13 Tips For Staying Safe Open Water Swimming


If you want to prepare properly and effectively for a triathlon, it’s an excellent idea to try and get your training done in conditions that are as close as possible to the course. That means running and riding on the same types of routes and swimming in open water.

If you’ve only ever trained in a pool before, doing your swim training in a lake can be daunting. But it’s truly in your best interest if you’re serious about improving your triathlon performance.

We’ve put together 13 tips for staying safe open water swimming. Just a bit of preparation goes a long way towards keeping you afloat and protected.

We advise learning these by heart and keeping them in mind even in the pool!

1. Prepare Mentally

Preparation is half the battle won. A little trick we like is to imagine the worst possible thing that could happen, and prepare for how you’ll deal with it.

The chances are extremely low of your worst thing happening, but mentally you’ll have an edge because you’ve already decided on a course of action in the event of that occurrence.

Also plan for a few other, less horrible but more likely incidents that could happen. If you can eliminate uncertainty, you’ll go into the swim with much more peace of mind.

So what sort of things should you consider? Here are a few of the more common possible occurrences during an open water swim:

  • Cramps
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Getting stuck in reeds
  • Hitting a submerged object
  • Being swept away by currents (in certain waters)
  • A swimsuit malfunction (more embarrassing than dangerous!)

Plan for these, and you’ll feel more mentally prepared to handle whatever comes your way. Remember that you’re well-prepared and you’ll be less likely to panic in the event that something does happen.

2. Check In With a Lifeguard

It’s a great idea to choose a body of water for your training that has a lifeguard on duty. Choosing to train in some out-of-the-way, backwater lake might seem like a more comfortable choice if you’re new to it, but can have deadly consequences if something goes wrong.

A body of water with a lifeguard on duty is your ideal training spot. It’s also a good idea to check in with the lifeguard and let them know you’re training and not swimming recreationally, so they’re aware that your intensity level will be high and they should keep an eye out.

It’s also a good idea to let someone like a family member or friend know where you’ll be training. You want people to know where to find you in the event that you can’t contact them to inform them of an incident.

3. Check Your Surroundings

Before even choosing a training spot, scope out the surroundings and make sure they’re safe. Check out things like:

  • The quality of the water
  • Hazards in the water (rocks, reeds, etc
  • Pollution levels
  • Any hazards on the shoreline
  • How isolated is it?
  • How close is it to help?

Make sure there are as few hazards as possible in and around the water. Remember, you’ll be spending time both on the shore and in the water, so make sure both are safe before committing to this training spot.

Never swim in water that looks polluted. Not only could you accidentally ingest it and become ill, but certain types of pollution can cause skin damage or seep into the skin and make you sick.

Isolation may seem appealing for those who don’t want others eyeballing them while they train. But it can be dangerous if you’re alone in an isolated area.

Not only do you leave yourself open to the potential for attacks, but if something does happen and you need help, you may be too far away.

4. Check Temperature and Conditions

Don’t just leap right into the water to get started! Although it’s not common, jumping into cold water can trigger something known as cold shock response, which can paralyze the muscles and increase the risk of drowning. Or worse, it can stop the heart.

While it’s not extremely common, we still suggest testing the water temperature and getting used to it slowly to give your body time to adjust.

Submerge yourself up to the neck. Make sure you move, don’t just stand there and wait to warm up! Swim around a little but stay close to the shore until you’ve warmed up enough to feel comfortable swimming longer distances.

It’s a great idea to check the weather and temperature conditions before you head out to train. Also, avoid training in stormy weather or on days that are extremely cold.

5. Enlist a Swim Buddy

Swim training with a friend is an excellent way to make sure you’re both safe. We advise doing some water safety and first aid training together, so you both know how to do a cross-chest carry if something does happen in the water.

Knowing that you’re with someone who can help you if something happens gives you peace of mind to focus on your training without stressing. Two people are also a lot safer than one if training in a more isolated area (although we still don’t recommend it).

6. Swim in a Designated Swimming Area

Most beaches and lakes have designated swim areas that are indicated by flags in the water. These areas are covered by lifeguards, but the areas that fall outside of these boundaries may not be.

If you can, stick to these designated areas so you’re under the watchful eye of a lifeguard and in waters that are generally calm.

The downside is that these areas are often busy. It may be a good idea to find out what times these areas are open and try to train early before the masses descend.

7. Breathe on Both Sides

Remember, if you’re swimming in open water, you’re most likely sharing the water with others. Depending on where exactly you’re swimming, there could be other swimmers, boaters, surfers, and water creatures in or on the water too.

Learning to breathe on both sides is a huge advantage. Not only does it mean you never have to wait longer than necessary to breathe, but it also means you can scope out both sides when swimming in the open water.

Every 3 to 5 strokes, you should be turning your head to breathe, and checking out the surroundings at the same time. If you spot something that looks like a problem, stop and assess more closely.

Breathing on both sides also balances out your stroke and lowers the chances of developing “swimmer’s shoulder”, which affects only one shoulder when you breathe on only one side.

8. Check Your Directions

It’s a good idea to take a moment every now and then to lift your head completely out of the water to make sure that you’re heading in the right direction, aren’t going to hit anything, and not drifting too far away from the shore.

It’s important to be able to swim freestyle with your head up and out of the water if you’re a triathlete. You’ll need to be able to check the buoys and make sure you’re going in the right direction during the race.

You can lose precious seconds if you stop swimming completely to check. On the other hand, if you don’t check at all, you can end up going off-course and still end up losing time.

9. You Are Your Own Lifeboat

Make sure you have all the tools you need to stay as safe as possible when out in open water.

It’s an excellent idea to take a swim buoy with you, which is designed for two purposes: to give you something to help you stay afloat and allow other boaters and people to spot you. Most of them offer some storage too.

You can store a couple of energy chews in case you need a bit of in-water nutrition, electrolyte tablets in case of cramps or nausea, as well as any medication you may need.

10. Float

It’s funny how we forget to float when we get into difficulty in the water. But learning how to float properly and remembering to do it can save your life on the water.

It’s a good idea to actually practice the emergency float before going out to swim in open water. You should be comfortable floating and it should become a natural thing.

Don’t forget to keep your head back when floating. Trying to lift your head will compromise your float. Float and keep your head back, and it can help keep you alive.

11. Understand Currents

If you’re swimming in water with a current, learn about them so you understand the dangers. Waves, normal currents, and riptides can suddenly sweep you away from your route and put you in a very difficult position.

Also, understand the currents in the particular body of water you’re swimming in. Is it known for riptides? How does the current usually flow?

Use this kind of information to plan the safest route for your training. Also, choose something on the shore to use as a static beacon, so you can determine if you’re being swept out to sea or not.

Make sure your beacon is something static that’s not going to move on its own, like a building. Currents can sweep you away so slowly that you don’t even realize it’s happening, so this could help you notice a problem before it’s too late.

12. Talk to Yourself

If you’re out alone on the water, talk to yourself! Sometimes, talking yourself through the situation aloud can help immensely.

It gets you out of your head and into the situation, but in a practical, thoughtful way that almost feels like someone else is giving you advice.

13. When in Doubt, Get Out

Listen to your gut feeling! If you’re worried about something, it may be best to avoid swimming at all.

Maybe the weather’s turned bad, or the current is getting a bit rough. Or perhaps you’re not feeling your best and struggling with unusual fatigue or a cramp or two.

Whatever the issue, for your safety, follow the principle “When in doubt, get out.” You can always catch the session up the following day, or do four instead of three next week.

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Shanna is a writer who runs... And cycles, jumps rope, and lifts weights. She lives in beautiful South Africa and enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience with other avid athletes.