Swimmers in open water

Getting Started With Open Water Swimming

Photo by conor rabbett on Unsplash

Open water swimming - or ‘wild swimming’ as it’s sometimes known - is enjoying a boom in popularity as more and more people discover the joys and benefits of dipping their toe in the unknown. We get the expert take on everything you need to know about getting started with open water swimming from Neil Gilson, a record-breaking athlete and ex-international level swimmer, who was once second in the UK for the 1500m.

Is swimming in open water good for you?

If you’re thinking of starting open water swimming, one of your main priorities will probably be using it as a way to get fit or train for an event like a triathlon. The good news is that open water swimming has been proven to improve not only your physical health but your mental health too. A study from 2020 published in Lifestyle Medicine found that participants attending an outdoor swimming course not only had an increase in positive feelings like self-esteem and vigour, they had a decrease in negative feelings like tension, anger and confusion. 

Another study from 2022 published in the National Library of Medicine concluded that “physical activity in the form of outdoor swimming is perceived to have positive impacts on health and is associated with perceived symptom reductions in mental health, musculoskeletal and injury, and cardiovascular and blood conditions.”

Neil explains how open water swimming has even more benefits than swimming in a pool. “On top of all the benefits you get from swimming in a pool, open water swimming comes with additional benefits which are unique to swimming in the open. While all exercise comes with its mental health benefits, being outdoors and connecting with nature is proven to have a positive impact on mental health and cold water boosts dopamine and serotonin levels.”

Neil Gilson

What is swimming in open water like?

If you weren’t already convinced to give open water swimming a try, you now have a long list of reasons why it’s a great idea. But what is it like? If you’ve never tried it before, open water swimming can seem daunting and perhaps even scary. You’re not alone if you feel this way - some studies have found that up to 65% of adults have a fear of open water, and Google Search statistics show that thalassophobia - the fear of deep, open water - is the fastest growing phobia in the UK. 

If you’re new to open water swimming, it’s a good idea to start in a more controlled environment such as a lake, as opposed to the sea. Neil explains, “Although swimming in a lake is not as controlled as a pool, there are even more environmental factors that come into play when you venture into the sea. The main one being the tides. When I swam the Bristol Channel, the tide added around 6 miles onto the swim purely because I was having to change direction for the tide to push me in the correct direction once it turned.” For this reason, it’s a good idea to start your open water swimming journey in a lake. 

If you do venture out into the sea, Neil has the following advice: “When swimming in the sea, always check the tide times and make sure you have a good knowledge of the water in which you are swimming. Always swim with someone or have someone watching you from the shore.”

All that said, swimming in the sea has great benefits, especially for beginners. Sea-swimming provides added buoyancy, as salt water is denser than freshwater so you float better than in a lake. The advantage of this is that your hips stay higher in the water with less effort to keep them there, meaning your technique will be more efficient for a longer period of time. 

Is open water swimming more difficult than swimming in a pool?

Open water swimming can be more difficult than swimming in a pool due to environmental factors such as weather, water temperature, wildlife, and tides. Neil explains, “Open water swimming is much more interesting than swimming up and down a lane in a pool. An open water swim is an adventure. However, there are some factors that make open water swimming more difficult than swimming in a pool. You must consider your orientation as you can easily go off course in open water.”

Neil goes on to say, “Although much more enjoyable than pool swimming, open water swimming does come with its complications and difficulties. However, it can be enjoyed by swimmers of all levels if the correct preparation and safety measures are met. There are now lots of clubs and groups where you can enjoy open water swimming, knowing that you are swimming in the safest possible environment.”

Open water swimmers

Open water swim technique

Once you’re ready to make a splash in the open water, you need to make sure you adjust your swimming technique. 

Neil has the following advice, “I try to mix up my breathing so that I don’t just breathe on the same side, as this helps me to check my surroundings. Depending on how choppy the conditions are, I sometimes turn my head to breathe higher than I would in the pool - this is to avoid a mouthful of water. Also, I keep my hands and elbows high to keep them out of the choppy water.” 

When swimming in open water, you need to keep a constant pace as there are no walls to turn on and it’s harder to stop for a break. A tumble turn or push off in the pool conserves energy which is a luxury you won’t have in open water.  

Neil explains, “For open water swimming, you need a strong efficient stroke that you can maintain for long periods of time. INCUS CLOUD | SWIM is great for monitoring this as it can record your average pace and plot it against stroke rate so you can find your optimum when swimming in the open water.”

Neil goes on to say, “I find INCUS to be a huge benefit for open water swimming technique. If you do choose to breathe higher, you must be careful not to over-rotate. Also, your hip position is vital for stroke efficiency as low hips will cause drag. When you get tired, the first thing that will drop is your hips. INCUS monitors both rotation and pitch, which is a great tool when trying to find your optimum pace before technique suffers.”

Open Water Swimming Drills

In order to prepare as well as you can for swimming in open water, try the following drills in the pool.

  • Finger trailDrag your fingertips along the top of the water when bringing your hand forward after a swim stroke. It’s a classic drill and helps to get your elbows high which is important for open water swimming.
  • Swim with your head up – When swimming in open water, it’s important to lift your head up and out of the water regularly to check you are swimming on course.  Swimming in the pool with your head up will help practise this technique and also build the muscles in your neck required to do so.
  • Breathe both sides – Practise breathing bilaterally. It can be more tiring and will take some getting used to, but it will help balance your stroke and is good for sighting in open water. 

What do you need for open water swimming? 

Open water swimming comes with different dangers and precautions than swimming in a pool. Below is a list of kit you’ll need when swimming in open water.

  • Mirror lens goggles - Mirror lenses are great for swimming outside as they reflect the sun and shade your eyes.
  • Brightly coloured swim cap - A swim cap will help keep you warm when swimming in colder water and will also help you stay visible. 
  • Changing robe - Important for keeping warm before and after your swim. 
  • Wetsuit -  You can opt to swim in the open water without a wetsuit, but this will require some cold water training. A wetsuit is hugely advantageous for beginners as it aids buoyancy and helps keep your hips high.
  • Tow float - Essential for safety in the open water. Tow floats make you visible to others and can act as a flotation device to hang onto if you get tired. Some even have a waterproof compartment for essentials like drinks, snacks, or a torch.

Open Water Swimming For Beginners

Before you take the dive, Neil has the following advice: 

  • Join an open water swimming group or club. It’s great to go swimming with others and also to learn from them. This is the safest way to swim in open water. If joining a club isn’t for you, get your confidence up in the pool by making sure your technique is good and try to swim for a period of 20 minutes without stopping. When you can do this, you are ready to venture into open water.  
  • Start with small, realistic swims that are within your ability and easy for you to achieve. You can then look to build on this the next time you swim. 
  • Research the best swimming spots. Lack of knowledge of the environment where you are swimming can be dangerous, so stick to known swimming locations. 
  • Getting into the open water for the first time can be daunting but the rewards are amazing – you won’t look back after your first swim.  Every swim is an adventure, and you will wonder why you’ve stuck to pool swimming for so long.
About the author: Alex Parren is a Freelance Health & Fitness writer as well as a qualified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist.
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