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Open water, a different kind of swimming experience

Swimming is a great way to stay in shape. It’s a full-body workout and is therapeutic both physically and emotionally. There is zero impact so not only is it gentle on the body but anyone can do it whatever their fitness level or physical ability or disability can swim, making it the ultimate wellness exercise. Pool or open water?

There is nothing like some ‘alone time’ in the pool lane swimming with no distractions to get you into the mindfulness zone. And as a family activity it is great fun. One of the easiest ways for parents to earn brownie points with their young children it a trip to the local pool.
However, if you are looking for something to add a buzz to your swimming, then open water swimming is an ideal way to take this activity up a level. Whether you’re swimming for health, fitness or competitive motives, open water swimming will take your swimming in a new direction.

What is open water swimming and why do it?

Open water swimming, like the name suggests, means swimming in lakes, canals, rivers, seas and the ocean. It is away from the confines of the pool walls and the lane ropes.

Obviously, while it is necessary to be a competent swimmer to venture into open waters, you don’t have to be a superstar and it is a relatively simple transition to adapt your pool skills to the requirements of open water swimming. Like all sports activities, practice makes for improvement and the more you swim in open water, the more comfortable and competent you will become.

Open water swimming gives you an immediate physical connection to nature and challenges your senses in a way that can be both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. And we mean this is a great way! Open water swimming is to swimming, what mountaineering is to hill walking. You may have to deal with cool water, waves, wildlife, currents, weather conditions and limited visibility but it is an intensely rewarding and enriching experience.

Unless you are fortunate enough to be swimming in open water in the tropics, the water temperature is likely to be cool-to-cold in most open water. Therefore, is this type of swimming is for longer periods of time that you’re typical dip in the sea or jump in the river, you are going to need a wetsuit to help insulate you against the cold – unless there has been a long period of very hot summer weather!

Wetsuits also make you more buoyant, which makes it easier to swim in choppy water. Wearing a wetsuit will have an effect on your stroke so it’s best to practice swimming in it in a pool before you venture into the open water. Another essential for retaining heat is a swim hat – choosing a brighter colour will make it easier for you to be seen.

Open water swimming is primarily long distance swimming – the distance you choose to swim is limited only by your own capacity, as there are no boundaries. The most efficient stroke for open water swimming is front crawl. Minor modification to your front crawl technique could make huge differences to your stroke efficiency and save you valuable energy. You can work on improving your stroke count by counting the number of strokes it takes to complete a length. Aim to reduce your stroke count but maintain a similar speed. You can also build up your distance swimming by practicing swimming further in the pool than you intend to do in open water.

Open water swimming employs different swimming techniques to those used in pool swimming. You can also practice all these in the comfort of your local pool so you are prepared for your first open water swim. For example:

  • Sighting – without lines, ropes or pool walls it can be difficult to swim in a straight line. In open water you need to look ahead of yourself during your swim to find a marker in the distance then keep looking up to make sure you're heading towards it.
  • Deep water starts – practice starting to swim from treading water as there are no walls to hold on to or kick off from in open water.

To safely swim in open water you have to be aware of the risks and take appropriate precautions and make the right preparations. It’s very dangerous to swim in open water on your own, irrespective of how confident a swimmer you are. You should always be with at least one other person in the water. Hence a good way to get started is to find an open water club. Tip: triathlon clubs are good places to find open water swimmers.

Whether you are a “water baby” looking for a new challenge or someone who fantasises about swimming with the dolphins, open water swimming is worth exploring and can do wonders for your health and fitness, without any impact on your joints.

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