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Open Water Swimming

What is Open Water Swimming?

Open water swimming simply is any kind of recreational or fitness swimming that takes place on any body of water that is not a pool. So, included in this category is swimming in the ocean, lakes, rivers, bays or, ok, even a pond. The common factor is that it is a dynamic environment, without specific lanes, underwater markers and typically the start and finish are separate locations.

Let’s face it, staring down at a black line on the bottom of a pool, taking a couple  dozen strokes, touching the wall and turning around to do it all again can get rather boring. But it is certainly a necessary training tool in cold weather or when there simply is no open water nearby. It is actually very important to incorporate pool training into your open water swimming regimen for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, in terms of safety, you want to be certain that you are capable of comfortably completing the distance of your planned open water swim. Actually you should be able to comfortably swim in the pool at least twice the distance of the open water swim. Many factors come into play in open water swimming that don't exist in pools, like weather, currents, and direction. Always make decisions on the side of safety when it comes to open water because there are no walls or lane lines to hang onto and chances are you can’t touch the bottom. 

Also, the best way to track the progress of your practice and training is to swim in a pool. The ability to track your time is best done in the static parameters of a pool and if you are getting coached-up, they have the best vantage point to help you refine your stroke.  The variables of an open water course make your time from a point to point swim very unreliable. 

How to Start Open Water Swimming

Hook up with a swim club or search for a clinic in your area like Boost Swimming in Northern California that offers clinics in a variety of locations to sharpen your open water skills. Or the Wildwood Crest Dolphins swim team in Southern New Jersey, who train in an indoor pool but have the Atlantic Ocean just 3 blocks away for practicing for the numerous ocean races during the summer. 

 Getting one on one instruction from a professional coach is the best option in terms of safety and improvement. This way a coach can assess your ability in a pool and provide tips on what to expect in open water. They will also have the means to observe you in open water, usually from a human-powered watercraft. This goes a long way in building your confidence to hop into your first swim. 

Google search for triathlon clubs or teams in your area as they are a good resource for connecting to others who already swim in open water and folks like you who want to get started. Open water swimmers know to never swim alone so getting hooked up with a crew for planned swims will also keep you motivated.

What You Need to Start Open Water Swimming

To get the most time in the water, a small investment in a wetsuit will extend your open water season. The swimming specific wetsuits are available in a variety of thickness to keep you warm but they also deliver increased buoyancy to give you more efficiency in the water. Learn about what the water temperature range is for the body of water you will be swimming in and check out a website like Wetsuit Wearhouse that provides plenty of information on wetsuit warmth with experts who can answer your questions.

It is always best to swim with a buoy when venturing out into open water. These buoys comfortably drag behind and are perfect for use as a flotation device to rest on but also come in bright colors that dramatically increase your visibility to boaters. 

The Big Differences Between Pool and Open Water Swimming

Without the black lines on the bottom of the pool to guide you, open water swimming requires that you regularly check for landmarks in the water or on the shore. Once in the water, before setting out on your swim, check for a landmark that is easily detectable in the direction you want to swim. Organized races and events will have large buoys floating in the water to mark the course. It takes a little getting used to but the technique is lifting your head forward for a second before each breath to spot the landmark and maintain a straight course. 

Many people find they are much faster in the ocean or other open water than people who beat them in the pool. This is because open water swimming is much more dynamic and involves other abilities than pure fitness. Learning to play the current, riding a little draft of the swimmer in front of you and becoming better at sighting the landmark will all make you a better open water swimmer. Plus, you’re outside!  You will quickly find that adding open water swimming to your routine will keep you inspired for the days you have to swim indoors.


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