How to Succeed at Open Water Swimming
As you dip your toes into open water swimming, it is important to take into account specific considerations and precautions. Although there are tons of benefits from swimming outdoors, there are also inherent risks, like any outdoor recreational activity. Thankfully, with appropriate gear and knowledge, there are plenty of ways you can mitigate those risks and increase the benefits.
What is Open Water Swimming?
Open water swimming is swimming that takes place outdoors in a non-pool environment, including a lake, river, ocean, or other body of water. Swimming in the wild, rather than in a pool, can range from a casual beachgoer floating in the ocean to a competitive triathlete racing in a lake to an advanced swimmer crossing the English Channel. This type of swimming has even been an Olympic sport since 2008 under the name of Marathon Swimming.
Swim Gear List
The right gear is important and we go into greater detail below. Here’s a quick open water swim gear list with items we suggest you consider:
Benefits of Open Water Swimming
There are plenty of benefits to open water swimming. Similar to swimming in the pool, open water swimming is great cardio exercise, which has a plethora of benefits: improved cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, regulated blood sugar, stronger immune system, and healthy weight, just to name a few.
In addition to the health benefits of cardio exercise, open water swimming has the advantage of being outdoors. Outdoor activities boost vitamin D and endorphins in a way that indoor activities can’t re-create.
Open water swimming draws competitive athletes. Most triathlons are hosted outdoors and include an open water component. In order to prepare for race day, many triathletes practice in open water.
Scuba divers and snorkelers explore the open water and will engage in open water swimming to get accustomed to the tides, temperature, and other unique conditions of certain bodies of water. Some pool swimmers love the added challenge of practicing in open water. There are even occasional water polo tournaments held in outdoor arenas. If there is a swimming competition, there is likely an open water version of it somewhere.
The Difference Between Pool Swimming and Open Water Swimming
Most noticeably, the difference between pool swimming and open water swimming is the environment. How does this completely different environment affect your physical swimming stroke?
Generally, open water swimmers stick with the freestyle stroke or the breaststroke. In the pool, swimmers can swim the butterfly or backstroke in addition to freestyle or breaststroke. Pool swimmers may also engage in drills and other components of swimming, like using a kickboard.
Swimming strokes are slightly different in open water. Instead of attempting to breathe on both sides of the stroke, swimmers may choose to breathe only in one direction, depending on their surroundings. They may want to breathe towards the shoreline or other markers continuously. There is no black line for guidance in open water swimming! It is common to occasionally breathe by lifting your head up and looking forward, which is usually a no-no in pool swimming because it can make your hips sink.
In order to stay swimming in a straight line, one trick open water swimmers use is to imagine rail tracks. When the bottom can’t be seen to superimpose tracks, we can use the imagery to keep our path straight and true.
The endurance and strength necessary for open water swimming also tend to be at a higher level than needed for pool swimming. Because of the rougher conditions, including waves and tides, each stroke in open water swimming takes more energy and generally requires a faster stroke turnover. Your body will also use more energy to keep you warm in colder water. The added endurance isn’t just physical, either. Swimming in uncontrolled waters requires more focused mental energy as you constantly scan your surroundings for safety.
Lastly, there is no wall! This may seem obvious, but it will affect how you swim. If you want to practice flip turns, engage in short sprint sets, or know you will need to take frequent breaks, you will be better off in the pool.
Special Considerations for Open Water Swimming
Location, location, location. Where you choose to open swim can determine the temperature, tides, depth, weather, popularity, and almost every other factor important in safely swimming in open water. Safety should always come first.
The weather and water conditions are the most impactful factors of open water swimming, and they vary greatly depending on geographical location and your proximity to certain lakes, oceans, and rivers. Before you choose your spot, research: how the tide affects that body of water, the average water and air temperature for that time of year, and if there are any particular wildlife creatures to be aware of. Obviously, someone swimming in a glacial lake will have vastly different considerations than someone swimming in a tropical ocean, but both places have inherent risks.
Although picking a popular spot may sound like an introvert’s worst nightmare, it can actually be a great choice for safety reasons. Popularity often means some level of safety has been considered. There are frequently even lifeguards at popular public beaches, which is a great resource to have if you are new to open water swimming and feeling timid about the challenge.
If you are unsure, ask around. Locals will likely know plenty about weather conditions and wildlife. There may even be groups that cater to open water swimming in the area. They will have knowledge about the best places for swimming outdoors and may even offer group practices.
Gear for Open Water Swimming
As we’ve discussed, open water swimming can pose some extreme weather and water conditions. To be best prepared for outdoor swimming, there are some special gear considerations for open water swimmers. Like any outdoor recreational activity, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Make sure you keep reading to learn about the appropriate gear for open water swimming.
First, let’s think about the swimsuit. Depending on the temperature of the water, you may want to consider a wetsuit. On the other hand, you may be able to wear a typical competitive swimsuit or even a casual beach swimsuit if you plan to swim in moderate to warm bodies of open water. Triathletes also tend to have a swimsuit unique to their sport because it needs to function both as a swimsuit and as biking and running attire.
Regardless of the type of swimsuit you choose, we recommend finding one with built-in sun protection, such as these swim shorts with UPF50+.
When it comes to goggles, open water swimmers look for particular, important qualities, such as UV protection, an anti-fog layer, and a wide peripheral view. UV protection and tinted goggles are necessary for bright, sunny conditions, but they are also helpful even on cloudy days. You can’t put sunscreen on your eyes!
An anti-fog layer is vital for those long, open water swims. It’s less feasible to stop and clear off your goggles lenses when you are out in choppy water, for example. There are some handy tips and tricks to keep goggles clear, but the best solution is simply to buy a pair that has a quality anti-fog layer in the lenses.
Vision is one of your most important senses when swimming outdoors, so in addition to anti-fog goggles, we recommend goggles with a wide peripheral view. With a good pair of goggles, you should be able to see your surroundings without having to crane your neck and throw off your stroke technique.
Another important piece of gear for open water swimmers is a cap. A cap will keep your hair out of your eyes so it won’t impair your vision. A cap will also keep your head warm in colder waters. You’ve heard it before – heat escapes your body fastest through your head, so don’t go without a hat, or in this case, a cap!
The main reason for wearing a cap during open water swimming is actually because of safety. A brightly colored cap will stick out in the open waters, making you visible to lifeguards and other swimmers. Although a cap is not as essential as goggles or a suit, for this safety reason, we still recommend wearing a cap when swimming outdoors.
There are other optional pieces of gear that might be helpful for open water swimmers depending on your preference. Some open water swimmers enjoy wearing fins because it gives them an advantage in challenging conditions. Some open water swimmers also like to wear ear plugs to protect their ears.
Ready, Set, Swim!
Still feeling unsure about diving head first into open water swimming? Once you have taken into consideration safety precautions and gear needs, we recommend you just go for it! There is no better way to face a new challenge than head on.
Best Value for Money: FMU Swim
Best for Open Water: Aqua Sphere Kayenne
100% UV Protection: Swim Elite
Best Panoramic View: EverSport Swim
Best Anti-Fog Coating: Speedo Hydrospex
Best Cold Water Wetsuit: Bare Reactive 7mm
Best Scuba Diving Drysuit: Bare X-Mission Evolution
Best Swim Shorts for Women: Maui Ripper
Best Swim Shorts for Men: Speedo Men Surf Runner
Best Overall: Speedo Elastomeric
Best Budget: Arena Classic Silicone
Most Comfortable: TYR Lycra
Frequently asked questions
Both have their challenges, but because of the energy needed to combat water and weather conditions, it can be argued that open water swimming is more difficult.
Yes! In fact, we recommend it! The saltwater beats chlorinated water and the sunshine beats fluorescent lights. However, it is important to take into consideration safety needs before you dive in.
It depends on where you are swimming and during what time of year. In colder conditions, it is a good idea to consider either a wetsuit or a drysuit.