Open-water swimming is swimming in a non-enclosed area, such as a lake or an ocean, rather than in a swimming pool.

Open-water swimming is more difficult and tiring because:

  • No flip turns - Even if you usually swim continuously in a pool, you don't realize the rest that your body gets every time you push off the wall. After you turn at the wall and push off, you stay streamlined for a second and just kick in order to retain your momentum from the push-off. Open-water swimming involves truly continuous swimming because you don't get that rest every 25 yards!
  • Choppier water - the lane lines in a swimming pool cut down on a lot of turbulence on the surface of the water. When small waves crash into the lane ropes, a lot of momentum is absorbed, leading to a smoother water surface that's easier to cut with your body. In addition, natural bodies of water are often choppy because of wind or boats. And of course, in the ocean, natural waves make the water choppy. It's a lot harder to swim when waves are hitting your body from various directions.

On the other hand, open-water swimming is a lot more fun because:

  • It feels like a bigger accomplishment when you look out at a lake that you've just swum across instead of a pool.
  • Open-water swimming goes with crazy, long-distance swimming races or triathlons! These generally involve:
    • training for months;
    • getting up at insane times of morning to go to the side of some body of water and have numbers written on your arms and legs with big permanent markers;
    • meeting a lot of other really crazy people doing the same thing you're doing;
    • putting on your swim cap and spitting in your goggles so they won't get so much condensation;
    • jumping in a cold dirty lake (or the ocean);
    • swimming until exhausted;
    • getting out and eating huge amounts of bagels and bananas and Gatorade (or throwing on shoes and a helmet and jumping on a bike).
  • This doesn't apply to ocean swims, but at least for the lakes I've swum in, mud. Getting muddy is great fun!!
  • This doesn't apply to lake swims, but because of the salt content in the ocean, the human body has more buoyancy, which can be especially helpful for swimmers with very low bodyfat.

Of course, open-water swimming requires some safety tips that you've never found necessary if you've only swum in pools. Some good rules to follow:

1. Never, ever, EVER swim alone! (This rule applies to pools too, but pools usually have lifeguards.) No exception on this one - swimming alone is very dangerous. Stick somewhat together in the water, even if you're at different speeds. During competitions, however, there should be plenty of rescue people and boats around, so try for swimming towards the faster people!

2. If you're a beginner at open-water swimming, take a more experienced friend with you the first couple of times. Even very experienced pool swimmers often panic their first time swimming far away from the shore. It's better if you're with some people who can reassure you from their own experience in case you get scared out there.

3. Save the sprints for the pool. If you're far away from the shore and you're too exhausted to swim in, you're in big trouble! Open-water practices are good for an endurance workout. Competitions are an exception; it's a race, and a safe race will have boats following swimmers, ready to pull them out if they get too tired/have an emergency/get too bad of a leg cramp to continue. But if you get tired, don't be afraid to stop and tread water for a minute. Races are supposed to be fun, and it's not worth jeopardizing your health or life to go a little faster.

4. Wear a bright swim cap so that you are easily visible. A safe race will require that all swimmers wear a bright swim cap, but you should always do this when you work out in the open water, too.

5. Have a backup plan. Someone in your group should know basic water rescue skills. It's a great idea to bring some kind of floatation device. For example, try to con a swimmer to come along who's much faster than everyone else in the group, and make him/her tie a rope with a kickboard attached to the other end around his/her waist. Now the swimmer will have enough drag to go a lot slower in order to stick with the group, and you will have a reasonably well-floating device with you.

In addition to safety tips, some other considerations will make your open-water swimming more enjoyable. Think about what time of day you'll be swimming, what direction you'll be swimming, and on which side you breathe, if you're a unilateral breather. If the sun's going to be in your eyes, wear tinted goggles. If the sun's going to be intense and you sunburn easily, wear sunscreen. Don't forget to come in to drink some water every once in a while. Also, there are no lines on the bottom of the pool to guide you, so you'll have to look up every once in a while to make sure you're still moving straight. If you're doing an open-water competition, try to get some practice lifting your head a little more forward to breathe so that you can see where you are at the same time.

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