Tips for Open Water Swimming

A young man wearing a swim cap and goggles wild swimming in Derwent Water in The Lake District in Cumbria


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Open water swimming involves swimming in outdoor bodies of water like rivers, lakes, or even the ocean. Also known as "wild swimming," open water swimming has grown in popularity since being included in the Olympics in 2008.

There are a number of risks associated with open water swimming—from dangerous sea life to exhaustion, heatstroke, and dehydration. But there also are a number of benefits. Here we take a look at the benefits of open water swimming, offer tips for a good workout, and tell you how to stay safe.

Benefits of Open Water Swimming

If you are looking for open space for long-distance swimming so you can focus on endurance, open water swimming may be right for you. In general, swimming is a full-body workout that is non-weight bearing and easy on the joints, making it a more accessible exercise option for those with joint conditions. 

Elaine K. Howley, Marathon Swimmer

Ongoing research is also looking into how exactly it impacts mental health, but [initial] studies have shown that open water swimming can significantly improve symptoms of depression and anxiety.

— Elaine K. Howley, Marathon Swimmer

"In fact, some clinicians in the UK have begun prescribing open water swimming to patients as part of their treatment protocol for certain mental health concerns," says Elaine K. Howley, a marathon swimmer and the president of the Massachusetts Open Water Swimming Association. 

Research also indicates that swimming in cold water has a wide variety of health benefits including positively impacting hematological and endocrine function. Additionally, people who engage in open swimming have fewer respiratory tract infections and mood disorders and often experience an improved sense of well-being.

Interestingly, elite female athletes are usually at a higher competitive level than men in open water swimming due to having more overall buoyancy and less drag. That being said, each person is different and everyone has different bodies and different levels of athleticism. Regardless of these differences, though, anyone can benefit from open water swimming if they take appropriate precautions.

Tips for a Good Workout

If you are considering adding open water swimming to your workout regimen, there are a number of things that you can do to ensure you have a good workout. Here are some tips on how to make the most of your workout.

Nutrition

The environment and duration of open water swimming events create many unique risks and needs. Due to the lack of temperature regulation while in water, it is vital to stay hydrated. This helps you combat heat stroke and exhaustion.

Also, if you are going to be engaging in any open water swimming that is longer than 10 kilometers, it is essential that you incorporate feeding pontoons into your plans. The purpose of pontoons is to supply food and water to a swimmer. As for what you should eat before, during, and after an open water swim, it is best to get individual consultation from a nutrition expert or registered dietitian.

Training Goals

To develop proper muscular endurance, swimmers should train on dry land as well as in the water. Open water swimming poses a number of challenges that make it unique from other endurance sports. Swimmers should train for muscular endurance, aim to lower their resting heart rate, and even learn how to manage their emotions.

Open water swimming is mentally challenging. So, building your mental strength and resilience is equally as important as building your endurance.

Some people find it helpful to consult with a sports psychologist about ways in which to build their mental muscles. Keep in mind that anxiety and other emotions can impact your heart rate and breathing.

So be aware of what is going on in your body and in your mind. Despite wanting to push yourself to new limits, swimmers should be extra cautious of water conditions and physical symptoms when doing so. 

Useful Equipment

The essential equipment for any swimmer involves a swimsuit, swim cap, and goggles. Sometimes swimmers will wear a wetsuit instead of a swimsuit.

But this decision ultimately depends on the temperatures they will be exposed to. Different types of wetsuits will have different flexibility and thickness than others.

Further, if swimmers are going long distances, it is safer to have a friend or swimming partner nearby in a boat or kayak. You want to avoid swimming in open water alone as you never know when exhaustion or other symptoms will kick in.

How to Stay Safe

Open water swimming is known for extreme conditions, such as water temperature, tides, currents, sea life, pollution, and waves. To stay safe and healthy, there are a few things to keep in mind when swimming in open water. The following sections explore the most common dangers of open water swimming.

Water Quality

Bacteria and viruses can live in the water and among insects in the area, so swimmers are at a much greater risk of infection than the average person. The risk for viral infections is particularly prevalent in coastal water and rivers. Primarily, open water swimmers experience gastrointestinal infections and ear infections.


In addition to bacteria and viruses, water quality also is critical to a swimmer’s health.

Before swimming in a body of water, consider the natural and environmental hazards such as the potential for microbes and bacteria, dangerous wildlife, the presence of chemicals, and even aesthetic quality.

Keep in mind that weather and pollution can significantly impact the established water quality as well. At the very least, make sure that the water you are swimming in is open for recreational swimming, is not near a pollution site, and does not harbor any dangerous or territorial wildlife. 

Temperature

Always remember that cold water is hazardous. Due to the way water absorbs heat, being submerged in water can cause a person to experience hypothermia at a rate up to five times faster than they would in that temperature otherwise.

Initial immersion is the most fatal, as it can trigger a "cold shock" response. While in shock, you are likely to drown unless someone is there to help. Even if you make it past initial immersion, that does not mean you are safe.

Short-term immersion can result in neuromuscular cooling, which can lead to physical incapacitation. Long-term immersion can lead to hypothermia.

Further, if you need to get rescued from the symptoms mentioned above, you may suffer shock from the rapid reversal.

Cold temperatures are, unfortunately, not the only concern when it comes to open water swimming. It is not uncommon for swimmers to experience heatstroke, which can be fatal if left untreated.

Heatstroke is also a possibility when swimming because the body cannot evaporate sweat and loses temperature regulation. The combination of warm water temperatures, sun exposure, and the heat absorption of black neoprene suits can also be a factor in heatstroke.

There is no perfect temperature for open water swimming as studies have shown that our bodies adapt differently to the water environment.

For example, while unacclimated individuals (those not used to outdoor swimming) find that a good water temperature ranges from 35°C–35.5°C (95-96°F), this may be too warm for conditioned swimmers during a hard workout.

Researchers have found that well-conditioned, non-obese individuals are able to regulate their body temps at 18°C (64°F) and 10°C (50°F) after after 20 min of high-intensity exercise and after an initial fall in deep body temperature. But there is a great deal of variability from one individual to the next.

For this reason, there are guidelines for those who participate in open water swimming events. In the UK, British Triathlon has these guidelines to keep swimmers safe:

  • For a 1500-meter event, a wetsuit is mandatory at temperatures at or below 14°C (57°F), but it is forbidden at temperatures at or above 22°C (72°F)
  • At temperatures less than 11°C (52°F), it is recommended that no open water swimming takes place

Medical Considerations

If you have a tight chest, a wheeze, or a cough after high-intensity exercise, you may have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB). EIB is also known as exercise-induced asthma. If you think you might have this condition, you should talk to a healthcare provider about your symptoms.

Endurance athletes are also well-known for having cardiac abnormalities.

In fact, 80% of cardiac deaths occur in actual competition. These cardiac deaths are thought to be caused by overstimulation in the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The co-activation of both at the same time can be too much for your body.

The sympathetic nervous system is activated by things such as cold shock, anger, and anxiety. On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated by things such as holding your breath, getting water on your face, and getting water in the upper throat behind the nose. Having all these things happen at once can lead to fatal cardiac arrhythmia, especially in those with cardiac abnormalities.

A Word From Verywell

While swimming is a good form of exercise for those who cannot bear weight or have joint conditions, open water swimming is not without risks. Always stay hydrated and safe. Pay attention to water conditions, weather, wildlife, and your body. Above all else, make sure you are never swimming alone, and that help is nearby if you need it. 

Keep in mind that if you are swimming over 10 kilometers, you should stop momentarily for food and water. You also should be wary of the temperature of the water and how long you are submerged in it.

Your body cannot regulate its temperature in water. And, most importantly, if you are new to swimming, talk to a healthcare provider before starting a new exercise regimen like open water swimming.

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6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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