10 Essential Tips for Open Water Swimming Beginners

Some people naturally feel a little apprehensive ahead of their first ever swim in open water.

And rightly so. Swimming in an expansive body of water such as a lake, a river or the ocean can be a little daunting – especially for those who are more accustomed to their local 25m pool.

In fact, there’s quite a big difference between pool swimming and open water swimming: there are no lane ropes, no tiled walls or floors, and the water can be murky and hard to see through. And, of course, the water temperature is often colder at your local open water venue.

But once you’ve taken the plunge (pardon the pun), we’re confident you won’t look back!

We’ve written these helpful tips to make sure your first ever open water swim is a fulfilling and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Remember to keep calm, always acclimatise, breathe and blow, embrace aquatic life, prepare in the pool first … and know your venue!

1. Keep calm…and relax

It’s easier said than done … it’s your first time in open water and so it’s natural to feel slightly anxious or overwhelmed. But, that said, if you can try to stay as relaxed as possible, your whole open-water swimming experience will be so much easier!

Firstly, make use of the added buoyancy of your wetsuit (if you choose to wear one) – lie back in the water with your head up to the sky, your arms and legs apart … and just chill! Allow your muscles and your lungs to relax. Then see how effortlessly you can float in the water. Relaxed muscles will work much better and allow you to float more easily than tight, tense muscles.

Once you start swimming, try to ease into a regular rhythm – this will help your body and your mind relax naturally. Some people also find it helpful to focus on the repetitiveness of their breathing or to repeat calm words in their head to ease feelings of panic. But remember – don’t be too hard on yourself. If this is your first open-water swim, don’t push yourself. Stay within your limits and swim a shorter course if possible.

2. Always ‘acclimatise’ before you set off

Before you start swimming, it’s important that you enter the water correctly and in a safe manner – a process often referred to as cold-water acclimatisation. We’ve already written a beginners’ guide to acclimatisation that talks you through this process step by step – read it here.

Entering the water slowly and adjusting to the lower temperature will allow your body, muscles and mind to relax, and will enable you to breathe calmly and effectively from the very beginning of your swim. It’ll also help to prevent your muscles tightening or cramping.

The acclimatisation process should ideally be carried out at the start of every open water swim – this is the case for complete novices all the way through to elite triathletes. It can make the difference between a great swim and a less than enjoyable experience.

3. Breathe and blow

Good breathing is so important for all open water swimmers – but especially for first-timers. Unfortunately, many first-time open water swimmers fail to breathe out effectively – often holding their breath or not fully exhaling into the water. This leads to a build-up of carbon dioxide, tenser muscles and increased feelings of breathlessness and panic.

However, if you breathe effectively – exhaling fully and steadily into the water – you’ll allow your lungs, your body and your mind to relax. And, most importantly, you’ll avoid that awful feeling of breathlessness. Concentrate on turning your head to the side – getting a good breath of air – and then returning your face into the water, focussing on blowing bubbles out into the water at a steady rate (use the pressure of the water to help regulate and slow down the breathing-out phase). We take breathing so seriously with our open water virgins that we dedicate the first session solely to developing an effective breathing technique – it really is a crucial swimming skill!

Some swimmers turn onto their back if they feel like they’re not breathing effectively. Try to avoid this – it may actually increase feelings of disorientation and panic, and, furthermore, there may be a temptation to start breathing in too quickly. If you find yourself struggling, try to keep your face in the water, blow bubbles steadily, and use the pressure of the water itself to help regulate and slow down your breathing.

4. Prepare to share your experience with other aquatic life!

Before you start your first ever swim it’s best to face the facts – there will be fish, there will be vegetation and there will be insects sharing this natural experience with you! For many swimmers, this realisation can cause a little unease initially, and that’s totally understandable.

But you’ll soon realise that encounters with other types of aquatic life are few and far between. Fish will be more scared of you than you are of them, and they’ll be sure to make themselves scarce as you speed through the water. Quite apart from that, the presence of aquatic life, especially vegetation, highlights the fact that you’re swimming in clean, healthy, living water. We’re confident that you’ll soon learn to embrace, rather than fear, the aquatic life around you – at least you won’t need to put up with the awful smell of chlorinated pools anymore!

5. Get the right gear! (and make sure it fits)

Some first-time open water swimmers make things harder for themselves by not having the right gear, or worse still, by wearing it incorrectly.

When it comes to choosing a wetsuit (if you wear one, that is) make sure you go for one that’s been specifically designed for open water swimming. Suits designed for surfing or other water sports are often more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to swimming. There’s some amazing planning and engineering that goes into making a wetsuit for an open water swimmer – the material is super-thin around the shoulders to ensure mobility, and thicker around the legs to add extra buoyancy and to allow for a more streamlined shape in the water. We always send our swimmers in the direction of Zone3 – their suits are awesome!

But, most importantly, choose the right-sized wetsuit! If it’s too tight it may cause breathing difficulties and feelings of tightness across the chest. Make sure you pull your wetsuit right up over your chest – this can often relieve feelings of tightness. And if the suit is too loose, and letting in excess water, this will slow you down, and cool you down too (far from ideal)!

Finally, you’ll need a good pair of goggles. Make sure they fit properly, don’t leak and don’t fog up. And further still, it’s often wise to get some goggles with mirrored (or polarised) lenses – again, these are usually designed specifically for open water swimmers and are ideal for bright, sunny days as they allow you to see where you’re going even when faced with glare from the sunshine on the surface of the water.

6. Replicate the Open Water experience in the pool

Before your first ever open water swim, you can add certain drills and exercises into your pool-training sessions to help simulate aspects of the open water experience – this will ensure you’re extra prepared when you transition from the pool to open water.

When you try open water swimming for the first time, you’ll quickly realise that you don’t have the luxury of putting your feet down on the bottom of the pool or hanging onto the side if you get tired. Instead, once you’ve started swimming – and set off around a marked course – you’ll have to keep going until you reach the end. With this in mind, it’s pretty important to make sure you’re fit enough to make it all the way around your chosen course before you set off.

A great exercise – to emulate the open water experience (and to boost your fitness levels at the same time) – is to try swimming longer distances in the pool with no stopping and with no pushing off the wall or putting your feet down at each end.

Begin by swimming 150m continuously. Remember, that means no pausing or touching the pool walls at each end, and no putting your feet down. Try this for a couple of sessions and work up to being able to complete 300m. After that, you should be about ready to make the transition to the open water!

7. Watch where you’re going!

Here’s something else you’ll realise pretty quickly … it’s rather difficult to keep track of where you’re going in open water. There are no lane ropes to guide you, no helpful black lines on the bottom (like at the pool), and most of the time you’re unlikely to be able to see to the bottom of the reservoir, lake, or river you’re swimming in. But fear not – open water swimmers use a technique called ‘sighting’ – a way of looking or sighting the way ahead – to help them navigate in open water.

The first few times you hit the open water, don’t worry about being overly technical with your sighting (that will come with time). Instead, just focus on lifting your eyes forward and looking at where you’re going every 10–12 strokes or so. This will help you to stay on course, swim in a straight line, and not lose your bearings or become disorientated.

And do remember that it’s just your eyes you’re lifting out of the water – not your whole head. Don’t be tempted to breathe to front while you’re swimming or else you’ll be rewarded with a mouthful of water. Not nice. Sighting is a skill that we spend a lot of time on with our open water improvers – getting the technique just right is essential for becoming an effective open-water swimmer.

Again, sighting is a skill you can practise in the pool first – lift your eyes above the water line and sight forward at an object in the distance. The poolside clock tends to be a good marker to aim for.

 

8. Know your venue…and plan your swim

Before your first open water swim, do some research. If possible, try to find a venue that seems beginner-friendly – one with a smaller course (ideally around 300m–400m) and an onsite safety team. Once you’ve found the right venue, familiarise yourself with the set-up there – download a map of the swimming area if one’s available, and read any reviews left by other swimmers so you know exactly what to expect when you get there.

Before you set off, make sure you’re confident with the set-up and rules of your chosen venue – which way to swim around the marked courses, and how to attract help in case you get into difficulty. And, if possible, try to swim with a friend or even an instructor – this will help put your mind at ease and allow you to relax into this new and awesome open water environment.

Another helpful tip … before you start swimming, make sure you know which landmark you’ll be sighting towards. This might be a tall tree or building in the distance – always a stationary object. Again, knowing these things in advance will allow you to navigate your chosen course more easily and to stay relaxed.

9. Eat before and after your swim

It’s really important to make sure you fuel up before your swim and that you re-fuel adequately afterwards. Swimming in colder water burns way more calories than swimming in the pool – we’ve written more about these positive health benefits here – but that in turn means it’s really important that you eat properly before and after your swim.

As you may know, many open water venues run their sessions rather early in the mornings, and although you might be tempted just to grab a coffee and skip breakfast, this really isn’t recommended. Make sure you eat something. There’s nothing worse than rocking up for a swim and having an empty stomach. So in the mornings, try to get some food on board, even if it’s just something simple like a piece of toast.

Eating adequately after you’ve completed your swim is equally important. There’s a 20-minute window or thereabouts after you’ve finished exercising where you need to replace the energy that you’ve used up – if not, your body will start using the wrong reserves and this won’t help your recovery. Swimming in cold water requires a lot of energy – so don’t forget to re-fuel!

10. And finally…don’t kick too much!

First-time open water swimmers tend to kick a lot more than they actually need to. No, we’re not saying stop kicking altogether; what we are saying is try to kick in a relaxed and controlled manner – the kick should be a light flutter-kick right at the surface of the water rather than an overly vigorous, and energy-sapping movement.

Indeed, swimmers who kick too much (often nervous beginners) end up wasting precious energy and oxygen, which in turn can lead to that not-so-nice feeling of running out of air or a tightening of the chest. If you’re wearing a wetsuit, let it do most of the work – it’s been specifically designed to give your legs extra buoyancy and to make sure they stay at the correct angle in water, allowing your body to achieve that perfect streamlined position.

Good luck, guys! You’ll absolutely love your first open-water swim – there’ll be no looking back!

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