Open Water Swim Tips


Open water swimming is a great form of exercise. But if you are new to this type of swimming, a few simple tips can help you get started with more confidence.

There are some big differences between lap swimming in a pool and open water swimming. And if you’re training for a triathlon – especially if it’s your first one – you need to practice open water swimming so you know what to expect on race day.

Read on to learn how to transition from the pool or to start open water swimming.

Remember the differences from the pool

There are a number of differences between pool swimming and open water swimming. One big consideration is the difference in water temperature.

When you dive into the gym or public pool, the water will often be at a comfortable range of 82℉ to 85℉.

When you head into open water, the temperature can be as cold as 40℉ to 60℉. Unlike pool water, which is clear, open water can be cloudy or murky, and you’ll have to face waves and currents.

In open water swimming, you have neither lane markers to guide you, nor a place to put your feet down. You’ll have to overcome the idea that you can’t just stand up for a quick breather if you get tired.

Wetsuits offer some amount of buoyancy, and you’ll need to adapt to the feeling of swimming in one. You might also be used to the feel of pushing off a wall every 25 or 50 meters, or stopping for a quick break. Once again, you don’t have that luxury in open water, where you’ll have to swim 400 meters or more all in one go. If you’re going to be entering a triathlon, then you’ll be swimming in a crowd, and if it will be your first triathlon, you may feel both excited and anxious.

This is perfectly normal and every open water swimmer had to start where you’re starting from. One of the best ways to get used to swimming in a crowd is to join an outdoor swim club or triathlon club.

Not only will you adapt to swimming in a crowd, but you’ll be surrounded by people who can motivate you and offer advice.

Practice open water swimming

Just like any other form of exercise, you need to practice open water swimming. The more experience you get in open water, the better.

If you’re going to be entering a race, practice as much as you can in similar bodies of water. If the race is going to take place in the ocean, practice in the ocean. This will help you prepare for the shifting conditions. It will also help to build up your endurance. You can start practicing alternating breathing techniques, instead of just favoring one breathing side.

This will allow you to comfortably switch from one breathing side to another when you’re swimming in swells and waves.

Practice holding your breath for five strokes, seven strokes, and then ten strokes. This will help to reduce the stress if you get hit in the face by a wave and have to skip a breath.

Always make sure that you swim with either a small group or with a swimming buddy. This is mainly for safety, but it will also boost your confidence when swimming in rough waters.

You can’t avoid swimming in rough waters, and the day of your race may have similar conditions. Knowing that you’ve got people around you, and knowing what to expect, will help give you a mental boost.

As you ramp up your fitness, do swims longer than your race leg will be. By swimming further when you practice, you’ll find that you won’t fatigue as quickly in the race.

While the pool is different than open water, you can still benefit from doing technique drills in the pool. Sight drills, alternative breathing, or increasing your arm turnover by immobilizing your legs all help. This will help make you stronger and more resilient to currents.

Find the right wetsuit

A wetsuit is a good investment for triathletes or open water swimmers! It will keep you warm in cold water. In fact, it’s recommended to wear one if the water temperature is below 70℉.

The colder the water—40℉ to 60℉—the thicker the wetsuit needs to be. This is because the thermal qualities of the wetsuit are influenced by its thickness.

Water temperatures between 50 and 57℉  call for a wetsuit that’s 3 to 4 mm thick. As the temp rises to 68 or 70℉, then the wetsuit would only need to be about 1 mm thick.

If you’ve never worn a wetsuit before, practice putting it on and taking it off. Start out slowly and then gradually build up to getting your wetsuit off as quickly as possible. This will help with your transition time in a triathlon.

It’s okay to have more than one wetsuit, but they are expensive, so choose wisely. You could have a sleeveless wetsuit for swimming in warmer water, which will also allow for a full range of motion. You can also have a slightly thicker, full-length wetsuit for swimming in colder waters.

If you swim in very warm water, consider neoprene buoyancy shorts for training. These can’t be used in competition but they’ll help keep your legs buoyant without being cumbersome like a wetsuit.

Know how to sight for directions

When you’re swimming in open water, you’re going to be “sighting.” This is where you lift your head up every few strokes to check a fixed point of reference.

The point of reference is usually a buoy, but it can also be a landmark that helps you stay on track. If you have drifted off-course, adjust your direction and carry on.

Sighting is not a natural motion. This will need to be practiced so that it doesn’t disturb your swimming rhythm.

You can practice sighting when you’re in the pool by placing objects on the side of the pool. Attempt three or four sighting strokes in a row and then carry on with your normal stroke.

You’ll find that it’s easier to stay on track when you have other swimmers next to you. As long as you stay close to the pack, you’ll stay on track. When you get close to the buoy, stay on the inside of it when turning.

Get the right goggles

Open water goggles are different from the goggles that you’d wear in the pool. They’re slightly bigger, to give you a better field of vision.

Investing in a good pair of triathlon goggles when you start will allow you to focus on your swimming performance.

There was a time when triathletes and experienced swimmers would buy a pair of new goggles for every race that they participated in. Thankfully, technology has advanced and you can get a pair of goggles that are polarized to reduce the glare and have an anti-fog coating.

Due to the difference in temperature of your body heat and the water, you may find that your goggles fog up. You can remedy this by using an anti-fog spray or by rubbing a bit of shaving cream or shampoo on the googles. Cool your face down by splashing cold water on it before you put the goggles on.

Stay focused on swim form

In the excitement of the start, it’s easy to forget good swimming form. This is especially true if you’re facing waves and other swimmers. But by keeping your form, you’ll be able to find your tempo a lot more quickly.

Even if the pack is a couple of feet ahead of you, get into a tempo that is right for you. Keep your head down, stretch fully, take big strokes, and focus on your breathing. Make sure that you take consistent, deep breaths, as this will help you to focus while your body relaxes into the swim.

With your wetsuit on, the buoyancy is going to reduce your kick strength. Focusing on your kick timing will gain some of that back. To do this, make sure that when your hand enters the water at the beginning of your stroke, your opposite leg kicks.

Even if the conditions change during your swim, stay focused on your swim form.

Find a relaxed rhythm and avoid other swimmers

It’s a bit difficult to avoid other swimmers at the start. But instead of trying to swim the first 200 meters really quickly, slow down. If it’s your first race or you’re a slower swimmer, it’s best to start at the side of the pack or behind them.

When you focus on your breathing, your strokes, and pace you’ll find that you’ll find your rhythm.

When it comes time to turn at the buoy, be mindful of your stroke and that of the other swimmers. Some swimmers will change their stroke to breaststroke, and the last thing you want is a foot to the face!

If you need to take the turn a bit wider then do so. You may have to swim a bit further, but you’ll avoid the other swimmers.

Train longer than race distance to be well prepared

While you can imagine a train track under you to help keep you swimming in a straight line, chances are you’re still going to be zig-zagging in the water. This zig-zagging will add distance to your swim, but that’s not a bad thing.

If the event you’re going to be swimming is 1 mile in distance, then you want to swim 2 miles when you’re training. Not only will this increase your stamina, but when you’re able to complete 2 miles, then you’ll know that you can do the 1 mile easily.

This will also give you a mental edge if the conditions change for the worse. When training, you want to prepare for any condition that could arise. To help you prepare for the event, swim in colder waters and waters that are rough so that you can get stronger and faster in those conditions.

To help you with your performance, get yourself a swimming watch that has GPS. This will help you to analyze your swim metrics. Some of the best swimming watches allow you to count strokes and measure pace. These stats can help you measure your progress and allow you to plan your workouts to enhance your performance.

Exit the water slowly

When cold water enters your ear canal, it affects your Eustachian tube, which is responsible for balance. Swimmers often experience dizziness when they start to make their way to shore.

The best thing to do is to walk slowly and give your body a moment to adjust. Once you’re stable and no longer dizzy, you can start to jog to the transition zone.

Practice Safety

Finally, rule number one of open water swimming is never going swimming by yourself! Always go with a swim buddy. Even if they don’t want to swim, they can paddleboard or kayak next to you.

Make sure that you’re visible by wearing a bright swimming cap or a wetsuit that has brightly colored panels. Use a bright yellow or orange tow buoy – they’re light and won’t cause drag.

If you start to feel fatigued, you can either roll onto your back and float while you focus on your breathing for a few minutes, or you can change your stroke to breaststroke until you’ve recovered.

Should something go wrong, try to relax while you make your way back to shore immediately. Focusing on your breathing, as deep breaths will help to keep you relaxed.

If you’re just starting your open water swimming journey, it’s always best to plan your swims. Take time to get to know your surroundings, as well as the animal species in the area. Check the water temperature so that you can make sure that you’re wearing the appropriate wetsuit.

Never rush into the water, especially if it’s cold. Rather, make your way in slowly in the shallow water and stay close to the shoreline. Swimming near the shore will also help you gain confidence, and as you progress, you’ll start to swim in deeper waters.

Photo of author


Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.