Open Water Swimming Guide

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Guide to Open Water Swimming

Open water swimming is an amazing way to exercise. It allows you to experience nature, breathe in fresh non-chlorinated water, and is a great supplemental workout to pool swimming.

For all you pool only swimmers, staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool can get boring. It is bad when you start having conversations with that black line. It is really bad when the black line starts talking back to you!

The thought of swimming open water with no wall or bottom to rest on can be daunting. Here are 5 Athlete Approved tips that will help you be more confident swimming in open water:

  • Learn how to sight
  • Bring the right equipment
  • Adapt to cold water
  • Put safety first
  • Use the tides to your advantage

Learn How to Sight

The fastest route from point A to point B is a straight line. However, swimming straight when you are in open water swimming can be challenging.

It is easy to lose your direction in open water swimming. Keeping your sights on a stationary object is key.

Look up by slightly lifting your chin. While you do that, press down with your arm that is extended. If you arch your back, you will lose your forward momentum (#NotAthleteApproved). After you look up, follow that up with a quick side breath.

Athlete Approved Tip: Sight less in open water! Beginners tend to sight too often. About every 6 – 10 stokes is just right.

If you are racing in a triathlon or an open water race, it is temping to follow the pack. While that can sometimes work, be aware that they may not be going in the right direction. Pick your line and have confidence!

Athlete Approved Gear for Open Water Swimming

One of the beautiful things about open water swimming is that you do not need too much gear to get started. Minimally, a swimsuit and goggles will do. If you would like to enhance your swim with gear, here are our top picks:

We recommend wearing tinted swimming goggles for all outdoor swimming. This will help with visibility. Black or blue tint works best.

For beginner and intermediate level swimmers, the New Wave Swim Buoy is a popular tool. This inflatable buoy ties to your waist. It provides a floatation device to rest on and increases your visibility to boaters. It also has a built in dry bag to store your personal items!

Another method to keep your personal items safe while you swim is to lock them in your car. You can keep your keys safe in a portable lock box. Or you can simply tie your keys to your swimsuit. Just make sure you have a tight knot!

Master Lock for open water swimming
Master Lock Portable Lock Box
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A wetsuit will keep you warm and help you float. There are many different options out there. Keep in mind the cut and thickness. Wet suits come in full body (ankle to wrist), shortie (knees to elbows), three quarter (ankles to elbows) farmer john (knees to shoulder). The thickness is measured in millimeters (mm). The higher the mm, the warmer the wetsuit. If a wetsuit reads 4/3, for example, it is 4 mm in some areas and 3 mm in others. Try 2 – 4 mm depending on the temperature of the water and your preference.

A thermal swim cap will keep your head warm. Or wear two traditional swim caps. Best to have a latex cap first, then silicon cap second.

Wearing ear plugs also helps keep the cold water out. Cold water can get in through your ears and drop your internal body temperature.

Open water swimming in salt water may cause chaffing. The most common areas are neck and armpits. Try using Trislide for chaffing. This is also a must have for wetsuit users.

How to Adapt to Cold Water

Pool temperatures can range from 75 – 85 degrees. Open water swimming temperatures can be in the mid-50’s. And depending on the time of the season, the air temperature may not help.

Athlete Approved Tip: When you get into cold open water, remember to exhale! When swimmers tense up in cold water, the natural reaction is to hyperventilate. When this happens, slow down your breathing by exhaling fully through your nose. Swimmers should breathe in through the mouth and out through the nose (opposite of runners).

There are three points of adaptation into cold water: waist, shoulders, and head. You can move slowly past each point. Or sometimes it is best just go for it! Always jump in feet first. You never know how shallow the water may be or what you are jumping into.

Everyone is different, but it will generally take about 4 minutes for your body to adapt to the cold. During that time, remember to breathe, relax, and enjoy the swim!

Open Water Safety

Water safety is extremely important in all swimming, especially open water swimming. While a buoy or wetsuit will help you float, the two most important things are to swim with a buddy and learn how to float.

You should never swim alone. Swimmers need to look out for eachother should someone get into trouble. Despite popular belief, swimming actually is a social sport. A swimming group will encourage accountability. You may also build lifelong bonds with your fellow swimmers.

Alternatives to having a buddy swim with you is for them to follow in a kayak or boat. Or even walk along the shoreline. Although they may not be able to save you, they can at least call for help.

Mastering floating is an important swimming skill for safety and efficiency. You can use this skill to float on your back and take a break. It also helps you learn how to raise your body position on the water.

  • Keep your eyes straight up at the sky for a back float (or down at the bottom for front float).
  • Control your breathing. Inflating your lungs will assist in floating.
  • Put both hands and feet out like a “starfish” to optimize body position.

Use the Tides to Your Advantage

When swimming open water, keep the tides in mind. Before swimming, check weather forecasts for high winds and storms which will cause chop. Luckily, these things are predictable.

Each body of water’s tides are unique due to the make up of the geological differences in coastline and seafloor. Wind and weather conditions also play a factor. Talking with locals will get you the inside scoop.

Rip currents are especially dangerous. They occur when water travels from the shore into the ocean. If you are stuck in a rip current, you will be pulled out to the ocean. To escape, swim parallel to the beach until you swim out of it.

If you plan your swim accordingly, you can actually use the tides to your advantage. This will make your swim easier and safer.

Remember to have fun, be safe, and enjoy your open water swimming adventure.

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