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The weather is warming up outside, and our beaches are looking better than ever. With many people choosing to avoid gyms these days, open water swimming is a great form of exercise that combines cardio with a good physical workout. Not to mention the great vibes that come with being outdoors, smelling the salty air, and feeling the cold rush of water on your skin. If you’re looking to spend more time soaking up the sun this summer, why not try swimming laps at the beach?
There’s nothing quite like the experience of swimming out in the open water, but Australia is also lucky to have many outdoor baths and beach pools where you can safely swim laps for free, by the open ocean. If you’re nervous about swimming laps in the open water, or if you haven’t done it before, you’re in the right place. In this article we’ll cover everything you need to get started with open water swimming, including what gear you need and how to make it easier to swim in cold water.
How to get started with open water swimming
It’s completely understandable if you feel nervous about swimming in open water. The waves are stronger, temperatures are colder, and water is murkier out in the open - but that’s part of the thrill! Open water swimming offers a completely wild adventure that’s different to swimming laps in the pool, but you do need to be prepared before you head out. Here’s how you can prepare yourself for open water swimming so that you feel confident when you step into the (cold, cold) water!
If you’re already a highly skilled swimmer, great, and if you’re not then that’s okay too! Open water swimming requires a certain skill set and agility that can be built up through practice. Before stepping out to sea, you should start by building up your skills and endurance within the safety of a pool. Start by swimming laps in an ocean bath, where conditions are less dangerous but still more exciting than a regular pool.
When you’re building your endurance in the pool, know that swimming 100 metres in open water will take more time, and feel more difficult, than swimming that same distance in a pool. It’s very easy to feel fatigued while open water swimming, and someone who can swim half an hour in the pool can start to tire after ten minutes at sea. So while building your endurance, work towards being able to swim at least 2-3 times the distance you plan on swimming in the open water.
If you want to do a 100 metre open water swim, for example, make sure that you can first swim 300 metre laps in the ocean bath, nonstop. You really want to make sure your body has enough stamina to cover challenging conditions in the open water, where a half hour swim can turn into a one hour fight against the waves.
Practice irregular breathing
Many people have a preferred way to breathe when swimming laps, but in the open water breathing it’s not always possible to breathe on the side that you want. The wind, waves, and swell will all affect your breathing, and it’s very likely that you’ll end up with water in your mouth at some point. Prepare yourself for irregular breathing by practicing some simple exercises while you build your endurance in the ocean bath.
Try to alternate your breathing while swimming laps so that you can comfortably breathe from both sides. Practice holding your breath for a few strokes so that you can be prepared for the moment that waves will slap you in the face out in the open water. An exercise you can practice to gain confidence with irregular breathing involves taking a different number of breaths on each side while you swim laps:
Every now and again you can also hold your breath for a few strokes as well. The goal here is to get used to the fact that breathing out in the open water won’t always be as controlled as it is when swimming in a pool. Practice so that you feel ready for all conditions! If you still feel nervous or unsafe about irregular breathing, then using a snorkel mask will let you bypass this issue so that you can breathe comfortably while open water swimming.
Just like breathing, the open water can force you to abandon a swimming stroke and use another. When waves are choppy, you’ll have to use short, shallow strokes to stop you from being thrown around in the water. When the water is calm out in the open, you can use deeper, longer arm pulls when swimming.
This is also something you can practice while building your endurance in a pool or ocean bath. Just like alternating breathing, try to vary the strokes you use so that you alternate between short, shallow pulls and long, deep pulls. Mixing up your strokes like this can also help relieve pressure in certain parts of the body, which can make you feel sore and stiff when swimming with the same stroke over a long period of time.
While practicing your strokes, try to work on a high stroke rate and build bilateral strength. This will help you prepare for changing water conditions so you can stay on course out in the open. Generally, a front crawl is the best stroke for open water swimming as it's the most energy efficient, so make sure you’re confident swimming this way for long periods.
Learn how to sight
An important part of open water swimming is sighting, which helps you make sure that you’re still swimming in the right direction. Unlike swimming pools, the open water doesn’t have lanes that guide you towards your destination, and it’s easy to accidentally start heading off in the wrong direction. And that’s something you definitely don’t want to be doing when you’re out in the open water! So make sure you’ve learned proper sighting before you start.
You can practice sighting during your endurance practice:
A few tips to help you with sighting:
Start practicing sighting in the pool or ocean bath by first watching large objects, like trees or flags, as you swim. Once you have a good hang of sighting large objects, you can move on to smaller things like a pair of sandals or a towel.
Why not try your new favourite hobby with other enthusiasts? Joining an open water swimming group will help give you the extra confidence to get out there and give open water swimming a shot. You’ll feel much safer knowing that there are others swimming near you, or that someone is watching you from the shore as you go out on your first few open water swims. There are many open water swimming groups where you can meet more experienced members that can share advice and help you get started on your journey.
We have to put this one out there for your own safety. Open water swimming might be exciting, thrilling, and adventurous, but it can also be very dangerous. Don’t overestimate your abilities and head out into the open water if you haven’t spent some time practicing your skills and building endurance beforehand. Make sure you check the weather, tides, and current carefully before you head out so that you avoid swimming in dangerous conditions. And don’t try your first open water swim in the middle of winter!
In a dream world, you could jump into the middle of the ocean and go for a carefree swim with just your cossie on. But unlike dolphins, whales, and sharks, our bodies aren’t meant to be out in the open water for long periods of time. To stay safe and comfortable when open water swimming, you’ll need a few pieces of gear to make you better equipped for the water.
As mentioned above, you really need goggles to practice sighting during open water swimming. You have to keep your eyes focused on a landmark to keep yourself on track, and goggles will make sure you can see clearly when you lift your head up to sight. They’ll also stop your eyes from getting sore, red, and irritated.
One thing about wearing goggles when open water swimming - they’re probably not going to help you see any better in the water. In fact, it might be hard to see anything at all. Clarity and visibility differs in open water, and sometimes it can be extremely foggy and cloudy.
The open water isn't always cold, but it can be depending on where you're swimming and the time of year. Swimming in cold water tightens your muscles and makes breathing more shallow and erratic, all of which don’t help when you’re in the middle of the ocean trying to swim laps. In colder temperatures, a wetsuit will help keep your body warm so that you can swim for longer periods.
Wetsuits aren’t just helpful for cold water, though. They also protect your body from the harsh effects of the sun, and add an extra level of buoyancy that helps when open water swimming.
These are a useful piece of gear for many reasons. Swimming caps add an extra layer of insulation for your head, keeping you warm on those cold water swims. Wearing colourful swimming caps also helps you stand out in the water so you don’t bump heads with another swimmer. Swimming caps also protect your hair from salt water damage, and can shield your ears from the water too.
If you haven’t noticed yet, a major priority when open water swimming is keeping that sweet body of yours warm and toasty. You don’t want your muscles to tighten and freeze up when you’re out in the open, and swimming socks are another good piece of gear that help keep you warm. Your legs and feet are usually the first parts of the body to cramp up in cold water, so swimming socks make sure you stay well insulated so your feet can keep kicking around.
If you haven't had the uncomfortable experience of too much water in your ears, at some point you will, and then you'll be out to get a good pair of ear plugs. Ear plugs create a seal that stops water from getting inside your ears when swimming so that you don't have to suffer discomfort or worry about things like swimmer's ear.
A swimmer's buoy can help keep you safe when you're swimming on your own. These buoys float alongside you as you swim, attached to your body by a waist belt. They’re usually brightly coloured and high visibility so that you can easily be spotted from afar. Some swimmer’s buoys also act as a dry bag that can hold your valuables and items as you swim.
If you don’t have a swimmer’s buoy, then a dry bag can be another useful accessory for open water swimming. The gear listed here isn’t always essential in all conditions, but it should always be carried around for safety purposes. You can carry your gear in a dry bag and take it on and put it off as needed. You can also use your dry bag to carry valuables and things like water in case you get thirsty.
These aren't as essential as the other gear on this list, but fins can help you swim faster and feel stronger when open water swimming. They can be an especially useful piece of gear when you're building endurance in an open bath, increasing muscle engagement so that you can refine your swimming technique and build strength.
Tips for open water swimming
Now that you have an idea of how you can get started with open water swimming, and all the gear you’ll need to practice, we’ll give you some tips to help you on your journey. Keep these tips in mind and you’ll be open water swimming safely and like you’ve been doing it your whole life.
Simulate the open water before you head out
You could have all of the pool experience in the world, but swimming in the open water is a very different experience. From changing conditions to decreased visibility and colder water, there are many factors that can come as a surprise to those who aren’t used to open water swimming. Prepare yourself by making sure you’ve spent some time simulating the open water experience somewhere safe, like a pool or ocean bath.
As outlined earlier in the article, practice alternate breathing and changing your strokes, and be confident swimming three times the distance you need to in a swimming pool. Practice sighting and make sure you’ve built up your endurance by swimming long distances without a break in between. When practicing in the pool beforehand, it also helps to not bounce off the wall. There are no walls to propel you forward in the open water, and you’ll have to keep pushing yourself forward - just another thing that makes you more fatigued when swimming in the open.
Talk to a lifeguard before you head out
This’ll give you an added level of safety when you’re out in the open water. Talk to a lifeguard beforehand, let them know where you plan on swimming, and ask them for any advice about the water. Water conditions are constantly changing in the ocean, and lifeguards will be able to show you if there are any riptides or currents, whether there has been any shark activity, and what the water is like. You’ll feel more confident heading out into the water knowing you’ve checked in with an experienced lifeguard and that you’re in good hands.
Get used to fish and sliminess
You’re gonna be out in the open water, anything could be floating alongside you. Occasionally, you might feel some slimy seagrass or some other icky unknown thing while swimming. You’d best get used to it! Make sure that touching strange objects isn’t going to fluster you out in the open water and mess up your rhythm. Recognise that the open water isn’t a chlorinated swimming pool - there’s gonna be some wildlife!
Listen to your gut
If you start to feel doubtful, don’t try to push forward and keep going. Listen to your gut instincts and leave the water if you start feeling uncomfortable. It could be that the current is stronger than you thought, you can see clouds rolling in, or your body is starting to feel fatigued. Whatever it is, if you start to question whether you should be out there, then just head back to shore. It’s not worth finding out whether your gut instincts were right or not.
Take breaks when you need to
Open water swimming should be a relaxing hobby, not a forceful race. If you need to take a break, even if it’s just to sit back and enjoy the views, allow yourself. Stop swimming, turn on your back, and float for a while. Let your body and muscles relax, let your breathing stabilise, gaze at your wonderful spot in the water, and then return to swimming when ready. Do the same if you accidentally swallow water or find yourself panicking - stop, relax, and then continue.
One of the most difficult parts of open water swimming is getting used to cold water, but there are many ways you can make it easier for your body to tolerate the cold temperatures. Here are a few tips to make it easy to start swimming in cold water.
Wear two swimming caps
How’s that for extra warmth? One swimming cap is good for providing some insulation from the cold, but two swimming caps will really keep your head nice and toasty on those cold water swims. Most of our body’s heat is lost through the head, so make it a priority and it’ll keep the rest of your body warmer too.
Wear a wetsuit
We’ve said it once, and we’ll say it again. A wetsuit is your must-have accessory for open water swimming. Ocean mammals have wonderfully thick, insulated skin that shields them from the low temperatures of deep water. Humans, not so much. Wetsuits will keep you warm so you can swim longer periods without your muscles cramping up.
Cold water in your ears can feel much worse than cold water on your head. The water can get into your ears and then cool down the rest of your body, so ear plugs can help by keeping it out so that your core can stay warmer for longer.
Warm up beforehand
Yes, swimming is so exciting, but it’s worth taking 10-15 minutes before you start to warm up your body and get the blood flowing. Jumping into cold water makes your body go into shock, which then makes it harder to get into a good rhythm while swimming. Warming up beforehand and giving your body a chance to get used to the water means you can get into your swimming flow much faster.
Exhale when you enter the water
The shock of cold water on your face causes your lungs to contract, which can affect your breathing. To help counter this shock, try exhaling or blowing bubbles when your face hits the water. This will make it easier for you to get your second breath without gasping for air.
Try the open water experience
With this guide, you should have everything you need to start giving open water swimming a shot. You may need to spend a couple of months building endurance in an ocean bath or pool beforehand, but soon you’ll be swimming amongst the seals and dolphins out in the open water. What a thrill that would be! Have you been open water swimming before? Share your experiences with us in the comments!
“The mask include GOPRO mounts, so you can easily film and photograph underwater scenery! I highly recommend especially to people who have a fear of snorkeling! This mask is really easy to use and is safe!” said @lud.around. “I can’t wait for my next trip with my new mask!”
Loved the complete set. I even used the waterproof phone pouch to take photos and videos underwater. It made my Fiji experience so much better than using the free snorkel set that hurt your face after 2hours and leaving a sun/mask mark. The ninja leaves no marks and gives great vision under water in comparison. It did take some getting used to but it definitely paid off! Only frustration is that the tightening straps are quite basic; they should be much simpler to loosen and tighten both in and out of water.” – Jock
I will definitely remember to exhale when I enter the water now😆
would love to swim with fin now! Good read!
Detailed article, I’ve never thought to use ear plugs
I’d never heard of dry bags before! I’ll definitely be looking into getting a couple for my daughter and I. Awesome tips! 😁
Great read and info
Can’t wait to hit the beach this summer with our family! Hopefully we can get the kids comfortable snorkeling and create some great experiences for them!
Some great tips there, thank you
Love the ocean. It is my peace.
Absolutely loved ya video n photos truly amazing gotta love been a ninja shark warrior
Thanks for the great advice. Though I’ll never get used to wading or swimming through thick seaweed and wondering what is lurking in it!!
There are a lot of very useful tips in this post, many things that we don’t really think about. I didn’t know about the fitness/swim distance difference, between a pool vs open water. It definitely makes sense though!
Very informative, thank you !
These seem awesome! Would be stoked to have one for summer & enjoy the beach with the fam! Thanks for all the great info
You share here
I didn’t realise that there was so much to it! Thanks for all the amazing tips. Just in time for summer to start!
WOW A lot to learn !!!