24 January 2022

Getting started – open water swimming

June 8, 2010

Bored of the pool? Give open water swimming a try: you’ll get all the physical and psychological benefits of the sport without the chlorine. By taking the activity outside, you’ll enjoy the incomparable feeling of swimming just as nature intended. Read Nicola Joyce’s guide to get you started.

open-water-swimmingWhat’s it all about?

Open water swimming has been growing in popularity over recent years, but its inclusion into the Summer Olympics in 2008 thrust the sport into the spotlight. There are now training venues all over the country and plenty of events to enable new and established open water swimmers to test their skills.

“Wild swimming” tends to refer to non-competitive, relaxing dips in natural bodies of water, taking your time to enjoy the experience of viewing the world from the water. “Open water swimming” is outdoor swimming focused on training and fitness, often working towards the goal of an event.

Who does it suit and what will it do for me?

The great thing about swimming is that it suits anyone. It’s non-impact, so even those carrying an injury can enjoy it. Of course, open water swimming tends to be colder than swimming in a pool, and it’s carried out in natural bodies of water such as lakes, rivers or the sea which won’t suit everyone.

But if you don’t mind getting a little chilly (you can wear a wetsuit) and aren’t too nervous, you’ll be able to join the rest of us in enjoying this great sport.

How fit do I need to be?

Helen Gorman, a former British masters open water champion, says: “You need to be a confident swimmer prepared to deal with different conditions, but a wetsuit will provide extra warmth and the buoyancy to stop and float at any time. You’ll never be too far from dry land – unless you take on a really big challenge, of course!”


What stroke can I use?

The great thing about open water swimming is that you can do whatever stroke you like and take it at your own pace. Helen Gorman explains how to train: “Front crawl is fastest, but many people prefer to do breaststroke. Build up your distances gradually, challenging yourself to swim for longer or cover more distance each time.

“As with any sport, consistency is key, so stick to a regular routine of swimming two or three time a week and you will see big improvements. If you want to be competitive, combine training in open water with interval training in the pool and get a coach to look at your technique. Just remember to keep it fun!”

Where can I swim?

By far the best approach is to swim at approved and staffed open water venues. It’s safer and you’ll be able to receive coaching if you want it. They also tend to have showers, hot drinks and sometimes a cafe – bonus! A good place to start when searching for your local open water swimming venue is www.tri247.com. Alternatively, get in touch with your local triathlon club. They will all train somewhere over the summer! There are companies, like Human Race events, who host coached open water swim days – see www.humanrace.co.uk for more in-depth information.

What kit do I need?

Swimming isn’t a kit-heavy sport but you’ll need to add a few extra things to your bag for the open water. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, is a wetsuit. Most mass-participation swims and events like triathlons and aquathlons either allow or insist on wetsuits. Swimming wetsuits are different to surfing ones, so buy (or hire) wisely. Look to your local triathlon shop for guidance and try before you buy.


Click here to win an open water swimming kit worth £300 from Speedo on Sportsister


Other kit must-haves are a swimming hat (the thicker the better, or try layering two), goggles (tinted or mirrored lenses are good for different light conditions) and earplugs. Don’t forget to pack a towel and extra layers for dressing afterwards, including a hat, socks and gloves. Better to have them even if you don’t use them!

Safety first

If you swim at approved venues your open water experiences will be as safe as they can be. Still, it’s worth taking a few precautions.

Water knowledge: Either learn enough about tides, currents, waves, wind and sea conditions to be able to make an informed judgment about water safety, or find a trusted advisor who can help you. Good people to get friendly with are fishermen, sailors and kayakers, not to mention lifeguards.

Communication: At a training session, tell the organisers what you’re doing (and follow their instructions). Elsewhere, make sure you’ve told the lifeguard or at least another water-user. Have someone on shore to carry your kit and keep an eye out for you.

Keep to shore: In the sea or any other really big body of water, swim parallel to the shore rather than out and back.

Buddy up: Never swim alone, and try to find a fellow swimmer who is a similar speed and ability so you can swim near them and keep an eye out for each other.

Keep warm: Risks from submerged hazards and water conditions will be minimised at organised sessions, but there’s still danger from hypothermia. Even mild cases can cause problems, so learn to spot the signs (both in yourself and others) and know what to do if it strikes. Always take extra layers to dress in after your swim, put a warm hat on your head whilst you’re drying off and sip on a warm drink.


The British Gas Great Swim series: www.greatswim.org

The Outlaw Swim: www.onestepbeyond.org.uk

The East Midlands Big Swim: www.eastmidlandswimming.org

Nicola Joyce, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine

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