It’s an experience more people should have, but also one many might find intimidating. It doesn’t have to be, though, and with the right tips, open water swimming can be safe, fun and accessible.
Although I swim indoors during the cold winter months, getting into a lake near my Colorado home brings a more satisfying experience. I see the sun rising over the water as I round the buoys, hear the sounds of nature and spot the mountains in the distance as I turn back toward shore. That’s not including the treat of moving through cool, fresh water.
The same holds true for Sarah Bowen Shea, who swims in a pond near her home in Portland, Ore., several times each week from late April through the end of October. “I derive so much joy from being in open water,” says Shea. “The colors, the sunlight cutting through the water, turning my head and seeing wildflowers, blackberry bushes and pine trees — there’s nothing better,” she says.
And there’s this: Open water swimming takes both Shea and me ever so slightly out of our comfort zone. There’s always a small case of nerves before starting an open water swim, but when I emerge from the water, I feel empowered for having completed my swim in a slightly uncontrolled environment.
When choosing the spot for your first experience, go for calm water. A lake, a slow-moving river or a pond offers an easier start than an ocean swim, for instance. And while not every community has a nearby pond, quarry or lake suitable for open water swimming, if yours does, first check for any rules that might apply regarding swimming.
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In the Boulder Reservoir in Colorado near my home, I join a master’s swim group twice a week for “supervised” swims. Volunteers set up a 1,000-meter course, staff kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, and check swimmers in and out for safety.
Where Shea swims, it’s less structured. “A friend and I simply Googled ‘local swimming holes’ and read people’s comments about our pond,” Shea says. “There are no lifeguards when we go [in] early morning, but it’s an unspoken rule that you can swim there.”
When Shea began swimming at her pond, she stayed near shore, going back and forth to feel safe. Over the years, she has adjusted to swimming around the perimeter of the pond in a counterclockwise direction, which allows her to see the shore as she goes.
“It’s totally fine to swim in shallow water if that gives you more comfort,” Shea says. “Learn the topography of the water you’re swimming in so that you can stay within the depths you prefer.”
Michael Lovato, a former swim coach and professional triathlete in Boulder, says having fears or anxiety about open water is not unusual. “It’s how you address it that matters,” he says, “so frame it as normal.”
Lovato recommends rehearsing the conditions you’ll face before getting into open water. “Go through the ‘what ifs,’ ” he says. “If you can’t see the bottom, how will you react? What if you panic out there?”
If you are in shallow water, there’s always the option of stopping and standing up, he points out. Out deeper, you can flip onto your back, relax and regroup. If you’re swimming in an organized open water scenario like mine, you also have support to call on if needed.
Being adept at strokes other than freestyle can be helpful, too, says Quinn Fitzgerald, chief executive of the World Open Water Swimming Association. “If you’re starting to panic out there, switching to breaststroke or backstroke might be more relaxing to you,” he says. “Then you can go back to freestyle when you’re feeling comfortable.”
“Sighting” is another key element of open water swimming — this is how you stay on your preferred course instead of wandering off and adding yards or unwanted depth to your swim. This requires lifting your head every so often to check in and course correct, if necessary.
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Depending on where you swim, you might be sighting off strategically placed buoys, as I do, or a landmark as Shea does. “When sighting, go ahead and breathe every other stroke to give you control and comfort,” says Lovato. “Then get into a pattern. I like ‘breathe, breathe, sight.’ ”
You might also want to learn to bilateral breathe, meaning turn your head both left and right to take a breath while swimming freestyle, Fitzgerald says. “If you swim near any boat traffic, you can choose to breathe on the side away from the fumes they produce,” he says. “Or if you’re swimming with white caps, you can turn your head away from them. It’s a good skill to have in your tool kit.”
When it comes to gear, you’ll want two pairs of goggles: one clear, for cloudy days, and one mirrored or tinted, for sunny days. A bright swim cap is important so you are visible to anyone on shore or in a passing watercraft, and if you want to add in a brightly colored waist buoy to make you more comfortable, go right ahead.
If you’re going to dedicate yourself to open water, you might want to invest in a triathlon wet suit, too. “The added buoyancy puts your body in the right position for efficient swimming and also makes sighting easier,” Lovato says. “If you aren’t a fan of cold water, it will also keep you warmer.”
Before heading to a lake or pond, a few drills in the pool can help you prepare.
“Swim with your eyes closed and only open them when necessary to prep for sighting,” Lovato says. “When you get to the walls, don’t push off, and instead keep swimming without that moment of rest to better mimic your outdoors experience.”
Finally, for added safety, if you’re not swimming an organized swim, the best approach is to have a friend or family member join you on your open water adventures. Whether in the water with you or simply on shore, the extra set of eyes is important.
Don’t forget the “after” of open water swimming, either. If it’s early or late season and the air is cool, Shea brings hot tea and a wool jacket and hat to throw on immediately after getting out of the water. “I also get changed out of my wet swimsuit right away,” she adds.
As summer nears an end, I’m dreading the return to a pool. Shea, too, is reluctant to face the late October day when her pond becomes too cold for comfort. Each of us, however, will hold onto our memories until we can return to the open water again.
“It’s a season, and maybe the fact that I know it will end makes it that much sweeter,” Shea says. “For me, it’s a magical experience.”