Open water swimming can be daunting, thrilling, nerve-wracking, and the ultimate challenge. It can tap into some of our most primal fears - but also gives us the opportunity to explore the ultimate freedom.
An open water swim could be part of a triathlon, aquathlon, or a standalone swimming event. If this is your first time, it’s important to feel prepared. So, arm yourself with all the information. Here’s what you should expect from your first open water swim.
Open Water Considerations
There are so many variables to consider when you’re planning an open water swim. Your first decision is what kind of water? Lake, river, sea, reservoir…all have different challenges. Salt water will give more buoyancy, but is likely to be colder (although not always) and has a greater capacity to cause chafing and sickness. In the sea, you will need to account for wave direction, and conditions could be rougher than in other forms of water.
Rivers could have a current to contend with, and lakes are likely to be less choppy but can pose mental challenges for anyone who dislikes weed (or fish!)
So your first step should be to decide or find out what kind of water your swim will be in. How big is it, how deep, what temperature is the water likely to be (and is it stable or does it have cold spots)?
What Kit Will You Need?
Almost all open water swims will demand a wetsuit. Triathlon rules state that wetsuits are not allowed in temperates 22*C-24*C (depending on race distance). Some specific open water swimming events and challenges do not allow them. But for most open water swims and multi sport events, you’ll need a wetsuit.
Along with your wetsuit, you’ll need a swim cap (race regulations might stipulate a certain thickness of swim cap, but you could use a thicker one - or double up - for chillier training swims). You should also select swim googles or a swim mask that’s designed for open water swimming. These tend to be larger than pool goggles, with better peripheral vision, secure split straps, and tinted lenses for bright sunlight, low light, or changeable conditions. You might also consider wearing ear plugs for open water swimming, especially if you train in colder water. Finally, reef shoes/wetsuit shoes could help if you have to walk through shallow water or exit onto rough ground.
How To Train For Open Water Swimming
The best way to train for open water is to train in open water! But not all of us have easy access to open water, and it’s not feasible to swim outdoors all year round in the UK. If you’re landlocked, or keen to keep up your open water skills in winter, seek out the coldest pools possible and practice swimming in your wetsuit. You can also use pool time to practice open water skills like sighting and swimming with a pull buoy (to mimic the buoyancy of a wetsuit).
You should swim in open water as often as possible to get mentally and physically prepared for your event. Think about every aspect of the swim, from getting in the water (take your time to acclimatise, let water into your wetsuit slowly, and splash water on your face before submerging it). Find out how your swim event will start (a deep water start, or will you be standing in shallow water?) Practice your swim starts, thinking about body position, a strong kick and pull, and getting your breath under control. Organise a few mass starts so you can experience the unique challenges of starting a swim race in the middle of a pack.
Key skills to practice for the swim itself including sighting (lifting your head during the stroke to identify and focus on a course marker) and turning around buoys or flags. Check out our article ‘How To Swim Faster In Your Wetsuit’ for training tips, drills, and skills.
The aim is to build confidence in open water so that you can focus, and swim without letting mind games stand in your way. The more frequently you can get into open water, the less alien it will feel and the more comfortable you will be with every aspect of the routine. Learn to control your breathing, quieten your heart rate, and cope with unexpected challenges like needing to change which side you breathe (to avoid waves, or other swimmers).
Finally, you should practice exiting the water. Bear in mind that you might feel a little dizzy, especially if the water has been cold or if you have been swimming for a long time. Going from prone to standing up can feel odd, so take your time and let your body get used to the sensation.
7 Key Differences Between Pool and Open Water
1 There’s no black line on the bottom, or lane ropes to keep you centred!
2 You’ll avoid unidentifiable items floating past you…but might have to contend with weeds, rocks, or wildlife.
3 Where else can you swim as the sun comes up and have a moorhen paddle past?
4 Open water gives you a truly unique angle and view on the world.
5 Cold water is exhilarating, life affirming, and can even help to boost your immune system.
6 Mastering open water gives you a new sense of confidence and achievement.
7 No two swims with be the same: water temperature, air temperature, wind, the angle of the sun, tides, and currents all need to be taken into account.
Some of the biggest challenges of open water swimming are psychological, not physical. Regular training in open water will do a lot to overcome fears and doubts. If you worry that you can’t cope with a distance, then get it done in training and remind yourself that you have done it before, so you can do it again. If you are concerned about certain swimming conditions or water types, replicate them in training and seek out similar training grounds. Get your mind and body used to your biggest fears, and strengthen your mind against the inevitable self doubt as race day approaches.
Develop techniques to control your breathing, both in the water and before you get in. Focus on the out breath (this makes it impossible to take short, choppy breaths), or think about counting your breaths to settle down.
Remember that you will be safe and well looked after on the day. There will be marshals out on the water, trained to look after you and even rescue you if necessary. In fact, you are probably safer on race day than you are training in open water.
You always have a Plan B to help you feel calmer and more secure during any open water race. Remind yourself that you can stop at any time, take a breather, or even float on your back if you need to.
And if you really want to take the pressure off and focus on getting round, keep yourself to the outside of the pack, take wide angles at any turns, and give yourself plenty of time at the swim exit.
Most importantly of all: enjoy it! Open water swimming gives us an incredible opportunity to experience a freedom and a closeness with nature. It’s a whole new world.