I've been swimming for exercise for over 15 years. I feel my best — physically, mentally, and emotionally — when I'm swimming in a pool, happily lost in the repetition of logging lap after lap in my lane.
But put me in a lake or an ocean, and I feel like a fish out of water. I'm a strong swimmer, but my confidence instantly evaporates when it comes to open-water swimming.
That's likely because open-water swimming is "dramatically different" than swimming competitively in a pool, according to Coach Morgon Latimore, Ironman-certified coach and level three coach, and lead adult learn-to-swim instructor at US Masters Swimming.
"The pool is a controlled environment: you have lane lines, walls, and a little back stripe on the bottom of the pool to keep you in the center of the lane," Latimore says. "When you venture out into the open water, it is the total opposite — there are no lane lines, there are no walls to stop and hold on to or flip turn on. There's only the open water and everything in it, including the wildlife, which can have a dramatic effect on an untrained mind. I have seen competitive swimmers freeze with anxiety and fear in open water, and this would not have occurred in a pool."
While a pool has predictable circumstances, down to the chemical balance and temperature, the open water is controlled by the very unpredictable Mother Nature, Latimore explains.
"As you venture into the open water you must be very mindful of the currents, the waves, pollution, and many other environmental concerns. Also, when you are swimming in open water you must be able to see where you are going, and depending on the distance, you may even need nutrition — if it's a long open-water swim."
Latimore says that not considering these factors can put even very good pool swimmers at a "very big disadvantage in the open water." Therefore, it's crucial for anyone new to open-water swimming to understand their new environment and educate themselves on open-water swimming best practices — for safety reasons and to boost their confidence and performance.
I'd love to enter into an open-water swim race one day, so I'm starting my education with Latimore's essential tips below.
Never Swim Alone
"There is safety in numbers, and you should never swim in open water alone. There are no exceptions to this rule," Latimore stresses. On top of sticking to beaches or lakes with lifeguards, Latimore says that having someone near you on a boat, kayak, or standup paddle board for safety is a great idea — as well as someone sitting on the shore or a dock watching you swim. That way, they can also call for help if needed.
Latimore also says there are devices that you can strap to your waist or leg that act as safety flotation devices. But remember: open-water swimming alone is not an option.
Familiarize Yourself With the Water and Take Safety Very Seriously
First, you should only swim in safe waters approved for swimming. Then, you'll want to familiarize yourself with that body of water, Latimore says.
"Not doing your homework beforehand on the open water you're going to be swimming in could put you in a bad situation. I would always tell swimmers that they should show up maybe a day or two prior to their open-water swim (if it is their first time or they have never swam at the location) and just read the water," Latimore says.
That means looking at the waves, noting what time of day it is and how many people are in the water, identifying where the lifeguards are, and chatting with locals about the water conditions. If you're in the ocean, Latimore suggests speaking to surfers, too.
If you're new to open-water swimming, Latimore suggests trying the lake before an ocean if you have a choice. "Lakes take out the concern of waves and swells (in most cases), but there are still some large lakes that possess the same water conditions as an ocean swim."
Invest in the Right Gear
As mentioned before, Latimore notes that a flotation device is a great piece of equipment to have for open-water swimming.
You'll also want to have a brightly-colored swim cap so you can be spotted from a distance, and goggles, "so you are not disoriented and you can see where you are going when you're sighting — looking above water to make sure you are swimming in the right direction," Latimore says.
A wetsuit is a good item to add to your shopping list, too. Latimore says wearing wetsuits can give you a sense of security to depend on and will help you retain body heat if the water temperature is below what's comfortable for you. "It may be necessary for beginners depending on their confidence and skill level," Latimore adds.
Stores specializing in triathlon gear can help point you in the right direction when it comes time to make a purchase.
Properly Hydrate and Fuel Up
"Not even a car can run without fuel, so making sure that you have all the nutrients and hydration you need is very important for having the energy you will need to enjoy, or even complete, your swim," Latimore says. So, be sure to properly hydrate and fuel your body for the work ahead.
Try a Shorter Distance First
Ease into this sport. If you regularly swim in a pool and this is your first time open-water swimming, Latimore says to swim for a shorter distance than you normally would. "For example, instead of swimming 1600 meters like you would in a pool, maybe only swim 500 meters. That means swim 250 meters out and 250 meters back, totaling 500 meters."
But remember how Latimore mentioned that open-water swimming comes with unpredictable factors? Currents and waves can potentially change the intensity of your swim, which should play into how far you choose to swim as well. "It may become more challenging for you to breathe and have the ability to swim the given distance."
The length of time you usually spend swimming should also be taken into account. "If you have only swam for 15 or 20 minutes, you shouldn't be taking on a swim significantly longer than that without proper preparation, even if it's only an extra five to 10 minutes," Latimore says.
Warmup and Cooldown
Make time for a proper warmup and a cooldown, just like you would if you were jumping into a pool-based workout, Latimore says. "Most people skip this — especially beginners — because they feel that it is conserving energy. Perform warmups and cooldowns to make your swims easier and your recovery faster."