Just started open water swimming? Unsure of where to start, or what you need? Don’t worry, you’re in the right place. This comprehensive beginners guide will outline everything you need to know about open water swimming to give you the confidence to take your first plunge.
The first hurdle many people have to overcome to even begin open water swimming is anxiety. The prospect of swimming in lakes, rivers, lochs, reservoirs, or even the ocean can be enough to deter many an avid enthusiast. For others, it can be the fear of the unknown of what may be lurking beneath the surface (usually just seaweed or small critters), or the cold shock of the icy water.
These fears can be overcome with practice, and we’re here to teach you how. Once you master your fears surrounding open water swimming and overcome them, you will be able to fully embrace the benefits. Not only can open water swimming be stress free and enjoyable, it can be known to even reduce stress at times. Open water swimming provides a warm feeling of connecting with nature; accompanied with the thrill and rush that you get from plunging deep into ice cold water.
Open Water Swimming Equipment
Wetsuit - At certain open water swimming venues appropriate dress code may be required. When the water is particularly cold, a wetsuit may be compulsory. However, as a beginner, it is good to get used to wearing a wetsuit, not only does it allow for a small amount of water in the suit for insulation, but it is also buoyant and helps you stay afloat. Normally, at open water swimming locations there are wetsuits available for hire, but if you need a more personalised touch, then there are many specialist websites/ stores you can visit. It is normal for your wetsuit to feel tight and restrictive at first, this will ease once you enter the water.
Tow float - Another piece of vital kit is the inflatable dry bag (or tow float). Whether experienced or not, tow floats help you stay visible from the shore line. They can also be used to store small items, as they have a small compartment. Learn more about the best dry bags and tow floats here.
Goggles - You should try to have at least two types of goggles for open water swimming. Typically, one pair should have tinted lenses for bright and sunny conditions. The other pair should be clear lensed, see through goggles (polarised) for cloudier, murky weather conditions. You’ll never know which ones you need until you arrive, so it's always good to carry both. Both pairs should be water-tight and should be adjusted appropriately so they fit your head comfortably. In order to keep your goggles from falling off, simply fit your swimming cap over the strap to keep it in place.
Insulating clothes - Insulated clothes, in particular an insulated hats are quite essential for most open water swimmers following their swim. You can’t beat the feeling of changing back into nice insulated clothes once you have dried off. These will help you slowly warm up following the extremes of the cold water.
Swim cap - Swim caps not only help keep you streamlined in the water for faster, and more efficient strokes. They also provide a commonly overlooked safety feature; visibility. A swim cap is one of the things lifeguards look out for when keeping track of swimmers, as the bright colours can be spotted from great distances, and your head will mostly be above the water level. Furthermore, swim caps provide a great layer of insulation for a crucially important part of your body, your head. There are two types to consider, a general swim cap, or a more specialised insulated cap for a warmer swim.
These are just a list of additional items that could enhance your experience, they are not compulsory, just personal preference.
Boots and gloves - Ensuring you have thermal boots and gloves allows warming up faster following your swim. It can be quite windy near any open body of water, these will protect your hands and feet from the harsh conditions.
Nose clips - Nose clips will not restrict your breathing, but will prevent you from inhaling any salty sea water accidentally.
Ear plugs - Ear plugs are a health benefit, as they can actively reduce the chances of your ears becoming infected as they are exposed to the open water.
Flask of hot drink - Always good to bring your own flask. Not only can you have your brew the way you like it, but you can also save money by bringing your own beverages. You can expect fatigue and dehydration following a swim, you will need a drink. Hot drinks also help to regulate your body temperature.
Energy gels - Energy gels can give you the kick you need. By storing them in your inflatable dry bag, you are able to choose the right moment to take them. Energy gels are not enough to make you feel bloated, but they will give you the energy boost you need to up your game at the right time.
Safety additions - A whistle and a light. Both of these items can be used to attract attention without much effort, therefore we recommend both as a safety precaution. You can never know when these items will ever be needed, but in the time that you do, you would rather have them than not.
How to move from indoors to outdoors
Before getting out on the open water, it’s important to be confident in your abilities in an indoor swimming pool environment. Conditions are unpredictable on the open water, a 1 mile planned swim could easily turn into a 3 mile swim in an instant based on changing conditions. It’s important that in a swimming pool environment you can swim at least three times the length you plan to swim in open water, this will ensure you are ready for any unexpected eventuality.
Remember though, the swimming pool is not the real thing. Although, a good place to practice technique and endurance; it is very different switching from a closed environment to open water. The water temperature is much colder, your visibility becomes reduced, there are no side supports and the currents and water flows are choppy. This is why it’s important that you are adaptable, and this can take a long time to achieve. Similar to how you had an instructor for swimming classes when you were growing up, you may need to get an instructor to help you with the basics of open water swimming.
Before getting in to the water
Swim with others
On the off chance that things may not go as planned whilst out on the open water, it can be a good idea to have somebody with you. Although they don’t need to necessarily be out swimming with you, they can just spot you from shore. Whether you have previous experience or not, open water swimming is at the mercy of the elements, and the conditions can prove unpredictable. It is always better to be on the safer side, therefore we advise having somebody with you.
We do understand if you are a beginner that it can be difficult finding fellow open water enthusiasts to join you on your swims. In this case, we’d recommend joining a club, as this is a good way to meet like minded people with similar interests as yourself. Also, by swimming with a club, you will hopefully gain confidence and generally you will be safer swimming in a group.
Against joining a club? Why not try and attend an open water swimming centre. In a centre, you are able to swim along pre planned routes, and there are lifeguards there that are solely tasked with looking out for you whilst you swim. October and May are the common periods of the year where these groups are usually active, and this falls in line with the advice that beginners should swim during summer months. More seasoned swimmers tend to be the ones who swim around the winter months, and regularly expose themselves to harsh conditions as part of training and conditioning.
It’s important to do your own research before heading out. Things you need to take note of include the depth of water and average temperatures of both the water and the location. Also, you should remember any common hazards in the area, or any local wildlife to be aware of. You can check weather forecasts, in case of strong winds, rainstorms or any other condition that could affect your swim. Lastly, check your swim location online to see if there are any no-go zones or anywhere it would be unwise to swim.
Once arrived at the open water venue, have a look around for any water vehicles in the area and identify how far you will swim. Plan the duration of your swim, and devise a mental map of any buoys or recognisable points that will indicate when you should turn whilst swimming. Trying to do this mid-swim could be difficult.
As with most sports, warming up is crucial in reducing the likelihood of injuries taking place. Warming up helps to get the blood flowing, to reduce stiffness and increase flexibility. Cold water exposure can seize the muscles and increase the likelihood of mid-swim cramps.
Getting in the water
When getting in, you should slowly wade, or lower yourself into the water. This way, you avoid the risk of hitting hidden rocks beneath the surface, and it will allow you to ease into the cold water and avoid any possible shock from the drop in temperature.
On first contact with the water, you may tighten up, particularly in the chest area and may experience a loss of breath. Try not to panic if this happens. This is a natural reaction and is expected. The effects will dissipate once you begin to move around. To prepare yourself for your swim, once your body is in the water, slowly submerge your head. This will help to regulate your temperature.
We recommend taking cold showers, or submerging yourself in cold baths regularly, in order to get familiarised with the cold temperatures and to practice breathing consistently during the initial shock of the cold.
In the shallows
You will notice whilst swimming, that your wetsuit is buoyant. You can use this to your advantage. When you’re in shallow water, practice rolling onto your back and looking up. It is used as a good way to catch your breath and rest in any depth of water.
It’s important to be aware of your surroundings when practising this technique however, as currents can move you whilst you are looking up and you may not realise how far out you have gone. It’s also good to assess how buoyant your wetsuit really is, in shallow water, just so you know how useful it will be at deeper depths. You may also experience some dizziness, which is why we would recommend shallow water first.
For your first few swims we would recommend staying closer to the shore or to land, to work on your technique and to practice your form. It will help to grow your confidence and hone your abilities with the support of land nearby.
Open water swimmers use a technique called sighting, to stay on track on not veer off course.This is because of a lack of side lanes, and markers. Sighting is the primary tool used by swimmers for navigation in open water. Choose something on land that will act as a guide to keep you heading in a straight direction. You can use static structures such as buildings, flag poles or large trees.
Every three strokes, get into the rhythm of lifting your head out of the water for air, whilst doing so, look forward to your target and make sure you are still heading for it. When lifting your head, you may find your legs begin to sink, if this is the case, we recommend kicking slightly harder. This is a tricky skill, but once mastered, you can further limit the frequency of checks, to perhaps once every six or seven strokes.
We all panic sometimes…but that’s okay
When panic sets in, it's difficult to overcome. This is particularly true whilst swimming in cold, murky water. Your mind begins to imagine every bad scenario and many fears, both rational and irrational, try to occupy your thoughts.
When trying to stay calm, and avoid overthinking, keep your mind fixed on the task at hand, and the strokes you are making. Whilst swimming, set yourself small goals and concentrate on them one by one. As an example, going past a particular landmark, or reaching a particular milestone ahead of you. Some swimmers try to count their strokes in order to remain focused. Always remember safety is paramount, so it is good to keep an eye on your surroundings.
Work on different methods of relaxing your mind and keeping your cool in tough situations. This way you will know how to calm yourself when required. If you are ever in need, treading water, laying on your back, or returning to the shallows are good methods of taking a break before continuing your swim. When you master your emotions and control your fears, you will be able to take full advantage of all the benefits open water swimming has to offer.
Open water swimming technique
Technique is crucial when open water swimming. It can help with efficiency and speed. Having a solid technique to fall back on can also help in sticky situations, as when you are panicking you usually resort to muscle memory.
So, what makes a good technique? Let’s start with your legs, try to practice fluttering your legs when swimming, as opposed to kicking hard and fast. Also, try to keep your legs high in the water, to reduce drag. For your arms, try to reach forward with each stroke, on the way down, move them swiftly back down your sides. Move your arms in alternate motion, other than when using particular strokes such as butterfly or breaststroke, and find a rhythm and stick to it.
Let’s move on to the different sorts of swimming techniques; we’ll start with front crawl. Front crawl is one of the more well-known swimming strokes, it is energy efficient and good for speed. We do however, have some alternative options, Butterfly and Breaststroke are viable options, however their techniques can be more advanced to master and can be more physically demanding. We can’t recommend Backstroke, as backstroke can be confused with a sign of distress, and can also make navigation harder.
When using the Front crawl technique, work on breathing on both sides, this way, if you are in a situation experiencing choppy conditions or rough waves you can breathe safely on either side, as required. When training, practice several strokes while holding your breath in the case that you may do this whilst coming across waves. We’d always advise you practice in a safe environment such as a swimming pool, before taking your techniques out onto the open water.
We advise you to work on high stroke rates and to build your bilateral strength to assist with tackling challenging scenarios. There are common issues with visibility or high winds whilst open water swimming that can be difficult to overcome. Techniques we have discussed, such as sighting, and building endurance should be practiced from a swimming pool environment. When practicing in a pool, try to avoid using the sides as support, this is good practice for the real thing. Your legs are mostly used for balance in open water swimming, therefore, to increase competency in the open water, we’d recommend strengthening your arms primarily.
It can be tricky to change direction in the open water, and this is something that may require some practice. We’d recommend doing this in a safe environment first, and when practicing try not to use the sides or the floor as support in order to mimic the real scenario.
The last tip around technique, is to develop your ability of swimming with your eyes closed. This way you are preparing to be able to keep swimming in the correct direction with limited visibility, a common occurrence in murkier water.
Racing in open water
We know it can be daunting, facing the prospect of having your first open water race. We’re here to help answer some common questions around racing, and help give you the best chance of having a good experience.
First thing to bear in mind, is the location you will choose for your first race. Whether that be a lake, a river, or a race at sea. Each will have their own differences and challenges that you should be aware of. Temperature of the water is also a consideration, the temperature in some cases, could dictate the attire you wear. In some triathlons for instance, if the water is too warm, the race will be tri-suit only. If you are someone who prefers the buoyancy of a wet-suit for comfort this will affect that. Most triathlons in the UK however, are wet-suit legal, it's just something to bear in mind, as heatwaves in the past have been known to warm the water.
When the first gun goes off to start a race, many participants will begin to thrash and kick about. If you wish to avoid the congestion and mayhem, we advise staying to the back or to the side. This will give you the chance to take control of your immediate surroundings, control your fears and focus on your goals.
The length of a particular race is also important, as races vary greatly depending on length. It’s important to know your capabilities, and to consider them when choosing which race to go for. A good plan is to incrementally increase the distances of your races over time, as races can vary from anywhere between 1km to 80km+. There are stepping stones you can take, for instance, some swimmers go in steps, say from the 5km to the 10km to the 25km so there are milestones you can make and targets you can hit.
When trying to turn in a group, it can be tricky, particularly in a race environment. We advise you stay to the outer edge on turns as a means to avoid people cutting across you. A good tip for racing is to visualise certain moments in the race, for example, the potential congestion points, tight turns and the starting area. This way you can visually plan ahead, and avoid certain points you think will be difficult or at least time it so you can pass smoothly. It also saves you from having to make decisions in a highly stressful situation.
Before setting off on the open water, practice the methods and techniques we have covered in the safety of a swimming pool. Work on your strokes, and your breathing pattern, and remember to practice sighting, as that is key for navigation. Hopefully you will be more than equipped to practice dealing with stressful situations and managing your emotions. We hope you remember the safety procedures we have covered and the basics of keeping safe. As with most things, your confidence will grow as your technique improves. So just stick at it, and you will be fine. Remember to utilise the benefits of visualisation in a race environment and strategise key moments before they become stressful.
With all that being said, hopefully we have given you the confidence and the knowledge to get started. What are you waiting for, your open water adventure has just started…