It’s tempting to leave the response at that but the question of what stroke to swim at a commercial or supervised venue is one that comes up often. It therefore warrants a little more exploration.
Commercial or supervised open water swimming venues started appearing in England in the 1990s, originally as places for triathletes to practise for the first portion of their events. They were designed around the needs of triathletes with looped courses marked out with buoys. The purpose for most people in triathlon is to reach the finish line as quickly as possible. Wearing a wetsuit and swimming front crawl is usually the best way to achieve this.
Over the past decade or so, as outdoor swimming as a stand-alone activity (rather than as part of a triathlon) has become increasingly popular, the proportion of triathletes at venues has declined relative to those who just swim. Many venue operators now report that the majority of their visitors are swimmers rather than triathletes.
Nevertheless, venues have retained the looped buoyed courses that give the appearance of being set up for racing and triathlon training. There are good safety and practical reasons for this but one of the side effects, for some people, is a lingering perception that you should be a fast front crawl wetsuit-wearing swimmer to use them. Some of those who prefer to enjoy breaststroke laps of the lake may be anxious about being negatively judged, getting in the way, or (worst of all) being swum over by speedy, clock-watching freestylers.
You should, if you can, put these worries aside. Katia Vastiau is part of the safety team at Queenford Lakes near Oxford and has been involved in lake operations for 10 years. She says, “the lake is absolutely for everyone and every type of swimmer, swimming any stroke at any pace. This is something we make clear to everyone and repeat often.”
To accommodate a wide range of swimming speeds and to cater for both wetsuit and non-wetsuit swimmers, Queenford have put in place a few rules and have an etiquette code they ask swimmers to follow. This includes encouraging swimmers to use tow floats so they can easily spot each other, asking slower swimmers to use the wide space available, and requesting that fast, confident swimmers give other people lots of space when overtaking. Other lake operators are similarly welcoming to swimmers at all levels and many now run confidence-building sessions for those new to open water.
Most lakes have enough space for everyone. Unlike in swimming pools, swimmers are not constrained by lanes. The looped courses mean everyone is swimming in the same direction. Overtaking is therefore not the problem that it is in pools. Many lakes have beautiful surroundings too, and these can often be better appreciated by swimming breaststroke, staying relaxed and taking in the sights and sounds that the head-down front crawl swimmers will miss.