over and nothing else) it doesn’t even feel cold, because your body is warm under your wetsuit. And that’s the key point here: you are wearing a wetsuit. Turns out that they actually keep you warm. Go figure! You walk slowly in and start to swim a bit of breaststroke. At this point the cold water begins to seep in. But it seeps in slowly. Cold, yes, but manageable; it is all very manageable.

So, in a lake with 15 other people – all quietly chanting, “Oh that’s cold, yup, oh that’s cold, wooh that’s cold” it feels panic-neutral. It’s no camp-fire sing-along, but it is strangely unifying and a quiet camaraderie forms. All are treading water slowly, all warming up. But it really isn’t that bad – because there’s no SLAM of cold water, no hosepipe blast of ice. You put your head under to get the hit – no big hit. The swim hat keeps a little of that out, too. And soon – sooner than expected – your temperature levels out, and you are there. In a lake. And not crying. Real joy pours over you – and a sense of outrageous achievement. You are in a lake. Alive. And swimming. And it is cold, but doesn’t really feel that cold at all. There’s no pain, no terror and crucially no drowning.

Getting out, my legs were weak and I stumbled around like an awkward baby giraffe; my numb feet took about two hours to thaw out and return feeling to my toes. I had a severe burning feeling in my ankles and wrists, where they had been exposed to water and were warming up. But it passed and it wasn’t horrific at all.

I did my first triathlon this weekend. I walked down to the pontoon. I smoothly lowered myself in with a controlled one-arm slide. I didn’t hesitate. I knew I would be OK. And then I dunked my head under.

After a few minutes in the water the claxon sounded and off we swam. No big drama. Just swimming in a lake, like all the pro’s do. Naturally. And want to know a secret?

It felt amazing. I felt amazing. You will too.



  1. This article is perfect!!! I could have written it myself given it was exactly what I felt attempting my first open water swim! It also made me laugh out loud! :))
    I’m still not a lover of freezing cold murky water but I can tolerate it. I’ve been 3 times now and have my first aquathon tomorrow and am doing Blenheim tri in 2 weeks. Wish me luck!! 🙂
    Thank you

  2. Natalie Johnson

    Hi Angela – thank you for your reply! Keep it up – hope you got on well at Blenheim!

    Thanks again,