Even though I have been teaching the art of swimming to children, teens, and adults for over 30 years, I still derive enormous satisfaction from seeing the look of enlightenment when one of my athletes accomplishes something in swimming that they didn’t think they could. This happens most often when it comes to moving from the controlled environment of the indoor pool to the relative wilderness that is open water swimming. Swimming in a lake, river, or the ocean is completely different from following a black-tiled line back and forth in five feet of water heated to a comfortable 82°F. Open water swimming requires patience, courage, and the ability to adapt to changing conditions. If you’re considering making the jump there are some basic rules to follow to make sure that you have an enjoyable experience.
You need to start by picking the right place to swim. Many bodies of water are not safe for swimming. They may be contaminated with chemicals from street runoff or physical contaminants like jagged metal and broken glass. In many instances lakes, ponds, and streams are homes to predatory animals like crocodiles, alligators, turtles, and large fish. If there are signs posted stating that swimming is prohibited, heed them. The signs are posted for a reason.
Often you can find city, or state parks that have one section of a lake that is roped off with buoys to allow swimming. Sometimes they even have lifeguards on duty. This is a perfect location for your first swim. I would swim along the inside of the rope buoys. This keeps you away from the waders and gives you a line to follow akin to what you would experience in a pool. If a place like this is not available, check with your local triathlon club or masters swim team to find out where they swim.
It’s always best to go swimming with at least one other person, especially if you are going to a more remote location without lifeguards on duty. If you insist on going it alone, you need to do these four things first.
1. Check the weather report.
There is nothing more frightening then finding yourself in the middle of lake only to have a storm roll over you. This happened to me once. Thunder and lightning while swimming is terrifying. I never forgot that lesson.
2. Tell someone what you are doing.
You should specifically tell people where you are going, how long you will be there, and when they can expect you back. If you get stuck, you want to be sure that someone is going to come looking for you.
3. Buy a flotation device designed for open water swimming.
This buoy attaches to your ankle by a tether. If you get tired or sick, you hold onto it until you recover, or help arrives. Some people use foam noodles that kids to take to the neighborhood pool. But those are not designed to be, nor are they rated as, water safety devices. These retail for about $40 and are worth every penny.
4. Finally, buy yourself a Road ID.
If you are incapacitated and someone finds you, the ID will have your name, any health information you deem important, and your emergency contact person. You can get one for around $40.
Here are some additional pointers that will help make your first swim a happy one.
- Stay shallow. You want the lake bed to always be a few inches from your fingers. This way if something goes wrong, you can put your feet down immediately. I do this by swimming along the shoreline. The other benefit of this approach is that deeper waters tend to have more plant growth, and nothing ruins your first swim faster than swimming headlong into a thick mat of aquatic vegetation.
- Don’t go for a one-hour, nonstop swim. Break it up into a few short, ten-minute swims. You can set your watch timer to five minutes. Swim out for five minutes, then swim back and rest. Repeat as many times as you like.
- Find a point on the horizon and practice sight swimming toward it. Unlike pool swimming when you only turn your head to the side to breathe, during open water swimming you need to get used to lifting your head straight up in front of your every five to ten strokes to make sure that you are going in the right direction.
- If you get tired, switch it up! Take a break by treading water, floating on your back, using your buoy, or switching to breaststroke, sidestroke, or backstroke. You don’t have to swim freestyle the whole time. As a matter of fact, there are many instances in pack swimming when it is important to be able to switch between strokes quickly to keep yourself out of the fray of arms, legs, and splash.
- Finally, keep your eyes on your hands. Many open water newbies are intimidated by the brackish water. Not being able to see past your outstretched hands can be scary. The flip side of that coin is the anxiety that can accompany swimming in deep clear water. Being able to see that there is an abyss below you is just as frightening as not being able to see at all. In both cases, shift your attention to your hands. Keep your eyes looking straight ahead at your hands and not down.
I consider open water swimming a transcendent experience. Combining exercise with the act of communing with nature can be life changing. If you follow these simple rules, you greatly increase the likelihood that your first experience in the open water will be a positive one. For more information about swimming, I invite you to read my new book, The Swim Prescription. Happy swimming!
ALEXANDER HUTCHISON, PH.D., is a fitness and wellness expert in Dallas, TX and the owner of The Athlete Company. The Senior Editor for the journal Advanced Biology, he has experience coachine swimming, water polo, triathlon, marathon, and most recently, strength and conditioning. After completing his master’s degree in Kinesiology at Texas A&M University, Alexander was named the head swimming coach at Austin College. He received his doctorate in Exercise Physiology and Immunology at the University of Houston. He reviews for several journals in exercise science, nutrition, and immunology, and is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. He is the author of Exercise Ain’t Enough: HIIT, Honey, and the Hadza and The Swim Prescription.