Open-water swimming is a challenging and rewarding sport, both on its own and as a component of activities such as triathlon. It also comes in handy when you take an unplanned swim while surfing, paddleboarding, or kayaking.
“Swimming is one of the best forms of aerobic exercise,” says Charlotte Brynn, a marathon swimmer and elite-level coach. “It conditions the heart and lungs, builds muscular strength and endurance, and delivers a total-body workout without the joint stress.”
Unlike swimming in a pool, open-water swimming requires environment-specific sensory engagement, a unique challenge.
“There’s no lane line, so sighting is one of the biggest issues, along with the ability to swim in a straight line,” explains Troy Jacobson, an Arizona-based endurance coach and former pro triathlete. “The more the athlete zigzags, the less efficient he or she is,” wasting energy and potentially becoming disoriented.
Fear of this disorientation, as well as fear of exhaustion and possible drowning, prevents many people from enjoying the sport.
“Leaving the controlled environment of a pool and not having a black line at the bottom is an adjustment,” says Brynn. “But it doesn’t have to be a deterrent. Starting out slowly with a short distance in calm waters close to shore where you can stand up is a terrific way to ease into it safely.”
Make sure you are comfortable before wading into larger — and potentially rougher — bodies of water. Heed weather conditions, including wind and precipitation. In oceans, especially, time your swim to avoid rocks, currents, and swells as the tide goes out. And steer clear of swimming during low tide. You could find yourself farther away from land and safety — and paddling in much deeper water — when the tide comes back in.
Swimming in fair weather and in locations monitored by lifeguards are other important safety precautions. So is having the right gear, notes Olympic gold-medal triathete Gwen Jorgensen: “Do your goggles work if there is a massive glare off the water from the sun?” If not, replace them.
With safety concerns settled, you can calmly focus on sighting, breathing, and form: Swimming with your head up is one of the most common pitfalls, says Brynn. This can be fixed with a few simple drills performed in the pool and in open water, along with core exercises at home or in the gym.
To stay calm in the face of fear, incorporate a meditation practice if you don’t already have one.
Braving even moderately choppy water builds strength and stability through the midline of the body, facilitates a calmer mind from breathing rhythmically, and encourages a better mood from connecting with nature and overcoming challenges.
“You get an opportunity to develop grit combating waves, winds, and currents courtesy of Mother Nature,” says Brynn. “Open-water swimming provides a blend of ‘swimmer’s calm’ and ‘swimmer’s struggle’ to make you stronger in the water — and in other areas of your personal and professional life.”
Our experts share more tips on training for open-water swimming.