Many keen pool swimmers at some stage become interested in making the transition to open water. This may be to feel closer to nature, experience the physical and psychological benefits of cold water immersion, or even to become a long-distance swimmer or train for their first triathlon. 

These are all excellent reasons to try open water swimming. However, it is important to prepare properly and not be caught unawares by the significant differences between the pool and the open water. Here are some points to keep in mind when making the transition.

Be prepared for colder temperatures

This may sound obvious, but you will need to be able to deal with far lower water temperatures than you are used to in a heated indoor pool. Diving into cold water in your regular swimming kit for the first time could put you at risk of cold water shock or even hypothermia. 

It’s highly recommended that you wear a wetsuit for some extra insulation and also to provide more buoyancy in the water. Some people also prefer to wear thermal swimming gloves and socks for extra protection and warmth in the water. Goggles will help you to see clearly and protect your eyes, and a swimming cap will help to make you more visible.

When you enter the water for the first time, proceed in gradual stages to get your body used to the cold, rather than jumping or diving into deeper water straight away. If you do start to get cramp, try to float on your back with your head tilted upwards and call for help.

Use landmarks for orientation

When swimming in a pool, orientation is a very straightforward process as there may be marked out lanes and ceiling banners to guide you. The sides of the pool are never very far away, and that can feel reassuring. The open water is a very different proposition. If it is an established swimming zone, they may be buoys to mark out distance and turning points.

If there are no floating markers, look for shoreline landmarks such as trees, buildings or piers to help you measure the distance that you are swimming. You may want to invest in a waterproof GPS watch to help you measure the distance and track your course. 

Practise your breathing technique

Breathing in open water can be more difficult than when pool swimming, because the water tends to be choppier. You will also need to lift your head higher out of the water so that you can look around you for orientation purposes. 

At first, you may find this affects the efficiency of your stroke, so do not be surprised if you feel that you are making slower progress than you normally would in a pool. It may be that a different stroke to the one you would normally use is more appropriate for the open water.

Plan rest stops

In a pool you have plenty of opportunity to stop and rest, whereas in open water you need to plan ahead. You may choose to float on your back, use a buoyancy float, or tread water.

Sarah A