The open water season is fast approaching and hopefully the weather will start to warm up so we can start to enjoy swimming outdoors.  If you are new to open water swimming, however, the thought of swimming in a lake, river or ocean can be daunting.  This is perfectly natural as it’s not something people tend to do everyday and even swimmers who have been doing it for a long time can become more confident & efficient in open water by working on certain areas, such as sighting & practising in different types of open water.  Swimming in a river or the sea can feel very different to a lake!

River Swim
Sea Swim
Lake Swim

Open Water Fears

Overcoming your fears of swimming in open water come with time & practise.  It’s important to try and find somewhere to swim where you can feel safe and relaxed.

Before joining any organised open water session you might want to think about the following:

  • Has the water quality been tested to ensure it’s safe to swim?
  • What safety cover is in place to help me if I need assistance and what do I do if I need help?
  • Are there any dangers I need to aware of over and above the obvious?
  • Are the organisers qualified and insured?
  • What is the water temperature?

If you are happy with the answers you will feel much more comfortable from the start and should be able to focus more on developing your skills.


Wetsuit – if you are swimming in the UK you will almost always need to wear a wetsuit to compete in open water events. Be careful to purchase a swimming specific wetsuit.  Surfing and diving wetsuits are different!

Goggles & Swim Cap – it’s important to find a well fitting, leak free pair of goggles which work for you.  A thick swim cap is advisable early season or you could use 2  if necessary!

Tow Float – for safety reasons a tow float is a sensible purchase. It makes you more visible to other open water users, such as rowers & paddle boarders.  It’s also somewhere handy to store your valuables whilst swimming!

Anti Chafing Balm

This can be put on around your neck to stop chafing and on your legs and arms to help your wetsuit come off more easily post swim!

Dry Robe or Big Towel

These will dry you off quickly and help keep you warm post swim.

Flask of hot drink to help you warm up post swim and maybe a woolly hat early season!


Once you’ve got all your equipment sorted you are ready to go.  When you first get into the water it’s important to take a little time to get your body used to the cold water.  Lower yourself into the water and let some into your wetsuit through the neck.  When you are ready place your face in the water and breathe out.  Do this a few times to get your head used to the cold.   Swim a few strokes to get the feel for it and once you feel your breathing is under control off you go! 

Don’t hold your breath, try and keep breathing out under the water at all times and get yourself into a nice relaxed rhythm.

Differences Swimming in Open water vs Swimming Pool

Open water swimming can be very different to pool swimming due the nature of the environment, especially so in choppy conditions and when there are many other swimmers splashing around you at the same time!

Skills to consider working on specifically for open water are:

  • Sighting – even if you can see the bottom there are no lines to follow in a lake, river or sea, so you need to practice how to sight well. If you master this it will help you maintain pace and ensure you don’t swim further than necessary!
  • Swimming Straight – swimming using bilateral breathing helps smooth out any swimming imbalances you may have and encourages you to swim in a straight line. This along with good sighting will help you swim straight and not waste time swimming further than you need to.
  • Turning Round a Buoy – it’s important to know the swim route, how many buoys are there and which way round to go.  So, study the map before the race! Armed with this knowledge, work out key landmark features that might help you target each buoy when you are down at water level.  Look upwards from the buoy and see what is on the horizon to help make sighting easier, e.g. a tall tree, hill top, odd-shaped building. Aim for these as you swim rather than becoming too focused on the buoy itself, especially if the water is a little rough.
  • Stroke Rate – in open water the ability to hold a higher tempo, is a real advantage when battling swell, chop and the turbulence created by other swimmers.  If you can learn to adapt your stroke to the conditions then you will perform much better as a result.
  • Arm Recovery a straighter arm recovery with more hand clearance over the water is more advantageous in the open water as a higher arm ensures the hand does not clash with waves or chop in rough conditions and reduces stress on the shoulder joint when wearing a wetsuit.
  • Deep Water Startsmake sure that you position yourself correctly before the start and be ready to go by lying with your legs high at the rear in the direction you are going to travel. You could lie on your side with your lower arm out in front of you ready to take a stroke, or directly on your front sculling the water with both hands.
  • Water Entry & Exitpracticing entries and exits between land and open water will give you more confidence come race day and hopefully improve your performance.
  • Drafting – this can really help maximise your swim performance.  You can do this by swimming behind another swimmer, in-line, or tucked in at the side on their hip. This is a skill you can practise in the pool or open water.

Paying attention to these skills over the coming season will help you on race day and make you a more confident open water swimmer. 

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